Monthly Archives: December 2011

Casco Viejo, Where All the Good Bakeries Are


Casco Viejo (CAS-co Vie-ho), is the old part of Bilbao, and it’s where I’ve gone on the few weekends that I haven’t gone anywhere else. I’m not lying when I say that all the good bakeries are there – I once found this place where they sell multi-grain croissants, though of course I don’t remember where it is now. That’s the magic of Casco Viejo – unless you pay real close attention, you forget where you found things; they just sort of pop up when you are in dire need. The best place to get chocolate con churros is also there; chocolate con churros is basically melted chocolate with a little milk and on the side, fried dough that’s rolled in sugar. It’s a Spanish thing that you have to have at least once – but you have to remember to wear loose pants, because it makes you spontaneously gain about 20 pounds.

Casco Viejo literally means ‘old helmet’ (I don’t know why, that’s just what the dictionary tells me), though when you read down farther on the page it basically just means that it’s the oldest part of the city, the commercial center. There are seven streets, which is supposed to make it easily navigable, but that’s just for historical nerds and dupes who think it’s a piece of cake – around Bilbao this is important to know because people will reference that offhand. Now that you know this, you can go around sounding all pompous and important when you talk to people (but just check that you have the same number of teeth in the evening as you had in the morning, as you may tick someone off).

There are also a few things you have to prepare yourself for:

It’s an awful harsh shock the first time you see this, especially if you’re me and you REALLY don’t like babies. I’m not 100% sure if this is in Casco Viejo or Bilbao proper, but this is just an act of mercy on my part in case you do come across this in some way in the future. It’s one of two feakish baby heads in Bilbao – the other is in El Museo de Bellas Artes – and you can tell it’s a girl because it’s got earrings. It has large blank eyes. Shudder.

But getting back to non-creepy things. (Also scrolling down…)

There are four churches in Casco Viejo, three of which I saw. The fourth one I didn’t make it to because you have to go up a really big hill and I just never felt like it – though I did learn later that there was some sort of elevator apparatus, cleverly hidden from people.

So here you have ‘Cathedral Church of Santiago’ – and if Santiago rings a bell from earlier, that’s probably because pilgrims on Santiago de Compostela’s pilgrimage stop here in Bilbao.

I believe that it’s also the largest of the cathedrals. Whoopee!

Or maybe the biggest one was this one? I don’t really remember, but this one is cool, because around the altar is a glass floor, through which you can see down to the old foundations of the church this cathedral is built over. I’ve been in a couple of times; apparently, it’s used for organ practice, because the first time there was someone banging away on that thing like someday she was going to be some sort of evil genius. It was the kind of thing that does not lend itself to being able to hear yourself think (but lovely for atmosphere!).

The thing that I like most about this church is that there is a place for the poor to sleep joined to it:

The last one that I have visited is the Church of the Convent of the Incarnation:

For some reason this one is my favorite; it’s dark and under construction (not to mention the fact that pigeons absolutely love the place), but there’s an aspect to it that I really like. Maybe it’s the ceiling.

It’s joined with a convent (hence the name), a part of which is a museum for holy stuff – ‘sacred art’ – a space filled with precious metals, clothes, and sculptures of people dying in really fantastically terrible ways: San Sebastian, for example (the namesake of the city by the same name), was tied to a tree and shot with arrows until he finally decided to turn his face to the wall and die. The art is not that cheerful, but some of it’s pretty.

But the part I like most about the convent is the garden in the center:

We went here with my art professor; she told us that the cypress (on the left) symbolizes ascension to heaven and that the olive tree (on the right) symbolizes peace, purity, and strength. They’re fairly common in places like this, which I think is pretty cool. Come to think of it, I think that the courtyard in Santander in the cathedral we went into had this combo. Or maybe my mind is inventing things – but that’s Casco Viejo for you!

The Streets Are Made of Water, I Ain’t Kiddin’!


The first stop for Anne and I on our great Italian trip was Venice – the title of this post is from Walk the Line, the movie about Johnny Cash. They weren’t kidding – the streets really are made of water:

It’s pretty trippy trying to walk around – you think you’re going to make that left turn you wanted to take, but there’s some really weird looking water there. Eventually we figured out that there’s a pattern that emerges: a canal, a road, a line of buildings, another road, and then another canal. But that doesn’t necessarily apply all of the time, so you do have to watch your step so you don’t fall into the water:

The very, very gross water. This photo is pretty true to how it actually looks. I’ve been told that there is a veritable stench in Venice in the summertime, and I believe it. We came across a few patches that were pretty fruity and I can’t imagine voluntarily going into a place that smells like that everywhere. I think that – tourist populations aside – Venice is one of the few places that it is better to go to in the wintertime; the happy side effect of this is that you don’t have to elbow so many people out of the way when you want to see something.

There are a few main attractions in Venice and one of those is definitley San Marcos, a Byzantine cathedral directly next to the Doge’s Palace (more on that later), on the largest plaza in Venice (which is saying something, as there isn’t very much space to devote to that kind of thing). The fact that it’s Byzantine means that it’s adorned with gold mosaics on the ceiling and on the very upper parts of the walls, that each column is different from the ones next to it, and that there are several cupolas- the largest is in the middle of the church, where the arms of the cross meet – held up by a number of arches. I really like this kind of architecture; it’s gaudy and it’s showy, but there’s something about walking into a dimmed space and seeing the glint of masses of gold tiles when you look up.

The thing about San Marcos is that you can tell that Venice is sinking the moment you enter, as you have to go in on an elevated ramp because there’s about a foot of water at its deepest surrounding the front of the building. There are also grates throughout the adjoining plaza that are surrounded by a two to three foot radius of water, which just made me glad that I was able to go to Venice when I did – otherwise, I believe it might be made necessary to wear knee waders. And that would certainly be a pity, as the floors in San Marcos are truly phenomenal: they’re done in loads of different patterns of tile, so that you end up looking down as much as you look up – it’s confusing, when they have you programmed to just look up. Thankfully, my brain did not explode and we got the full experience.

This is what the full cathedral looks like, as it’s impossible to get the full view in in real life, as well as the fact that the two arches on the left are under reconstruction.

This is the tower that is near the cathedral, on the square. It was a cool view off of the balcony of the cathedral, so I took a photo. Do I know what it is? Nope. Lazy tourist alert!

After walking through the cathedral with eyes like plates – and the eye condition wasn’t helped by the fact that inside the cathedral are the supposed remains of Saint Mark, as in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – we walked around Venice for a while. I like that Venice is one of those cities that you have to walk through in order to know, and that someone who knows what they’re doing can walk from one end to the other in an hour and a half or less (though of course, that was most definitely not us).

One of the things you notice when you walk around Venice is that practically all of it is touristy – that’s because it is so small. They have to reduce the tourist-compatible area, which also reduces the number of people that actually want to live there, due to higher concentrations of foreigners with large cameras and no knowledge of Italian. This means that there are few cheap restaurants – this is when you get recommendations from your hostel – and touristy shops are everywhere. But this is not so bad, when there are loads of shops either selling glass (more on that later) or that sell masks:

There are masks of every different color and of loads of animals, so if your aim in life is to buy yourself a real good disguise, you have got to get yourself to Venice. This is all for Carnival, which is basically the Italian Mardi Gras, only better. This event is featured in several movies – try that bit out of The Count of Monte Cristo or Cassanova, and there you have it. I don’t really know what was supposed to go on besides drunken revelry, but it’s there in the movies – and everyone knows movies are always historically accurate. (Cough.)

The next day started with seeing a church called Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which my art professor had recommended for us, saying that it looked like a bonbon; it did, kind of.

We didn’t go in, because they charge you up the wazoo for these things – ironically San Marcos, the most incredible church in Venice, is free – but it does look pretty cool. I will say this, though: the Italians did like to mix their marbles. When I get to the cathedral in Florence you’ll see what I mean.

Next we went to Murano, the island about which is made so much fuss in the world of glass-making. In order to get there, you have to take a water taxi or a water bus, which brings you right past the cemetery of Venice:

Yup. The dead are sure to get their place on Venice’s cemetery – as a matter of fact, it’s very exclusive. The deceased get their very own island. It looked pretty cool, but I would swim back to the mainland rather than spend the night there – yes, in that dirty water.

Murano looks very much like the rest of Venice, but for the fact that all of the tourist shops are glass places. You have to wonder if some of the glass that is sold actually comes from Murano or if it comes from China, but this is why you word it as: “I bought this in Murano,” not “This is from Murano.” But it’s worth it to go through various shops (with people breathing down your neck, insisting, “You know, we could send this extremely expensive item to America – and we’ll pay for the postage!”) and to look at all the great sculptures. There were some gazelles and a tiger that looked all right to me.

