Tot Ziens Amsterdam!

“What are you up to this weekend?”

“Going to Germany.”

“Oh cool I’m going to Amsterdam!”

“That’s awesome, we’re going to Morocco”

And the adventures continue…

To think that we are all blessed and fortunate enough to explore different lands and their cultures is an incredible feeling. In the most simple words, it is cool to say that you’re traveling to an entire new country for the weekend instead of saying, “Gonna watch a movie.” The exhilaration and excitement that you go through, knowing you will soon enter new territory with friends, is surreal. It’s an entirely new step into adulthood.

Arriving in Amsterdam at night, I was taken away by its charming beauty. Lamp posts reflecting off the rivers, illuminating the feel of comfort while you stroll through the streets of this tiny city. Breathing in the fresh cool air laced with weed, you know from the start that the city of Holland will be unlike any other.

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Stepping onto the streets during the day with the sun overcast, thawing our sore bodies, we walked along the streets to the Anne Frank House. Close to the hostel that we stayed in, we waited for 45 minutes to go through a respectable memorial for Anne Frank and her family. You can tell if a museum or memorial is good usually by its after effect, the thoughts that you exchange with your friends, and the unsettlingly feeling of how difficult it must have been to live in a time of hardship. The House wasn’t as emotional as I thought it would have been, instead, it made me realize how powerful writing is. She kept a many journals through her time, basically as a prisoner, locked up in an attic. She wrote day by day, her actions, emotions, needs, desires, wishes, and dreams. Without her journals, the house wouldn’t exists. Anne made me realize to appreciate my own life- to go outside and enjoy what the outside world has to offer. She also taught me the power and importance of the written word.

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Amsterdam is filled with the most  random museums you can think of. The Cheese Museum, The Tulip Museum, The Museum of Bags and Purses, The Sex Museum, The Museum of Weed, the Science Museum (NEMO), the Heineken Experience, The Diamond museum, and many more. While these are the less important museums, they are cheaper (sometimes free) and worth a visit to educate yourself on random facts of cheese and purses.

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Besides the many museums, coffeeshops, and stores, Amsterdam is beautiful to walk through. The city is aligned with apartments resembling dollhouses, as if a dozen little girls had constructed the city to their liking. It is cute, clean, small, and a little bit romantic with canals giving the city a feel of Venice. Dam Square, where tourists mainly reside, is the center of shopping, restaurants, pastry shops, and your half way point to the Red District.

Accidentally stumbling upon the Red District, we did not think that the legal prostitutes would be present on display through the glass windows, but alas they were.

Shocked and uncomfortable, I stared at the barely clothed woman but then quickly looked away, almost afraid. Hearing about it is something, but experiencing it for yourself is unreal. I kept looking up to make sure that my eyes were not deceiving me and I would quickly look away out of respect- but this was their job! It was hard to believe and my least favorite part of Amsterdam.

Amsterdam was a culture shock more than anything else. The city was beautiful and liberal. Not ashamed of ‘light’ drugs or prostitution, the people seem happy, friendly, and enjoy life as it comes.

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P.S: The total amount of bikes exceeds the amount of people and cars combined.

Köszönöm Budapest!

Window seat is always the best seat because you’re given a view of your final destination. A rare bird’s eye view of a careful constructed land with tiny roofs, streams of rivers, and the endless amount of greenery. Before we had descended under the clouds, the sun was shining across the white thick fluffy marshmallows. The pilot eases the plane through the clouds and you’re engulfed with sudden white fog with little streams of sunlight forcing their way through the thick mist. Finally you’re given your bird’s eye view of Budapest.

I had no idea what to expect of Budapest. It isn’t talked about much and it does not hold the usual appeal of simply stating “Let’s go to Paris!”, but Budapest is an underrated city. Driving through the city in a taxi, I was taken away by the historical architecture and how different it was from typical European style. It was more traditional and eye-catching, even in the dreary and gloomy weather, Budapest shined through.

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There was Buda and there was Pest (pronounced pesht by the Hungarians) with the unification of the two cities, it became Budapest. There was no grand civil war for these two cities to unite, it was just purely for population reasons. The Chain Bridge unified the two cities allowing transportation of vehicles and pedestrians to access one or the other. The Chain Bridge itself is another sight to behold. Tall and grand with it’s faded grey color, you are given the treat of having a marvelous view everywhere you turn. Looking forward you see Buda, looking back you see Pest, and looking left or right you see the river that separates the unified city.

