Saturday, August 31, 2013

Camels and Coffee

Ah, let us see what has transpired since I wrote last. The combination of a little too much downtime alone and almost a week's time away from my soulmate led to some intense tear shedding last night. Being the gentleman he is, Esack spent his afternoon on Facetime with me raising my spirit until I could finally sleep. That is all for emotional sap...for this entry.

This morning I fumbled around in the dark for a solid trying to get ready for my morning exercise. Turns out young people in hostels sleep until the early afternoon every day of the week. (I qualify as a late middle-aged and/or elderly woman in nearly every country). Anyway, I set out for a run along the Nervión River, an offshoot of the Bay of Biscay in Getxo. The scenery was stunning. Each bridge I passed was designed in a different way, some steel and very modern looking, others several hundred years old. I didn't take photos as it may have interfered with my workout, but I'm sure I'll capture some in the next couple of months.

After some brekke and a shower, I set out to explore Casco Viejo, the oldest area of Bilbao. It is about a 10 minute metro ride away from my hostel. I saw this as an excellent opportunity to try out the metro for the first time and let me say, Bilbao/Getxo's metro system is the cleanest and most modern subway system I have ever had the pleasure of utilizing. I know the U.S. isn't exactly known for its fabulous public transpiration, but this system was outstanding even for Europe. Anyway, with minimal hassle I made it the infamous Casco Viejo. The area is composed of seven streets, each named for its original purpose (i.e. "The Street of Stores," "The Street of Meat Markets," etc). I've found the Spanish to be very literal in their naming pursuits. Casco Viejo was crowded, alive, and beautiful. For the most part, each street still serves its original purpose, which really is quite amazing. Here are some snapshots.

A slightly unrelated side note: There was a fair going on in Casco Viejo and I FOUND CAMELS!

After giving ample TLC to those adorable camels I continued walking through Casco Viejo. Just before lunch time I head a funky raucous from a few streets over. When I went to investigate I found a ridiculously dressed band of about 10 members playing basses, guitars, keyboard, drums, and four brass instruments in the street. The locals were surrounding the band enjoying their drinks in the streets and dancing along. I stayed and took in the performance for about half an hour before leaving for lunch. My first impromptu Spanish street-dance: deemed successful. 

After lunch I hopped back on the metro and headed for Gexto to scope out the location of host parents' house before I meet them tomorrow. Getxo is a beach community about a five minute's metro ride north of Bilbao. I got off at my neighborhood's stop and was greeted with palm trees, kids playing in a park, and a salty breeze. It was dreamlike, really. I wandered aimlessly for about 20 minutes in the direction I thought my apartment might be in (no iphone=no GPS) until I surrendered and asked a friendly-looking kid for directions. He kindly walked me to my apartment and I stood outside like a creeper. I would have taken a picture for my blog, but I fear that may have crossed a line. I mean...they didn't even know I was there. Alas, my apartment looks adorable. It was a brick building complete with flowers in the window sill. 

I have since returned to my hostel and have Facetime plans with my sissy in a few minutes. I'll leave you with one last photo and some general observations of the local culture thus far: 

1. Dogs are allowed everywhere. In restaurants, bars, name it. I should have brought Cecil-totally kicking myself. 
2. I read something before about goth/metal style of dress being very popular here. That was no lie. Many of the young people have sweet tattoos, wear lots of black, and have piercings in places I didn't previously know were possible. 
3. Wine actually is cheaper than water. 

Until next time

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Sign from the Universe

Hola y buenas días from Bilbao! I arrived in this beautiful city about two hours ago, and I'm already starting to feel at home. Alas, I will tell the tale of my voyage here after I recount the happenings since I last blogged.

On Wednesday evening I joined other travelers from my hostel on a tapas tour. The guide took us to three different restaurants for three rounds of tapas and three drinks for only 13 euro. The food was amazing, and the sangria wasn't half bad either. The Spanish love their potatoes and octopus. I think my favorite tapa in Madrid was easily the one pictured on the bottom: french baguette with quail egg and chorizo underneath.