This is a glass workshop; the orange thing blazing in the corner is the oven and the other stuff is your best guess – this happens to be a bit of a touristy place – five euros to see a guy make a simple vase – but it’s still pretty cool.

This is one of the glass sculptures we saw in the street, just hanging out. I love it because you can see something new each time you look at it. And another (my favorite):

After Murano, we went back to the mainland, ate something, and then went to the Doge’s Palace. The Doge was the chief brou-ha-ha of Venice while Venice was independent of Italy in general, and powerful at that. Venice was a big deal partly because it was a major trading port – the most European port in between East and West – and partly because even back in the day, it was pretty cool to have streets made of water. Or something like that.

The Doge lived in a giant palace where you can’t take photos, but trust me. It was pretty great.

This is the inside courtyard of the place, which is a great indication of how amazing the rest of the palace is. There is also a real gondola there:

Historically, gondolas would have been built like this one – note the covered section. We didn’t go on a gondola ride – though it was just funny to see a bunch of Asian tourists try to stuff themselves into a limited number of gondolas – I think there might have been six to each gondola, maybe more – but I felt vindicated seeing the real thing.

After that, we went to the Jewish quarter and walked around. We apparently missed the synagogue – walked right by it – but it was great being in the one part of Venice where there is absolutely no tourist crap. This is Venice as it would have been if it was trapped in a stranger-proof bubble where no one could see it for what it is but for the residents themselves. I think to get there we went past some bridge that is famous or something:

It’s a major commercial venture, with expensive shops and bakeries; it looks cool, though the guy in the foreground certainly seemed to find better things to focus on…

And now, FOOD! You know the greatest thing about Italy? It’s the smell that makes you walk sideways toward the bakery or the restaurant responsible for the scent that makes your insides go all puddly. The major hits in Venice were:

1. The plate of fettuccine with pesto – unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo of this…

2. The bakery just outside our hostel had these delicious savory pastry shells filled with real, thick tomato sauce and topped with mozarrela cheese:

The other thing on the bit of paper there is a spinach something that was also pretty good, but it pales next to the deliciousness next to it.

3. There is also a specialty in Venice that I have forgotten the name of, a kind of almond cake that can be a variety of flavors. It’s dry, which leads me to think it’s meant to be dipped in coffee or another equivalent, but still good.

Doesn’t that look fabulous? Welcome to Italy.

The Gaudi City


I’m going to return to the trip I took during the break in the middle of December – after Paris we went to Rome, but I’m going to skip that and come back to it later because I went to Italy again with Anne – so I’m going to jump right to Barcelona. Confused? That’s okay. I’m a bit confused myself. (It comes with the territory.)

Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city and commercial center; it’s notorious for pickpocketing and partying, and for a couple of historical landmarks, though those landmarks are easy to mistake for more common things, like post offices:

There are also some interesting things, just hanging out on balconies:

This isn’t a real person – but that didn’t stop me from a massive double-take.

Barcelona is well-known for masterpieces of architecture by Antoni Gaudi, who is famous for using nature as his inspiration. There are many examples of what he’s done in Barcelona alone, but the greatest of all of them is La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family), a cathedral that has been in the works for decades, with no sign of its completion on the horizon. It costs 10 euros to get in as a student, and it is 100% worth it, especially with the satisfaction of knowing that I contributed to this masterpiece.

Note all the cranes in the background…

I walked around the inside of this building three times, very slowly, with my head bent back, just staring at everything. It’s intricate, but somehow all the craziness makes sense, takes your breath away; it’s been a few weeks but I can still remember the feeling. The stained glass – what they had completed – was a great mosaic of chips of color; I’m sure that if it were a sunny day, we would have been bathed in color. Each column is just a bit different, but they all seem to reach up to the ceiling like great trees; the stairways are numerous and reach upwards in dizzying spirals. You get a massive crick in your neck and you regret it not one bit.

I finally emerged, realizing that I’d lost Julienne and Suzie, thankfully finding them leaning on the railing on the other side of the building:

This is an act of architectural incredibleness that you really have to see to believe – it’s different from anything else I’ve seen; I’ve seen my fair share of cathedrals since I’ve been here, as Spain has been a breeding ground for Catholics with money for generations.

The other major Gaudi masterpiece we saw was Parc Guell (with the two little dots over the u, I don’t know how you write that), which is architecture that meets a very well tended garden:

This was a guy playing a steel-drum thing; it was extremely cool, and you could just tell that he was having a good time with it – his concentration was immense.


Right around here was where I dropped my camera, which still worked afterward but to this day bears a dent.

There’s much more to the park that we didn’t see, but that’s what Google Images are for, after all. (We were getting hungry, and you wouldn’t want us to starve, now would you?)

Those are the major things we saw; the rest of what we saw was found while walking, though for some of it we didn’t have to walk far for, like, for instance, the door to the building our hostel was in…


I know I have a habit of showing silly pictures of fish, but in my defense, there were many more than this picture shows, and they were all really big. This was right by the aquarium, which is the largest in Europe. We didn’t go in, so I will make this a substitute.

The harbor:

Right by the harbor is a large roundabout with a huge pillar/statue complex:

This is a homage to Christopher Colombus: on his 1491 voyage he left from Seville, but came back to Barcelona. This doesn’t really make much sense to me, as Seville was the port from which all the ships to the New World left – it must have been that the royals were nearer to Barcelona at the time, though I certainly do hope that they stopped in Seville to wash off their accumulated filth and debauchery along the way. There are various plaques along the bottom, showing the journey, a bunch of cowering natives, and Columbus’ return to Spain:

Interesting tidbits: Columbus was actually an Italian from Genoa: he’s remembered as being Spanish because the Spaniards were the only ones that gave him the money and resources to go abroad; he was also technically Queen Isabella’s project – King Ferdinand likely allowed the expeditions to go out, but took less interest than Isabel. On another [random] note, Columbus had completely white hair by the time he was 30 years old.

As some of my diligent fans might remember, I saw Colombus’ casket in Seville’s cathedral: it is borne by four kings of Spain (this is from when Spain wasn’t completely united – Isabella and Ferdinand’s union actually united a great part of the countryside, which is what made them such a power couple); it’s highly pretentious, especially for a man that killed or ruined the lives of millions of people, directly or indirectly. Let’s just say that I’m ‘not a fan.’

We went shopping after walking around for a bit; I looked for pants (with an air of complacency I would later regret) and Julienne and Suzie looked for gifts for Christmas. On the main street we ran into a bit of a surprise:

This is one of the apartment buildings that Gaudi designed (one of two that I know of); the rent is guaranteed to be astronomical but it’s nice to ponder the possibility for a moment. And the lesson? You can run, but there’s no way to hide from Gaudi in Barcelona. But who would want to?

The War on Pants – the Christmas Edition


The Pant Crisis is over!

Recently I was reduced to one viable pair of pants and to a state of panic. If you’re scratching your heads about this, please keep in mind that Spanish clothing stores are designed for the physical equivalent of a tongue depressor. So yesterday my host mother and I went out to a mall near here and spent some time staring the ugly face of fashion down into submission. And, huzzah! we found some Sarah-friendly pants – in H&M, of all places. I got two identical pairs (identical but for the color – the black ones already need a lint roller), of the largest size the store carries – which is not a reflection on my weight gain since coming abroad. Lesson: maintain at least three pairs of wearable pants.

But this post will not be completely about pants. In some circles I’m quite certain such things are considered obscene, so I will try to maintain some semblance of dignity.

Christmas is the bomb here – everywhere has lights above the street, though I’m told that there are many fewer displays this year for economic reasons. Scrooge must control the money around these parts. But it’s still really pretty:

There’s loads more types of lights, but I never seemed to have a camera on me when I saw them around. Each town around here seems to have a different kind of design. This one is Getxo’s.

There are also loads of nativities. The best one I’ve seen was in a school by the university I subbed at one Tuesday – it was smallish, but filled with tiny figurines: there was a whole town there!

But that’s just BEFORE Christmas. On the 24th, I was quietly recovering from the fabulousness that is Italy (and you do need to recover from it – well, that and mass amounts of gelato), when, at just about 6:00, there was a racket coming closer, down the street. I opened my window to find a procession:

This is the blurriest photo I will ever present you with – it’s the only one I took, though, so I’ll provide some footnotes: there was a little band, followed by a line of people dancing, then guys on stilts, and finally a cart pulled by two oxen. In the cart was a guy that was called the Olinchero – the Basque version of Kris Kringle. Everyone in that part of the procession was chucking hard candies at the people on the sides of the road; a few tried to get some to reach my second-floor window, but they didn’t quite make it. The candy itself wasn’t bad, but tended to rupture when it hit the pavement.