Upon arriving in Buda, the Buda Castle takes over your attention. I was awed at the beauty of it. Simple construction of parallelism, the castle stands tall on top of a mountain, and you are given the pleasure of taking a tram or walking up to the castle itself. As a college student, we took the free stairs and enjoyed the harsh struggle of reaching atop of the mountain. In the end of course it is all worth it because you’re given yet another unique view of Pest and you can’t believe that this city can hold so much beauty. The Parliament stands proudly among the city with the night lights casting a gorgeous yellow glow on it enhancing it’s architectural beauty.

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To get a view of both Buda and Pest, we hiked up the Gellért Hill and visited Budapest’s Statue of Liberty; a tall and graceful woman reaching out to the heavens with wheat in her hands. The view is overwhelmingly beautiful with the perfect panoramic view of Budapest.

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One of the many traditional activities to do while in Budapest, is to take a bath. After our long two days of exploring as much as Budapest in a short amount of time, we took the metro to Kirâly; one the cheaper coed baths. As the smell is not the most appealing in the world, once you dip yourself into the lukewarm mineral water, your muscles begin to relax and your skin rejuvenates with energy. To maintain an equal amount of temperature for your body, there are three baths. Cold to help cool your skin off after the hot tub, a hot one to relax your sore muscles, and the main one to cleanse your body.

My friends and I after sitting in the hot bath for too long, ventured out to discover a hot tub outside in the middle of a square. It was the perfect combination of warm water and cool air to create a sleepy atmosphere of laziness and content happiness.

While Budapest is an emulate city with its incredible views, the food and people do not disappoint. Getting lost in a city and conversing with locals are what travelers do. As we navigated our way through streets of Budapest using a map given to us from the hostel, we wanted to confirm our direction and so we would ask multiple people. Every single Hungarian that we conversed with, spoke with a charming smile and a willingness to assist us on our adventure.

With the unlimited amount of puns one can create with Hungary and hungry, the food lives up to comedic word play. Some of the traditional foods that we had the blessing of dining consist of duck with a side of mashed potatoes and cabbage, goulash soup, chicken paprikash, rantott sajt (fried cheese) with blueberries, and lángos (fried dough). If you thought Italian cuisine was the best in the world, you thought wrong. The food is simple yet mouthwatering with every bite because you can’t believe that your taste buds haven’t experienced something this good.

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To end our short weekend trip in Budapest, we visited The Shoes on the Danube River Memorial where the Jews were forced to remove their shoes and be shot into the river by the fascist during World War II. On the slightly sunny day in Budapest, I sat in silence and honored the early history of Budapest.

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Sí, ouí, sí

Friday January 30th.

7:00a.m. Alarm disturbs my sleep. I snooze it and remove my earplugs so that I don’t fall back to bed.

7:20a.m. I force my eyes open and finally get up. I roll my shades up and look outside. Pitch black and pouring rain. Dang. Maybe they cancelled it?

7:40a.m. I check my email. The excursion is still happening.

8:00a.m. I meet my friends outside of my apartment. The cold freezes the tips of my fingers and the rain splatters against my glasses. We walk together and the wind pulls and tugs at us and I’m almost blown over the bridge. At this point, an umbrella is pointless.

8:20a.m. We are warmer on the bus. Complaints float all around and I join in. But we are reminded that it is an hour bus ride. We’re all cheerful and soon the bus grows quiet.

9:30sih The sky foggy with tints of grey and a ray of gloomy sun welcomes us to Bayona, Francia. I’m mesmerized that it takes an hour to enter a new country where it can take four hours from D.C. to New York City.

I breathe out and watch my own breath evaporate in the French air. You can tell that it is France. The land is old with stone buildings and narrow streets. A massive tall church stands in the middle of the square. It isn’t a typical church…there’s no cross in sight.

11:15a.m. In our free time, we enter bakeries and cafes looking for the perfect spot to stay warm and away from the on&off drizzle. We indulge in the delicacies of real French macaroons and croissants. We’re free to explore the little shoppes that sell old vinyl from around Europe, homemade cheeses, World War 2 artifacts, homemade jams and chocolates, handcrafted jewelry, and a variety of novels.

We venture out to the mini market of fish, meats, sweets, vegetables, fruits, teas, and crepes. The smells intertwine with one another, overwhelming the sensitive nose. And yet I take it all in and perk up at the smell of fresh food.