The next day I woke up feeling more comfortable in Madrid than before. Being from a small town in Iowa, Madrid was pretty overwhelming at first but my lengthy walking tour calmed my nerves quite a bit. Therefore, I woke up with a newfound bravery and set out to further explore. My hostel in Madrid was in a great location, just ten minutes from Los Museos Renia Sofia y Prado, and less than five from Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. I spent the morning roaming around the Real Botanical Gardens of Madrid. As a student admission was cheap and the royal grounds were magnificent. I found refuse in the greenery there amidst a hustling and bustling city.

That afternoon I befriended Sia, a German girl on holiday from Hamburg. Sia is an art history student and agreed to accompany me to the Prado Museum. We elected to wait until the museums free admission hours from 6-8 pm so we spent the early evening exploring the student area of Madrid where we found a positively charming cafe the best carrot cake this woman has ever tasted. The basement of the cafe was a peaceful stone cellar with carefully selected decor. It was so adorable that I simply must post a photo. 

After espresso and carrot cake we trekked to the Prado Museum. I should preface this visit by saying that the Prado has over 100 (at least) of my second favorite Spanish painter's original works. Below are some prints of a few of his notable paintings. Meet Goya. 

My trip to the Prado was much more informative than it would have been thanks to Sia's presence. She was very knowledgable about the societal characteristics of each period in history that influenced how various artists portrayed their messages. After the museum, Sia and I enjoyed dinner with two of her friends, Saskia and Tobias. I had gazpacho (a cold soup) and torta (basically bread with a meat on it), shown below. 

Despite my noisy roommates (I had 19) I managed to get a little sleep last night before my 6 am wake up call. I should warn you: Here begins a saga of easily avoidable mishaps that made my commute to Bilbao a trying one. I checked out of my hostel and took a taxi to the Atocha train station with about a half hour before my train to Bilbao left. As it were, my train actually left from the Chamartín station. This left a frantic Jenna sprinting to the nearest metro train to get to Chamartín in time to catch my train. Of course, I had no idea where Chamartín was or how to get there. I trusted my instincts and hopped on the first metro that seemed sensible. After about 3 stops, a feeble old man grabbed one of my suitcases and began to lead me off of the metro in broken English. Was I being robbed? By this frail, 90 year old human? I thought so for at least a minute until he explained in Spanish that there was a MUCH faster metro line to Chamartín. He carried my suitcase to the correct platform and sent me on my way. My own Spanish angel. 

I arrived at Chamartín approximately 3 minutes before my train's scheduled departure. I ran about half a mile with both suitcases and my backpack to the correct platform and just barely made my train. I was sweating and exhausted upon taking my seat and thoroughly looking forward to remaining seated for the six hour ride to Bilbao. The natural landscape of northern Spain is positively breathtaking. Our train zipped through green mountains speckled with red roofed, stucco country homes. Most of the other passengers were staring at me because of the stupid grin on my face for the entirety of the six hours. I hope these photos do it a little bit of justice. 

I already like Bilbao more than Madrid, and I liked Madrid. The city is very clean and the Basque Presence is felt in every neighborhood. For those of you who don't know, the people of Basque Country were native to this region of Northern Spain separate from the central government. They have many distinct cultural differences, but the most notable is their language. It is the only language in the world with no other known related languages. In addition, it cannot be traced back to the Indo-European language as most other languages in Europe/the Americas can be. Anyway, every single sign here is written in either in only Basque or Basque and Spanish. This wasn't a problem until I tried to use the restroom at a cafe where one bathroom was marked "S" and the other "W," instead of the Spanish "M" and "H." The bartender saw my expression of confusion/horror and directed me to the corrected bathroom with a giggle. Thus far, I have had only positive interactions with the residents here, and I am pleased to that Bilbao is not much of a destination for tourists. I think I'll get a more authentic Spanish experience here, and coincidentally much more practice in the language. 

Thanks for sticking with it if you read all the way through! I promise my entries won't be as long when classes begin on Monday. 