The parade lead to a small plaza, where there was a platform set up. A massive line formed and the Olinchero began to give out gifts to the children – either a plastic slinky or a light-up ball, with the help of a bunch of masked assistants. One catch: each child was instructed to kiss the cheek of the Olinchero, which a bunch of the kids were slightly too shy to do, which of course was quite cute:

Most of this crowd is the line for the children – either that, or the line for the free hot chocolate. You can’t see it in these pictures but directly in front of the stage was a place for musicians to play: we saw a couple groups that played traditional Basque music – one was comprised of flute-type instruments and tambourines and the other was composed of people that played a simple flute and a small drum at the same time, which looked pretty difficult to me.

The Olinchero was banned during Franco’s regime and the giving of gifts was confined to the more Spanish sixth of January – King’s Day – but with the new government, this is permitted again, along with the opening of presents on the 25th. The Olinchero is just for the Basque Country, so this doesn’t really matter elsewhere in Spain.

After this excitement came dinner at 9:30; Maria cooked a mountain of food for me, Jose, Jose’s mother, brother, and nephew, for Trevor, a fellow American student who needed a place to be for Christmas (Maria was wonderful about this, as it was dreadfully last minute – “A table that can seat six can seat seven, no problem” – true generosity), and of course, for herself.

We had – let’s see if I can remember – asparagus, tuna salad, chicken and cheese croquettes, mushrooms, shrimp, fish soup, chicken and beef, turron (a very crunchy sugar and almond confection), pulmorones, cakes, profiteroles, and, of course, loads of bread. There were also a few interesting cocktails, including one that was champagne that met a load of lemon sorbet in a blender. Not bad, really. We ate until about midnight, when we exchanged gifts, and vedged until about 2:00 when we figured out that we could actually move again.

The next day I slept in, ate chocolate for breakfast (don’t bash it until you’ve tried it – and anyway, it’s tradition), opened presents from Maine, spoke with my family, and ate a sized-down lunch at 2:00, and proceeded to go through the day in a haze of a lot of great food.

It was a wonderful Christmas – though quite different from what I am used to. I was a little homesick, I’ll admit, but I was also deeply amused by the slinky my father gave me, as my family well knows. I hope your Christmases were bright!

Six Hours Away – Or Maybe Closer


You wouldn’t think –

would you –

that it would be easy to find Christmas

with the enormity of an ocean between us:

but somehow I have turned around

with the sudden recognition

of you, just behind me,

watching and smiling.

I hear you hurrying in the kitchen,

attempting to clear off that table in the living room

before the guests arrive –

tamely opening presents from me,

putting on music and humming along,

eating, drinking, laughing,

sitting in contentedness,

your hands on Christmas-dinner potbellies,

talking, or giving up the fight and falling asleep

in a comfortable chair.

Maybe you have a cat sitting on you,

soft, and perhaps purring too loud –

or giving the unwanted gift of hair

on your good Christmas clothes.

As for me, I have eaten chocolate for breakfast,

consumed a large quantity of food,

sang, given presents to those I love,

spoken rather a lot of Spanish,

met some new people,

had my first champagne,

seen joy in the street,

and fallen asleep to find

that while I may be here and away from you

I am not so far away after all –

wasn’t that me you saw

out of the corner of your eye?

Perhaps I was.

La Vie En Rose


So you’re wondering what on earth I was doing last week – or maybe you’re just checking my page to see what’s up. Well, this will take a bit, so get yourself a cup of hot chocolate (with the knowledge that it’s better in Spain), sit back, and enjoy.

We spent the first day traveling to Paris, and at the end of the journey, we found out that our hostel hadn’t been booked for the first night. That was midnight. I got to bed at about 4:00 in the morning, so the intervening hours were spent in an interesting manner: Julienne has a friend in Paris, who in turn has a boyfriend, who has a lot of friends/cousins (the boyfriend and his friends/cousins are from Tunesia, so there’s a different way of talking about your close friends, so the people we met may or may not have been his relatives). So the group from Paris that met us – Kelly, her boyfriend, and four cousins – spent an hour and a half finding a hotel that took Suzie and Dennyse, and then the rest of the was spent traveling to yet another cousin’s house in the suburbs. I crashed on the couch and slept soundly, without even waking with a neck cramp.

The next day was a bit of a slow start, so it wasn’t until the afternoon that we managed to drag our lazy butts to Versailles. Versailles is the crazy palace that Louis XIV built instead of living in what is now the Louvre (sparknotes on that later); it’s huge and it’s intensely decorated. I don’t know how people lived in there without going blind.

The inside of the palace is too lavish for my tastes, but you really do get a feel for the dude that built the place. There’s another corner of the room (pictured above) that looks basically exactly like this one, only with different paintings, but all the same guy. There are zillions of statues, reliefs, frescoes, murals, etc, of the king. I believe that he moved out of the Louvre in order to be able to cram his own space with his own image.

Big ego equals big gardens. This is barely a slice of it: people have been known to get lost out there.

This is the Hall of Mirrors. It’s fantastic and it’s stunning – like the rest of the place – but I can’t forget that because there were no toilets in Versailles, people tended to relieve themselves in a corner…anywhere. It was an incredible thing to have this quantity and quality of mirrors back in the day, so that of course almost erases the gross factor. Almost.

This is the desk on which the Treaty of Versailles was signed. At the end of World War One, that treaty meant that the Germans were screwed and had to pay reparations for the war that they had lost, plunging Germany into a state of poverty, which led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War. This is an important piece of furniture – many of the events of the first half of the twenty-first century can find a link here.

So the next day we heaved ourselves out out of bed a bit earlier and took a free tour of the city, meaning that basically almost all of the rest of the informative stuff you’re going to hear is from that tour and the one we took the next evening (you’ll be able to tell because the photos from that tour are from the nighttime).

So first. A bit of fun:

Why do all of the fountains have to be puking up the water? It’s just not an easy thought to shake – and now I’ve contaminated you, too. Just goes to show that there are dangers associated with reading this blog: I’ve warned you.

This is Notre Dame. It was built in the 1300s or something, so it’s basically straight Gothic architecture, as if it came out of a textbook. As it turns out, at one point, the French were all set to tear down Notre Dame and use the stone for other purposes (Catholicism no longer being a priority), but as we all know, this didn’t end up happening. Fortunately, the cathedral had one ally – precisely the right one – in Victor Hugo. In 1831, he published The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a beloved story to this day; masses of people read the book, loved it, and moved to save the cathedral. The fact that it is such a popular tourist destination and Disney movie also owe themselves to this book – making the pen mightier than the wrecking ball.

While we were there, there was a group practicing Ave Maria, which provided a good – if a bit interrupted by the guy with the stick – ambiance. The best part for me – aside from the music – was the starry ceiling to either side of the nave and the Christmas tableau.

See that guy with his head chopped off? You noticed that, did you? Well, if you go to France, you’ll see this rather a lot, as he’s the patron saint of the country. His name is St. Denis and his story is rather interesting (it’s got to be if you end up like that): he was spreading the word of God when the Romans – who were still pagans at the time – decided that he was a menace and chopped off his head. After this, Denny picked his head back up, dusted it off, and walked 600 paces, preaching, when he finally decides to die. Lovely, eh?

France has an interesting history of people having weird deaths. Just think about Joan of Arc:

She went about and saved France. The king at the time got a bit tweaked out at the thought of her getting too powerful and taking over her country for herself, and so burned her at the stake. It took quite a while to do, though. I don’t remember exactly how long, but still – longer than usual, which is saying something.

Moving forward in history, there’s Dalida, who was a French disco queen: she won a beauty pageant (Miss Egypt), and was recognized for her singing abilities. She was an immediate hit, and almost immediately thereafter got herself married. Unfortunately, the guy killed himself. Dalida was shaken, but had a busy schedule, and kept going. Eventually, she married again – a bit more cautiously this time – but he, too, killed himself. And some time after that, she got married for a third time, ever hopeful. Unfortunately, the third time was not the charm, because he, too killed himself. At age 54, she killed herself. Lesson: when you go to France, you don’t hear happy historical stories. The French liked killing people. A lot.

And speaking of killing people:

This is a palace that was built by Charles V and then turned into a prison when the upgrade came along (the Louvre). This is where Marie Antoinette was kept before the French chopped her head off, and bears the only marks Paris bears from World War Two: bullet holes made, rather ironically, by the French Resistance.

Now perhaps my favorite person in French history: Henry IV.

The French really did love this guy: he put a chicken in every pot, drank, and debauched. He wasn’t exactly a popular guy with everyone, though – there were 23 attempts on his life, the last of which succeeded. He was killed by a priest in his carriage, who was himself later killed in the most gruesome way. If you want to know, you’ll have to look it up because I have purposefully forgotten it.

(Sidebar: there’s a good way to figure out how someone died based on their horse:

All legs on the ground means that the person died of natural causes.