12:45p.m. We regroup and enjoy a French meal. We’re all finally warm and willingly peel off our damp jackets.

First course: Two red peppers stuffed with rice or crab? Can’t tell. They’re smothered in a rich creamy sauce. Once the peppers are devoured, I take a piece of cold bread and continue to enjoy the sauce.

Second course: Boneless chicken and rice drizzled with a warm red tomato sauce. Once I’ve delicately completed my meal, I clean the plate with some more  cold french baguettes.

Final course: Chocolate cake with a side of homemade whipped cream. I slice the cake with my spoon and a surprise of chocolate syrup comes pouring out like an erupted volcano.

3:45p.m. The bus drives us through the town of Biarritz. It is pouring outside and we’re all terrified of leaving the bus. We watch the ocean conceal its sand with its massive waves. We are warned to stay away from the waves.

3:55p.m. A group of us stand in front of the crashing waves and snap a phew pictures.

4:00p.m. We visit a Casino to make use of its toilets.

4:10p.m. We look for souvenirs to kill the time. We ask a lady where the souvenir shop is. Her response: They aren’t common here.

4:20p.m. We waste time looking at charming stores even in the bitter weather.

4:30p.m. We reside in a coffee shop and I treat myself to a giant white macadamia cookie.

4:45p.m. We regroup and trail back to the bus with our umbrellas held high above our heads. We laugh and talk and catch up on our adventures. We all know that rain was just apart of the experience.

5:00p.m. Everyone takes a siesta.

7:00p.m. We’re dropped off and sent back to our apartments and host families.

11:30p.m. Karaoke begins.

 

 

 

Domingo pasó con Pablo

Sundays are the universal days to relax, sleep in, and catch up with family and friends. January 18, 2015, I woke up around 12:30, rested and ready for a lazy day. I rolled the shutters up allowing a stream of misty light into my room. Opening my door, my host family were all in their own rooms watching television, reading, etc. I grabbed an apple and a glass of water and returned to my room leaving the door open.

I went on my laptop, checked my email, watched an episode of Gilmore Girls on Netflix and  studied the map of Bilbao. Once lunch was called around 2:30/3, myself and the host family gathered around the table to eat. The main course was a pasta dish with a light white sauce and chopped carrots. The dish was splendid and opened a conversation with the host family talking about my own family, typical Spanish food, the times I normally eat my meals, and of course the usual bickering of the kids arguing over the correct use of “know” vs “now”.

Pablo, the host father, offered to take me on a mini tour of Bilbao after his siesta. I was beyond excited! After finishing my episode of Gilmore Girls, I got ready just in time to get my own personal guide to show me the beautiful yet small city.

We walked down the apartment stairs and out into the chill air. “Do you want to walk or take the motorcycle?”

I looked at Pablo confused, as if I didn’t hear him correctly. I’ve always wanted to ride on the back of a motorcycle and I knew that this would probably be my only chance. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to annoy Pablo so I told him it was up to him. He smiled at me and urged us to take the motorcycle.

Putting our helmets on, I didn’t feel the least bit scared. I was in my own world and had completely forgotten my entire situation of studying abroad. I hopped on behind him and held onto his shoulders, preparing myself to fly off at any moment. Pulling the motorcycle out of its parking spot, Pablo sped through the city. I held on looking at Bilbao in a new perspective. The ride itself was smooth and easy, but the adrenaline rush I felt was indescribable. The cold wind whisking at my face, leaning on the turns, feeling the movement of the vehicle; I felt cool.

The tour itself was given to me while riding shot gun in Pablo’s tiny blue European car. We drove to the old industrial part of Bilbao, Pablo explaining to me the history of the city.

Bilbao at first was an industrial city, booming with various types of metals that would be shipped by giant ships globally. The old part of the city was flooded though and Bilbao lost a lot of its economic status. So most of Bilbao is recently new, its main touristic attraction being the Guggenheim Museum. He explained to me how things before weren’t there but were built recently, such as the ZubiZuri Bridge, Deusto Bridge, and other important landmarks.

We drove to Getxo, the beach town of the Biscay province. He explained to me how the Ria de Bilbao river divided the poor, Portugalete, and the rich, Las Arenas. But a bridge was built between them allowing cars and people to be transported between the two classes. The Vizcaya bridge was designed by Alberto Palacio, a pupil of Stephen Sauvestre. The design is similar to that of the Eiffel Tower; with what looks to be complex metal intertwining with thin red poles, is actually a simple, yet artistic masterpiece.