I went inside to ask about the "Nebraska" restaurant, the manager said that they simply randomly chose a location on a map. I don't know the story behind "Iowa," but I consider the serendipity of finding both of these establishments within a block of each other a sign from the universe that everything is working the way it's supposed to be. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In-Spain in the Membrane

At about 11:15 am on Monday I was bidding my parents and Esack goodbye at Epply Airfield and trust me, there was no shortage of tears. Kisses were had, and my eyes did not stop leaking until about three hours later somewhere in the air near Chicago. A melancholy beginning to an adventure if there ever was one, but an honest one nonetheless.

Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean I made friends with a Bulgarian girl who raised my spirits with enchanting tales of her expeditions all over Europe, and comforted me in sharing the insecurities she had when first visiting America. It was a relief to speak directly with someone who had the same fears I did, as universal as they may be. I managed to sleep for about two hours on the plane, but my excitement kept me awake most of the ride.

Upon exciting the plane, the first thing that struck me was how gorgeous the Madrid Barajas airport is! I had too much luggage to take a photo, but I'll post a generic one here so you can all see of its beauty. It has huge multicolor diagonal pillars and a rustic wooden ceiling throughout. I was grateful to walk off of the plane directly into such a unique building.

On the cab ride from Barajas to my hostel, I experienced a Spanish language snafu identical to many I have experienced since. So far my language barrier is a lot like this: Jenna speaks Spanish like small child, cab driver understands Jenna and responds accordingly, Jenna CANNOT understand cab driver, responds completely inappropriately, cab driver laughs. Silence. 

It could be worse, right? Alas, I am getting better every day...I think.

After checking into my hostel, I was completely exhausted. I sat down in the lounge to enjoy a drink and relax when a couple of other travelers invited me on the walking tour of Madrid. By this point I had not slept for quite some time, but I couldn't turn it down. Our charismatic Venezuelan tour guide took us all around the center of Madrid. We visited Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, the Cathedral of Madrid, several restaurants and bars, and scoped out the locations of some awesome museums. This guy was chalk full of information, and there was so much to learn and see. Therefore, I'll only point out some highlights. 

This is 1/4 of Plaza Mayor. This building and the one across from it where originally built by the Habsburg kings. One as a meat market, and one as a bread market. Since then, this has been the site of the Spanish Inquisition massacres, and now a lovely square for wining and dining. 

The horse in the photo was a monument built for King Phillip II I believe, upon moving it to the square Spaniards noticed a foul smell in Plaza Mayor. No one cared to investigate it for hundreds of years until a group of protestors threw stones at the horse's belly. The stomach cracked and thousands of dead birds came out. The birds had been flying in through the horses mouth. It is now sealed. Yowza. 

The photos above are from the OLDEST RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD. That's right, according the the Guinness Book of World Records this is the oldest continuously open restaurant in the whole wide world. It has had the same name and been in the same building since 1725. Aside from being ancient, this place is famous for its suckling pigs. These baby pigs are roasted for at least two hours every day in the original brick oven. The basement was a tiny cellar with a brick, arched wall and ceiling. This establishment was charming in every way, and I hope to come back as a guest someday. 

The above are photos from la Cathedral de la Santa María, Madrid's first and only cathedral. The silver plate in the middle is the image of the Virgin Mary. Before an attack by the Muslims in 725 AD Spanish farmers evidently buried this image, it was recovered in the 12th century and now sits in the cathedral for guests to see. It's probably the oldest (non natural) thing I have ever touched. 

Today I woke up and went explore the city with a friend I made in the hostel. We traveled to the most multicultural area of Madrid (mostly Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani immigrants) to enjoy some Indian cuisine for lunch. I had a veggie curry with hot, pickled veggies on the side, and fresh garlic nan. The waiter then surprised me with free "arroz con leche" or rice pudding. A delicious meal indeed; when you say spicy in Madrid, they take you seriously. 

That's all for now, my friends! I'll keep you posted, and thank you for reading. :)