One front leg or one front leg and one back leg raised means that the person died of ‘unnatural’ causes.

Both front legs raised (rearing) means that the person died heroically.

Since Henry died in his own carriage, he’s got what he’s got.)

Before Henry was even kinged, though, there was a huge mess called St. Batholomew’s Day Massacre. It may sound a little familiar, as it shows up in history books without ever being explained. I am not sure why, as it’s a ripping good story. So, there was a woman called Catherine de Medici (who was the first to popularize corsets, high heels, and panties) who married Henry II – Henry died young and so did Henry III, who was rather sickly, so when it came time for Henry IV, there was some understandable confusion about who exactly should be the king. Catherine had been doing well with the country for some time and wanted to keep on, but Henry 4.0 was the rightful heir. The only ripple was the fact that he was a Huguenot (Protestant), which didn’t make the Catholic majority happy. So the St. Bart’s Massacre happened as a result of Catherine shoring up all her Catholic buddies to sick on the Huguenot chaps. It didn’t wash. However, Henry ended up becoming king – and Catholic in the process – and the long day wore on. It does explain why there were so many attempts on his life, though: there were a bunch of people (a minority, those that overlooked the new public buildings and general prosperity) who weren’t convinced of Henry’s religiosity.

But the dude was a pretty cool guy. He was actually the first person to build a stone bridge over the Seine in Paris: the bridges before that were made of wood and had houses on them, and had the unfortunate tendency of falling down every now and then. Henry took his time building is bridge, but finally got it right. He had a ripping party and invited all of his friends, who got wildly drunk (they ran out of champagne and then started – probably finished – the wine). In the morning, Henry looked at his friends and laughed himself into little bits at the expressions on his their faces; he then had a bunch of sketch artists come in and draw each of his friends and put all of them on the bridge. I recall there being one – maybe more than one – of a guy puking. Nice touch.

Another notable bridge is that of the last scene of Sex and the City, when Big promises himself to Carrie (“Don’t you just LOVE happy endings?”):

This bridge is actually wooden – interesting considering the last one – and it’s covered with locks. These locks have initials and dates pledging everlasting love. This happens on all of the bridges like this in Paris, but especially this one: they have to chop off all of the locks every eight months so that the bridge won’t buckle under the strain – or so that there will be more room for everybody else. Filipa, our guide, warned us away from ‘combination lock men,’ who would sneak back at night, undo the combination, and thus end our love affairs. Duly noted.

This is the Louvre, one of the biggest and most annoying art museums in history. It’s annoying because we weren’t able to get in, because the Minister was visiting. Frenchies.

However, the Louve is built on what used to be where Catherine de Medici’s palace was. There’s actually a park that was made during her time that still exists, though – there used to be a roof tile factory and she wanted a view, so presto!, gardens. It’s great to be the queen.

I have no idea why the Egyptians aren’t madder than they are. Every major European city – as well as New York City – have their own obelisk. This one was pilfered by Napoleon and stands in the Plaza of the Concord/the Peace Plaza. Funny, but the guillotine of the French Revolution was smack dab where the obelisk is now…

This is the Triumph Arch that everyone talks about. They say that there’s an accident that happens every half an hour on the roundabout that circles it, and that no matter what kind of insurance you have, you aren’t covered in that one spot:

There’s also an ‘eternal’ flame in the vicinity of the Arch – that we didn’t get to see because of some Monday military ritual thing. It’s annotated as eternal for a couple of main reasons:

1. There was a Mexican rooting for Brazil in the World Cup one year; Brazil lost to France, the guy was pissed, drank a lot, found himself at the Arch with a full bladder next to a French icon. The flame fizzled out. The man was given a free ticket back to his home country. Immediately.

2. A couple of Australians were drinking one night, got the munchies, saw the eternal flame, and decided to roast the sausages they’d been keeping in their back pockets (apparently, this is part of the Australian uniform in case they might be stranded in the Outback…or something). The flame wasn’t exactly extinguished, but a couple more people were escorted out of the country on the next available flight.

Moral of the story: if you are stuck in Paris with no money to get back home, mess with the eternal flame. You might not be able to do much because of security cameras and patriotism, but do try to be original. I suggest pagan rites.

I didn’t take a picture of this, but it does bear mentioning: Paris was saved by a German. (WHAT?? HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? DIDN’T THE GERMANS DISLIKE/HATE THE FRENCH???) Well, it was the end of the war and Hitler saw that he was going to lose and that things were going to pretty much suck for him from that point on, so he decided on a few things. One of those was that Paris should be destroyed: all the monuments, all the buildings. He assigned a general to take care of the task; fortunately, the general also could see the way the war was going and decided to procrastinate. First, he went around the city identifying what must go (a time-consuming process); second, he turned the cannons inward toward Paris. He realized that he would have to destroy something (deadlines are nasty, aren’t they?), and so came up with a plan: he blew up the Exposition Center. But he didn’t JUST blow it up. He made it so that there was black smoke all over Paris so that his colleagues wouldn’t know the wiser. Good for him that the Americans came in soon after, to save him from killing off something else. Somehow, the Expo survived and is currently housing some sort of exhibit on video games (so much for prestigious history – sorry I killed the buzz).

Next we have a hospital built by Louis XIV, our old friend from Versailles. This was a veteran’s hospital built over one constructed by Henry IV for his war veterans, in order to keep them off of the streets and to make sure that he didn’t look bad. Ego, Ego, Ego.

And now for an abrupt change – French cooking!

That’s enough of that. Italian is always better. (Sorry, Julia Child!)

We didn’t get into the Louvre, but I did get to the Musee d’ Orsay, the Impressionist museum – it used to be a train station before that became cumbersome for the system, when it was changed into a museum (they change EVERYTHING into museums). I would highly advise going here, because I believe there is something that can appeal to everyone. I went in on a quest for Van Gogh (achieved!), and found many other treasures on the way. It takes four hours tops to see everything and is worth whatever you end up paying.

Next we move to Montmartre: Moulin Rouge, the can-can, and artists up the wazoo. Also, apparently, windmills. There used to be sixteen in Paris, but when the Russians came to town (paying Napoleon back for his pitiful attempt at taking down Russia), they destroyed almost all of them – for the one survivor, there’s a story about a guy defending his livelihood, being chopped into four pieces, and stuck on the blades of his windmill – the Russians liked to dismember people a lot (it’s true – I couldn’t make it more than halfway through a biography of Peter the Great due to the carnage). Anyway, the Russians did this in order to cut off the food supply of Paris: what good is wheat if you can’t grind it up for bread? They succeeded, of course, leaving with a nice settlement from the French. I’m not supplying a picture because it was dark and ordinary looking.

I’m also not providing a picture of the last vineyard in Paris: it turns out expensive, crappy wine, but people collect it to show off to people. It’s small, dinky, and dark in the nighttime. Now we know why there’s only one left. But it’s hanging on, just like the last windmill. But it’s got to stink owning a vineyard and not wanting to drink your own product.

The cool thing about Montmartre is that it’s where the ‘Belle Epoch’ of Paris happened: real estate got real high in Paris, so everybody moved to the mountain (it’s really a hill – it’s only a mountain by Florida standards) for cheap rent, including artists:

Van Gogh’s house…

Van Gogh’s brothel.

Vincent was an interesting guy: he had the habit of falling in love with prostitutes and was engaged at one time to one of his cousins (who ended up not marrying him because she killed herself, happy happy joy joy). Note that the missing ear went to a prostitute – who if memory serves me well, checked him into a mental institution.

Vincent’s craziness may be partly attributed to painting: in those days, paints had some really nasty stuff in them, such that you would definitely want to wash your hands before eating. Vincent didn’t know that. For that matter, Vincent had no fear of paint whatsoever: he ate it. It is said that his favorite ‘flavor’ was yellow, which might explain why he used it so much, associating a flavor he liked with the color – but that’s my own speculation and not that of a professional shrink.

Anyway, Vincent decided that after a life of romantic psychodrama – or maybe it was the fact that he was missing his ear and that was really bugging him – that he would kill himself. Only, he didn’t do it right. He tried shooting himself in the heart, shot himself in the sternum, and bled out for two days. Apparently, some of his last words were “The pain will never end.” Yeah. I don’t understand what the issue was. He could have pulled the trigger another time and avoided getting blood all over the carpets, reducing pain in the bargain – but what can you do? Artists be crazy.

Picasso is also someone known in this district:

Picasso showed up in Montmartre, poor as dirt, and decided to get himself a bite to eat – without money in his pockets. He walked into the restaurant and traded flattering portraits of the waitresses for food. This went on for a couple of weeks until the owner decided that he’d had enough of this nutty Spanish fellow drawing all over his napkins and forced him to pay up. Picasso, of course, didn’t have it, but bartered paintings for his tab and for food later, promising that he’d be rich and famous one day and that the art would be worth a lot. Turns out, it was true, and the owner of the restaurant took early retirement.

On top of the hill is a cathedral whose name escapes me. It’s big and is made of travertine, a kind of stone that pops up EVERYWHERE in Rome (no kidding – when you know what you’re looking for, it begins to freak you out), and is self cleaning every time that it rains, because there’s a chemical reaction that produces calcite that makes the stone all white, except for the parts the rain doesn’t reach, which creates dirt smudges up close and creates an illusion of depth from afar. It’s cool – though when you get close enough it just looks dirty.

It was built in 1875 and is a combination of Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic architectures, and has some wicked mosaics inside.

The final thing on Montmartre is the square:

This is where all the artistic people hung out to do their art, chew the fat, and generally make a living. There are people that do caricatures there now, on what is highly coveted ground. They’re also reminiscent of vultures.

As it turns out, this square has been a hot-spot for artistic endeavor for quite some time – there’s one of VanGogh’s of the cafe to the far left of the photo that is fairly famous.

So that’s it for France!


You think France or you think Paris and you think, ‘Eiffel Tower.’ It was the gate to the World’s Fair that took place in Paris in 1900 – it was built along with the train station (Musee d’ Orsay) and the exhibition center (World War II boom-boom). The Parisians didn’t like it. (It’s a habit that they have.) After the World Fair, there was a healthy amount of people that wanted the eyesore torn down, but the designer of the tower naturally wanted to save it, so it was made into a radio tower. Whenever you watch an old movie or documentary and there comes a point when a radio message from France is represented, you always see the Eiffel Tower on the cartoon-y map: it’s not just for style reasons. As such, it played an important role in French communications during World War One. Now, it has stairs, an elevator (guess which line is longer), and two restaurants (lower floor: 80 euros a person, upper floor, 200). There was also a woman that actually married the Tower – if you can believe it, which I barely can – who ended up dumping it for the Tower of Pisa.

The Tower sparkles on the hour for five minutes, which is really cool, but a bit much if it were more than five minutes (you get a bit star struck):

Of course, the natives simply hate this.

And then there’s the two regular versions:

So that is really all there is for now: I’ll update on my trip to Rome and Barcelona later when I have time. It might not be soon, because tomorrow I’m going on a week trip to Venice, Florence, and Rome, with the priority to eat as much Italian food as possible.

Teaser: I saw the Pope!

Hasta Luego!

Don’t Bring a Slingshot to the Prado and Other Things I Learned While Abroad (A Guide)


This might not be very interesting or funny but will perhaps be a number of things that you might like to have in mind when you travel. I’m separating everything into sections so you can skip bits, should you so choose to do so. A lot will be fairly obvious – hence, the title. This is a true story from one of the students in my program; I wasn’t there, but you can be assured that the lady in the coat-check room had herself a real good laugh.

A. Traveling Abroad (General/Tourist Overview)

B. Traveling to Spain

C. Traveling to Ireland

D. Study Abroad

E. Study Abroad in Spain

F. Study Abroad in Ireland

Here we go:


1. DO NOT BE STUPID. This applies to every other item that I will mention here, so if you’re already disinterested, you can quit here and fly by the seat of your pants the rest of the way and be fine.

2. Bring good shoes. Does this sound like I’m your grandmother? Maybe so, but if you wear bad shoes, the following parts of your anatomy will hurt/ache/make you pay: feet, ankles, shins, knees, hips, back, YOUR ENTIRE BODY. This is a lesson I learned the hard way, so only bring shoes that you can walk in for extended periods. When you expect to be walking in the same pair of shoes for several days, make them walking/running/hiking shoes. If you can’t bring optimal footwear, then bring extra insoles and find a little space in your bag for them. Even if you don’t use them, someone you’re traveling with might – and it changes the tone of the entire trip.

3. There are a few sets of words and phrases that are truly useful to know in non-English speaking countries, so you can put them on a card, take it around with you, and basically hack it from there:

Where is…?

Left – right – straight


What is…?

Do you speak English?

What time is it?

What time is it?

How much?

Entrance – exit

Numbers, at least 1-20, though it’s good to know more, of course

Foods of the region and names of basic ingredients (bread, onion, apple…)

It’s also good to know the bare-bones history of the place, but you can also take tours and do the same thing. Speaking of tours:

4. Just about every major city has a free tour you can take. Don’t bother with the ones where you pay up front, because those guides may not try as hard. I took the free tour in Paris and had a blast: you pay as much as you thought that the tour was worth at the end, and if I’d had it, I would have paid her some serious dough. I have used Sandeman’s New Europe multiple times, and they never disappoint: use Trip Adviser for any others you’re thinking about.

5. The ‘Off Season’ is a nasty, nasty thing. Things will not be open at the same hours as in the summer, so make sure that you go to the things that are most important to you first. Also note that some of the free stuff may not be open or available in the wintertime – in Barcelona, for example, the free tour does not run on the off season. However, things are SO MUCH CHEAPER: hostels, especially. You can also count on slightly fewer Asian tourists, the scourge that comes bearing cameras and pots of money, and generally without sense or appreciation for what they are seeing. This is not a dig on the inhabitants of the great continent of Asia, JUST the tourists. You have been warned.

6. It’s good to use public transportation abroad – just make sure that the system is known to be safe enough for basically everyone to use. Also keep in mind that thieves love grabbing purses or whatever is in someone’s hand as the doors are closing so that they cannot be caught by the offended party, so take care. Stow everything and keep your hand on your bag, which can mean that if you are in an unsafe area, you can wear your backpack to the front rather than the back. It’s a great idea to familiarize yourself with the public transportation system of the city that you’re going to be in, as well as a street map in order to be able to navigate easier – it takes five minutes.

7. When you travel, its important to keep hydrated and to have some form of comestible on your person: I personally like dried fruit, as it’s compact, filling, and nutritious. Apricots are my personal fave: there are good apricots in Spain.

8. If you are fluent (or fluent enough) in another language in English, lead with that in non-English speaking countries. It makes you less that tourist in Hawaiian shorts and a bright yellow shirt – less crassly American. There are some countries – like France – that don’t really appreciate Spanish people, but I still led with Spanish, because being Spanish is still better than being the American stereotype.

9. If you are a student, DO NOT FORGET YOUR ID. You don’t really need to get the International ID, but if you are with a program, check with them so see if they have better prices if you do decide to get it. You will get discounts at landmarks, or maybe even get in free, which is always convenient.

10. Banks. If you are going abroad, you’ll want to let your bank where you are going to be sure that there won’t be holds on your money. I have had an absolutely nasty time with this – to the extent that I am seriously considering switching banks. The possible holds on your money are as follows (keep in mind that this only implies if the country you’re in is deemed ‘dangerous’):

a. Getting money from ATMs

b. Buying things in stores

c. Buying things online

d. Buying things online from companies that have been deemed hazardous

e. Buying things online from companies in a different country than the one you’re living in

11. So if you’re trying to sleep at night and there’s a bunch of people screaming in the street, do not be afraid – well, unless the political climate is unstable – because it will be because of a soccer game. People love their soccer, so get involved or bring earplugs.

12. Chocolate is better abroad. Keep in mind that Hershey’s is not allowed to be called chocolate, because it only has chocolate liqueur in it: it’s artificially flavored and colored and Europe’s chocolate kicks its butt.

13. If you want to party, you won’t be able to appreciate the sights in the morning. Your choice, but there is always a danger if you are in a place without a support network. I would suggest not getting wasted without friends around. If you are living with a family, they will probably not want you to return home if you are plastered.

14. Kindles are not real books. They are not a substitute for real books: they are a pale comparison to the real thing. However, they are useful/small enough for traveling.

15. If you see Kinder Eggs, try them. You will rediscover your childhood and possibly scream like a little girl. This is all a part of the process.

16. Three gallon plastic bags are available at your local supermarket: I use a trick I learned on my first long canoe trip, which is to put clothes in these bags and then to compress them (sitting on them generally works). This is a great method to use because everything suddenly becomes that much easier to find, and well, smaller, which is useful for those week-long trips when you’re living out of your backpack. Just be careful not to sit on these bags too fast, because they are liable to break on you, which sucks, to say the least.

17. Backpacks kick rolling bag’s butts. Rolling bags look really cool on nice, even, shiny surfaces, but Europe has a lot of cobblestone. Do you really want to torture yourself when a backpack can go anywhere? For truly big bags, sure, go for the rolly ones, but anything you aren’t sure about, pick up the backpack – and see if it has clips for your waist, as that really does help distribute the weight, even if it does scream “I’M A TOURIST!!!!!!!” It’s not like they weren’t going to know anyway. If you’re really worried, you can go for a hiking backpack, which can look at least marginally cooler while traveling. My backpack has my name embroidered on it – which I immediately figured out was only cool in Maine when I got here – so now when I travel, lots of people magically know my name after walking behind me. I also look like a turtle with zippers.

18. Bartering is a big deal in some places; they won’t take you seriously unless you do it. What you do is keep your money handy but out of sight, walk up to a stall, see if there is anything you want. Haggle on something you have mild interest first, then express disinterest at that price. Then pick up what you want. Haggle. WIN.

19. In the European Union, people fly from place to place without needing to go through customs or be questioned about their stay. That also means that you won’t get stamps in your passport unless you ask for it – something to keep in mind.

20. Feeding the birds at a pond in a city may have its allure, but for Christ sake, don’t feed the birds bread. Bread is not what they were made to eat; it just makes them sick. Instead, you can bring lettuce or other greens. Heck, if you want to feed swans, you can just rip up some grass and toss it in the water – cheap entertainment.

21. Trip Adviser is the bomb dot com.

22. The holidays are a rough time for finding shops that are open – that means that if you enter a country without food reserves of your own, you ay have to do a bit of searching to find what you need. Also assume that the day after the holiday will be pretty shut down – most of the tourist attractions will be open (and there’s never anything wrong with exploring sans expectations or destinations).

23. Liquid amounts for flights are positively hellish. So keep everything under 100 milliliters, and make sure that the bottles you use are labeled. A good reference: 1 mL = 1 cm3 = 1 gram.


25. When you go somewhere with a dramatically different exchange rate, it’s useful to write down different amounts in dollars with their corresponding values. When I was in Norway (kronor), I wrote down amounts for 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 kronor. You can also do the exchange by looking at those amounts in dollars, but it may not be quite as useful. I calculated high numbers for the conversion rate of kronor because the way the money works is different than ours (30 kronors for a sandwich equals a five dollar sandwich), so you may want an idea of the nature of the currency before you pick the numbers you want to work with.

26. The standards for tipping are lower in Europe, and are sometimes included in your bill (it’s called “service” on the bill or menu). Also good to remember in restaurants is that different things may indicate that you’re done, but if you sit back and get your hands off your silverware, you are sending a sure-fire message. Nonverbal communication is always a good thing, especially if you don’t speak the language.

27. The most important thing to do after your trip is over – however long – is to preserve your memory of it. You can do this by consciously attempting to remember as many details as possible; the easiest way to remember details is to live in the moment while you are there. No, you do not have a car/house/whatever payment. No, you really don’t need to think about the paper you’ll have to write when this is all over. Yes, you did close the garage door. So stop thinking about those things and use your senses to take in this new place. For longer trips, it helps to write down what you did every day: a simple list will work.

28. Keeping a small notebook on you when you’re on the move is great, as it makes it so much easier to keep track of all sorts of bits and pieces: directions, timetables, conversions, emergency numbers, vocab words, notes, impressions on your experience, et cetera. They’re also great for provoking memories that you might have otherwise forgotten.


1. There are two things that I am not sure of how far these will apply, but to be safe I’m putting them here. Do not go out in public looking like a train wreck that got doused with lighter fluid and ignited. This means that you cannot wear pajamas unless you are going to bed or gym clothes unless that is your only stop: do not go to school wearing sweats, because everyone changes at the gym. Eating in public is also generally a no-no: take your lead from other people and act accordingly. Eating in class is discouraged, as well, as it is seen as disrespect, but check with your professors if you can if you are dying of starvation.

2. There’s a magical store called ‘El Corte Ingles.’ Do not be fooled. It may have everything that you could ever possibly need, but it is expensive. However, this is where you can get international ingredients.

3. There is an endangered species in Spain: beautiful men. Prepare yourself for disappointment, but don’t get too down. Italy is home to several aesthetic men, and I believe that Spanish women are some the most beautiful women I have ever seen. It is my belief in this moment that if I wanted to, I could chuck a stick and hit one or all of the following: an ugly man, a beautiful woman, or a tiny dog. I am surprised that I haven’t stepped on one of the dogs here yet, and laugh every time I see a man walking his wife’s dog.

4. Don’t used the usted/ustedes form of verbs in Spain: address strangers with the ‘tu’ form.

5. Don’t expect to get into a bullfight with ease here. They are pretty rare – in Bilbao, they only happen in one week in August when the city does its celebrations, and are now no longer happening in Barcelona as of this September or October. A lot of Spanish people are disgusted by bullfights, along with a lot of the other gory traditions that exist here.

6. In every region of Spain there are different languages. In the Basque Country, people speak Spanish and most also speak Basque, or Euskadi. Basque is the Spanish word and Euskadi is the Basque word. In Cataluna (where Barcelona is), they speak Catalan; in Andalucia (south of Spain), they speak Andalucian, and so on. Euskadi happens to be of Celtic origin, which means that it is unintelligible, but the others tend to be associated with other languages as well as Spanish.

7. Flamenco is from Andalucia, which means that you can’t see it elsewhere, unless you want to get fleeced by money-grubbers. And you definitley want to see the real thing.

8. Typical foods from Spain:

a. Tortilla de patatas

Potato/Spanish Tortilla: it’s not even close to a Mexican tortilla; what it is is potatoes held together with eggs. It’s very good and a staple at bars.

b. Paella

This is a rice dish that generally has surf and turf, vegetables, and saffron. It’s great and if you don’t want all the weird stuff that’s in there (there is an aspect of discovery when eating traditional paella), you can generally find other versions.

c. Flan

This is a typical dessert that I hate. It’s eggy with caramelized sugar on top, and some people like it. Try it and spit it out in your napkin if it nauseates you.

d. Arroz con Leche

Yummy. This is rice pudding with cinnamon in it and is fantastic. If you don’t like this, aliens have fried your brain or you just haven’t eaten the good stuff.

e. Sangria

Wine and fruit stuff. Most people like it.

f. Mojito

It’s vodka, mint, sugar, water, and bubbles. I haven’t had it yet, but it’s on the to-do list.

g. Calimocho

This is a Basque thing: Coca-Cola and red wine. Don’t bash it until you try it. It’s a drink that everyone enjoys. I can even stomach it.

9. Cathedrals in Spain generally have free admission. The one place I was ever charged to get into was La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (a whopping 10.50 with a student ID), and that place is under construction.

10. ‘Tranquila’ is the word that almost turned me into an axe murderer. It means ‘calm down’ or ‘shit happens.’ When people say it – to me at least – it’s wildly condescending. But don’t get too fluffed up about it. Tranquila.

11. The Basque people have what is called ‘a stone face.’ This means that they will openly stare at you in public; if you don’t like it, make prolonged eye contact. They will freak out and break away.

However, it is good to note that unless you know otherwise, you don’t want to make too much eye contact with people in new places. In France, for example, a woman looking at a man in the eyes can end up getting kissed – you don’t want to communicate ‘let’s get it on’ unless you are really ready for whatever that person will throw at you (also interesting: STDs don’t go away when you travel to another country…).

12. The ‘siesta’ is a period of time that happens every day from 2:00 to about 4:30. No shops will be open and no one will be in the street. It is REALLY annoying for me, but it’s also a good idea to get some sleep during this time – or, at the very least, to linger an hour or two over lunch.

13. The Spanish schedule is as follows: wake at seven or whenever and eat breakfast, snack at about 11 or twelve, lunch at two or three, siesta, snack at about six or seven, dinner at about nine or ten. Make sure you get enough sleep around this schedule – there’s a real difference, so don’t wear yourself out.

14. If you don’t feel like paying for a bottle of water when tap is the exact same thing (and water is safe in all European cities as far as I know, so don’t worry), ask for ‘agua de grifo’: you’ll be asking for tap water and saving yourself two to three euros.

15. Happenings in Spain:

a. The Duchess of Alba

This lady is the ugliest woman I have ever seen, and has more titles than even the King himself. She is forever on the news so if you ever catch yourself wondering who the woman with the frizzy white afro is, that’s her. A couple of months ago she got married to a man 20 years her junior (she’s 80); I feel sorry for the poor sod.

b. ETA

This is a terrorist organization from the Basque country: a while ago (2-3 months), they declared peace, which people here take as genuine. No more attacks or burning cars.

c. Domestic violence against women is a huge political issue: men will kill their wives and sometimes even their children, too.

d. Unemployment is insane in Spain, as it is everywhere else.

16. People here don’t listen to an awful lot of Spanish music, so don’t expect a radical musical education.


1. The Irish like to drink. Prepare yourself. There are some small towns where there are more pubs than people, and on most streets there is at least pub anyway. The stereotype of the three-o-clock doddering old drunk Irish guy is completely true.

2. The second official language of Ireland is Gaelic (which many people will simply refer to as ‘Irish.’); it’s almost completely incomprehensible, but is a major part of the culture, even if fluent Irish speakers are few and far between. There is also Scottish Gaelic, but it’s not really the same language (if only for the accent, which, trust me, is as thick as a brick). There are precisely four words that you will need to now:

a. Slante (slaantah): what you say when you go out drinking; it functions the same as ‘cheers’ does.

b. Craic: this is ‘fun,’ loosely translated. People will use this usually in some derivation of: ‘that’s good craic.’

c. Failte (faaltah): means ‘welcome.’ If you see this on a hostel or hotel, that means that they’re open for business and pandering to you (which is okay every now and then).

d. Garda: there are no police in Ireland, but that’s only because they’re called garda. It’s in this section, because it’s an Irish word.

3. If you’re going to Ireland to acquire an accent, your first step will be to master ‘it’ll be grand.’ This is also a great motto to use for travel and life in general, so embrace it. Enjoy it. It’ll be grand.

4. Ireland is a famously Catholic country (though people are less religious now than they have been; still, heritage is heritage), so it’s good to know its saints – Patrick and Bridget. Patrick is known for converting Ireland to Christianity and Bridget is known for the great healing she did. Each saint has their own day – not just Patrick. Each town and city will also have their own patron saint; for Cork, that was St. Finbarr, who broke ground for a monastery that eventually grew into the city.

5. St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is, frankly, overrated. The party scene is much better on every other day but that, so getting your hopes up for it…unwise. During the day, there will be things going on in every major town, usually a parade and some other events. Mine was spent in Waterford, where I was able to get a front-row spot by the mayor’s pavilion: I was able to enjoy the parade (in Cork the crowd was too thick for everyone to see), as well as the Irish dancing and reenactments for the mayor. I took the bus back to Cork in time to catch some nightlife, which was way too crowded for comfort. At all times, my body was touching two or three other bodies. The one place that was not crowded was lit by candlelight because the power had gone out. So: go to a smaller town to see a parade and drink the next night, when the brave have powered through their hangover and can party again, and when you will be able to maintain some level of personal space.

6. Food prices in Ireland are slightly higher than you would expect here, so budget for that. It’s not a huge increase, and there are sales, but still.

7. Chocolate in Ireland is generally Cadbury’s, a decent brand. But not my favorite. Sorry, but the Irish know jack about chocolate.

8. The dress code in Ireland is much more casual than it might be elsewhere; however, don’t go out of the house in your pajamas or in sweats. Shirt, jeans, sneakers, and a sweater is standard student or casual wear. It’s pretty much the same as in America. However, ladies need not partake of the teenage and twenty-something Irish woman’s affinity for caked-on makeup.

9. Irish men are generally good looking, but slightly shorter on the average. But, ah. The accents.

10. Typical foods in Ireland generally include heavy amounts of grease and meat, so it’s a wonder that the entire population isn’t seriously obese. UNLESS…the Irish don’t actually eat that stuff on a regular basis. Ireland is home to a number of good restaurants, but none really specialize in national cuisine. However, with that said, try fish and chips. The best place in Cork is a place called Jackie Lennox’s: it’s one of those places where they hand you your food and you either eat it standing up or you take it home with you (and where the ketchup flows freely).

11. Many Irish towns host a kind of unofficial treasure hunt on Saturdays: your mission is to find the street market that will most likely be there and to enjoy it. Every one is different and a great place to find gifts for people (including yourself, every now and then…).


1. If you are in an apartment, you’ll have a utilities bill every month. This means that you should keep only the lights you need turned on and keep your showers under ten minutes (which means turning the water on and off as necessary – I keep my showers short anyway and shave my legs using the intermittent water method). If you’re in a homestay, you may end up having an uncomfortable conversation about your water and electricity use. It’s good practice anyway, good habits to get into.

2. I brought two pairs of pants and a skirt I wasn’t that interested in anymore. Bad move. Toss the clothes you don’t like and bring only what you know you will wear.

3. On that note, Spain’s stores are engineered to suit women who are the physical equivalent of a stick. If you have assets or big feet, make sure that you won’t need to rely on the stores to keep yourself decent. But still keep in mind you don’t need your whole closet. A good set of numbers (this can change depending on gender):

Three pants, two shorts, one skirt

Nine long-sleeved shirts, of different weights, three tee shirts

Two pairs of casual walking shoes, one pair running/walking/hiking shoes, sandals, flip flops for hostel showers

And other items, of course, but these are the basics.

4. Buy your hair dryer and straightener – if necessary – while abroad. A different kind of outlet can fry your appliances.

5. Buy a transformer or converter for your electronics. I don’t know the difference between the two, but if the outlets look different than in the states, you’ll need one.

6. Buy all the makeup you’ll need in the States: it’s expensive here.

7. Peanut butter is available abroad, so don’t make your parents pay ten times what it’s worth to ship it to you. You can get peanut butter in El Corte Ingles in Spain.

8. If you are finding housing through a program, you are likely to be paying through the nose where other students in similar apartments pay much less. You may want to look for an apartment on your own, depending on the circumstances. If you’re in a homestay, don’t change it: it’s worth every penny.

9. This isn’t going in the sections for general travel because I know if you’re studying abroad, you’re worried about having to be one of those people that don’t have money for food at the end of your stay – fear not! Here are my recommendations for cheap eats for when you’re traveling, from the least costly option to the most:

a. Food from a supermarket: when I’m on a trip, this is breakfast and dinner. It’ll be bread, fruit, and chocolate. On my recent trip to Italy I knew we would be moving within Italy by train, so I opted for a jar of jam, which I finished in exactly a week. If you’re in your host city, this an obvious DUH. If you eat out a lot, you are doomed. Trust me, if you’re afraid to cook, even a failed attempt and then a successful one is cheaper than eating out. The stove does NOT bite back. Though do keep in mind that using the oven will be expensive utilities-wise, so it’s always good to cook more than one thing at once: roasted vegetables are a good choice (toss these on the veggies: oil, salt, pepper, maybe balsamic vinegar if you’re into that sort of thing, put on a pan, and enjoy).

b. Bakeries are a surprising revelation. I’ve eaten lunch out of bakeries several times: generally there will be a few savory options, not just sweet ones, for substantially less than truly eating out.

c. Kebabs are fabulous wads of food that can slake your hunger just by looking at them. They probably have the calorie content of an elephant, but are cheap (2-6 euros), and are all over the place in Europe (at least, in Spain, Italy, and France). It’s meat – or falafel for me – lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and sauces in pita bread. It’s flavorful, warm, and quick – just try not to get it all over yourself.

d. Restaurants are a great way to experience culture, so I would suggest that you go to them once a day while on trips. Try not to cave in so much while you are settled into your host city, as that is a no-bueno for your wallet. You can generally find cheap places, if you’re willing to look around for a bit. If you are staying at a nice hostel, you can ask the people there for recommendations and they will draw all over your map with awesome places to go.

10. Hostels: the site I use to find places is Plug in your desired city and country – and I do believe this is worldwide, so if you aren’t going to Europe, fear not! – and see the number of results. If there’s more than ten, narrow down the results so that the rating is 80% and above (this is a great general rule to follow that hasn’t led me wrong yet), and by your desired price range, if possible. Prices are also REALLY good on the off-season…

You’ll need shower flops and earplugs, if you are sensitive to people being obnoxious as you are falling asleep. Honestly, hostels can be really bad but also incredible, so if you take a few extra minutes you can find yourself a real deal. It’s good to note that in some countries there will be a city tax of a couple of euros a night that’s not included in the price, so don’t be surprised or offended if that pops up. Italy is that way, for instance.

11. Bring a compact/camping towel for hostels. You may not be able to rent a towel in some places and regular towels are just space-eaters.

12. Flights suck. If you can, travel by train. BUT, that said, here are some sites to look at:

a. Ryanair: this one tends to be the cheapest, and for a reason. The airports tend to be out of the way and hard-sided bags have to be a certain size (yay backpacks!), but as I said, it’s cheap. They also only allow one carry-on, so if you want to get away with it, put your handbag under your jacket or shirt.


c. (Spain) You can also change this to just, but it’s super confusing, complete with cape and awkward underpants.

d. (Spain)

e. (Expensive)

13. Homestay Vocab

Furniture in each room in the house (I didn’t know the word for ‘counter top’ on the first day, gosh what havoc that was)

Room names

Words to describe your family

Ingredients (your mom will describe food to you)

Moods (to express yourself)

14. Couch surfing is an option if you want to house yourself while traveling for cheap: people put their homes on the website and you take it under your own prerogative to contact them and discuss dates. This can go very, very well but can also go quite badly, depending on who you stay with. This is a massive risk, and you won’t ever know how it will go – your choice.

15. Let’s face it. The United States is a total idiot when it comes to measurement; the metric system is in in a big way everywhere else. So when you are confronted with your not-Fahrenheit oven and a deep desire for the cookies you can’t get anywhere else, know that: 350 degrees Fahrenheit is about 175 degrees Celsius, and 400 degrees F. is about 205 degrees C. Google is a wonderful thing. Also, you can find cup and teaspoon measuring devices in some countries, but if you bake frequently, it might be a good idea to bring your own or to ask the office of your program.

16. Blogging is wonderful – mine certainly has given me a lot of satisfaction – but just know that there are many ways to do it and it’s not for everyone. Say what’s important to you, and for God’s sake, remember to capitalize proper nouns and that grammar is the foundation of a well-ordered society. Cavemen? No grammar.


1. The locks on the doors and windows are different here. For doors, you have a funny looking key that you turn in the door a certain number of times to lock and unlock it (just practice for a few minutes and you’ll get it). For windows, you move the handle to the horizontal position and swing the window wide open or move the handle 180 degrees to crack the window open.

2. There is a deal that Spain has with China that makes it easy for Chinese to immigrate to Spain. What they’ve done is open stores that sell cheap Chinese crap. This is where you get your school supplies and your odds and ends. The Spanish call these stores ‘chinos’ and they are all over the place. Walk around for a while in your area and you’ll find at least two in a five minute radius. I’ve got four or five to choose from. The marvel of the Chinese Store is that you get to buy this stuff DIRECTLY from Chinese people. You just don’t get that in America!

3. Milk comes in containers that are not kept in the refrigerated section. There is some fresh milk, but the other kind is more common. I have had no reason to buy milk for myself, but I am told that on the bottom of each carton is a number from one to four. This indicated the number of times that it has been processed and put back on the shelf: one indicates once and four indicates four times. I’d advise buying ones and twos.

4. Homestays:

a. Don’t say please or thank you, as to Spanish people it feels like you’re being too formal, like you’re dining with royalty.

b. Basque moms push food on you like you wouldn’t believe; my mother is sure that I will be an emaciated stick when I leave, but I eat only as much as I want. It sucks to waste food, but don’t make yourself sick to please your family. Laugh about it and move on.

c. Ladies, I know there’s always a satisfaction to wearing sexy lingerie underneath your clothes, but I wouldn’t bring anything too racy with you abroad. Remember who will be doing your laundry.

d. Host gifts are always good – but remember that there will likely be a student in your room after you, so don’t bring anything that will leave a permanent mark on the house. Something small or a food item would be good. I brought cards from my grandmother (her paintings on the cards) and maple candy, which were a hit.

e. If you aren’t confident with your Spanish, don’t be too afraid: you can use what you have and make gestures. You will also be surprised how fast your Spanish will improve: it certainly crept up on me.


1. Again, use your student card: for example, if you want to go to Dublin from Cork, you can get a return ticket for 30 euros, as well as one less hour of travel time, as well as comfort, as well as freedom from soul-sucking despair (also known as bus travel). It’s totally worth it.

2. Don’t study like Irish students do. Just don’t. The cycle: binge drinking and occasional destruction of communal and/or building fixtures, then frantic studying, then mock-five frenzied studying accompanied by reckless abuse of caffeine, then celebratory binge-drinking. Save your liver.

3. The Irish accent is generally not hard to deal with (except for construction workers. I don’t get it), but just know that the word ‘aluminum’ sounds completely different in Ireland and the U.K. It confused me to no end when I first heard it.

4. Getting a student visa in Ireland isn’t a terrible process – you needn’t think about it too much until you get there, really. You land at an Irish airport and show the nice (read: grumpy) man your acceptance letter to the university you’re going to, and then he’ll stamp your passport about sixteen times; one of those stamps will include the date you need to register with the Garda by. There’s also the matter of the Irish bank account, in which you need to deposit a certain amount of money for each month that you’ll be in the country. Do some research and make sure you’re prepared; it’ll be grand.

So that’s it. That was a lot of work, and hopefully some good information.

Going Slowly but Efficiently Crazy


Basically, life right now is pretty hectic, but I’m taking a moment from all the homework and all the travel plans – because guess what? In the next week I’ll be in Paris, Rome, and Barcelona for the week of break they squeaked into the curriculum. I’m pretty excited to be traveling, but it’s a lot of preparation, having to deal with Internet Entities who just don’t want to play ball. However, despite all of the gremlins, I have managed to wedge in a bit of fun.

This past Sunday the native team of the Basque Country, Athletic, played Granada, which is supposed to be the third-worst team in the country. Athletic is in the upper middle, which means that they would usually obliterate teams like Granada, smash them to bits and eat them with their Wheaties in the morning (I know it’s violent, but that’s sports for you). They freaking LOST one-nothing to Granada. I was a bit ticked off, but it was nothing to the guys sitting behind me who had some really colorful things to say about the players’ mothers…

I really loved the ambiance of the place, though – they call it ‘The Cathedral’ for a reason (though maybe it’s because it’s better attended than basically any cathedral in the world, like all stadiums). You take a crowded metro to the San Mames stop and follow the sea of people to the correct door and present the card you borrowed from your host father so you can get in for free, get your soda taken from you because a bit of lemon bubbly is too dangerous for such public consumption. You get past that disappointment, though, and cough up 1.50 euros for perfectly ordinary water – which you can’t keep in the plastic bottle, either, you have to have an open cup, which meant I drank it as fast as I could – and find your seat. It’s crowded and the seats seem a little flimsy, but that’s nothing. The crowd gets revved up, and you can’t help but get excited, with the feeling of something about to happen.

And it does! I was sitting on the edge of my seat the whole time, my heart in my throat and my sense of dismay growing along with everyone else’s when our team did less than their best – though I wasn’t screaming violent abuse like a lot of the people there.

So, some of you may be under the misapprehension that Spaniards are gorgeous: disabuse yourself. The women are sleek and chic, but the men. They just have bad faces. However, there is an anomaly in the world of sports, as those guys tend toward the GORGEOUS. An example (the guy in question is to the right, just in case there’s an uncertainty) :

And you can’t really see his eyes. Bummer – that’s his best feature.

There is one notable exception to the soccer-player rule: there’s a guy on the Athletic team named Muniain who is without a doubt one of the least attractive people I’ve seen – it just goes to show that they ran out of beautiful men and then had to start picking people for talent alone. Though I will say that Muniain is a good player – or that’s what I hear, anyway, as he didn’t seem too impressive during the game.

And getting to yesterday: I went out for lunch and then some with Maria, my host mother, after class. I was procrastinating, but it was great not to be that creepy student living in her house and eating less food than she thinks appropriate. “You’re going to leave like THIS!” (Holds up one finger.)

First, we went to an Italian restaurant nearby, because Maria was granted one day with pasta this week by her dietician; I ordered something that boils down to linguine with fried garlic, oil, and parsley, with Parmesan cheese. I died, went to heaven, and cleaned my plate. When I go to Italy I may just start hugging random people, thanking them for history’s best inventions: pizza, pasta, gelato… (And then I’ll hug the officer that arrests me for being unnecessarily huggy, but I’ll get out of it, because what heartless thug bans hugs in the street?)

After that, we drove to a castle nearby; we couldn’t go in, which was a big downer, but it felt so…Disney, though more authentic:

(The above photo is of the back side.)

Looking at this castle made me think about age versus monumentality: some people are cowed by the sheer age of things, by the durability of an object to stay intact to whatever degree for the next generations. I think I’m more swayed by the things that make me feel small or things that surprise me, and this castle did that – even though Maria was looking at me a bit funny because of how much I gushed about the building, which is admittedly small for a castle, but still. The heart wants what it wants, right?

We saw this as we were walking away from the castle – it’s a pine that’s fallen on its fellows but that is still living. Doesn’t it remind you a little of a trust fall?

This was really cool: there’s basically a shelf in this still-living tree with soil and grass. It has a very strong aesthetic in a quirky way.

After the castle, we went to go see Maria’s sister and husband who lives in a great big immaculately clean house WITH A LAWN (GASP!) – which basically means that they live outside of the suburbs but still close enough to commute to Bilbao if necessary. There’s a vegetable garden my sister would LOVE, with a surprising quantity of vegetables still going strong – as well as a lemon tree that has more fruit than a couple could ever possibly eat. Maria took me to get to know her sister, to talk, and to take some of the vegetables. It was fantastic to get to meet Maria’s sister, who I’d heard about for quite some time but hadn’t yet met.

After that, Maria showed me the one beach of the area I hadn’t yet seen: Sopelana. This is where all the surfers go, because there are some incredible waves – they were out yesterday, too, which was especially crazy, considering the current water temperature. I don’t know how high the waves were, but they were up there; the picture doesn’t show that, but it was certainly impressive enough.

And just to remind you where I am:

I don’t know how clearly you can see it, but the Basque flag is hanging out on that cliff.