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We then drove through Las Arenas, a town full of beautiful rich detailed homes that are unbelievably large in size. The houses are all unique in their own ways of style and color, yet they compliment one another in their aura of wealth.

We drove along the river where a torn down castle once belonged to a father who had built the grand terrace for his handicap son. He built it so that his son could see the ocean from their home.

While that story touched my heart, Pablo then drove us to another view where you can see Bilbao to your left and the blue ocean to your right. If you stand at the very edge, you can see the ocean right there.

“This is a very romantic spot. I once read in the newspaper about a couple who were married for 25 years drove to this exact place. They sat in the car but the husband asked his wife to hold on. He got out of the car and pushed it over the edge, right into the ocean!”

I gaped at Pablo in disbelief, my eyes basically out of their sockets.

“And the wife lived!”

I cracked up at that point. The story was awful but ridiculous!

At the end of our adventure, we had hot chocolate and Coca-Cola at a bar of a restaurant where I showed Pablo pictures of my own experience of Bilbao. We then drove back to the apartment discussing the politics, economics, issues, and history of the Basque country. All along the ride, Pablo would crack corny jokes like any other dad would.

 

Valiente

Upon reaching a decision on my study abroad, learning a new language was a main factor. You have to ask yourself, “what do you want to gain?” All study abroad programs will give you independence, a new experience, an education, and an opportunity of a lifetime. It’s the details that matter. The culture, setting, weather, food, people, location, plays important factors in making a choice that you do not want to regret.

Learning a new language and going beyond my comfort zone were two of my main reasons to study abroad.

Upon arriving in Bilbao, Spain I was greeted by my host parents, Teresa and Pablo, and was immediately kissed on the cheek by them, their neighbor, and other family members. I just hoped that I didn’t look as tired as I felt.

Pablo assisted me with my 48 pound bag and we took the bus to their apartment. At the apartment, a humble and cozy place, I was greeted by the eldest daughter, Maria, and their adorable schnauzer, Nico. After settling into my room filled with collectable mini cars, I tried to keep myself awake so I wouldn’t have a hard time adjusting to the new time zone. While unpacking my clothes, I almost fell into my luggage from utter exhaustion. So I indulged in the delicacy of my first siesta.

Three hours later I was refreshed and ready to open my door and meet the hosts that I would be staying with for five months.

At the dinner table, I met Isabel, 16, and Pablo, 13. At my first Spanish dinner, we ate chicken, bread, and salad. The family were polite to me, speaking in English, they asked me basic questions about my interests, studies, and my own family.

Still adjusting to this new culture, I noticed in the next few days, the food became more and more interesting. My favorite are these sandwiches with a type of mayo spread on them, turkey, cheese, and a sunny side up egg. Simple, yet so delicious.

At first, the family would treat me as a guest in the sense that they refused to let me do the dishes, they acted quietly and politely, and they made sure that everyone would speak English. The more time I spent with them, the more they cracked out of their shells. The kids argued in front of me with no shame, I was allowed to clean after myself, I could make jokes and they would laugh at them. Relationships are being built with each of the family members. I am no longer a guest in their home, I’ve been promoted to a companion.

 

Hola de España¡

I arrived to Bilbao on Thursday, January 8 2015 roughly around 12:40. Traveling by yourself for the first time is one the most exhilarating feelings, and yet of course theres a reminder in the back of your head that you are responsible for yourself. Passport, tickets, bags…check! Once all the essentials are gathered, you are one step closer to a different world.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I pack weeks ahead of my departure date, and yet when you are preparing yourself for a 5 month travel, you can’t help but want to take your entire room with you. The process is stressful with the limit to a 50lb check-in-bag, a carry on, and a personal bag. Exactly how am I supposed to fit my life in such a restraining space? Let your dad pack for you.

Hardest part of leaving for so long, is saying goodbye to friends and family. But it’s also your parent’s co-workers and your friend’s parents that are all awaiting your return. Your friends make the effort to come and see you. They plan lunches, dinners, and events and thats when you suddenly realize the amount of love and care they have in their hearts.

But seeing your parents linger around you so that they don’t forget your subtle movements, the smell of your hair, or your crooked smile. You can’t help but to feel as if this whole study abroad extravaganza  was a terrible idea. Your parents are over encouraging to let you explore the world as an independent, but it’s the hardest on them to let you go.

At the airport, your parents act like you aren’t there to ensure themselves that you’ll arrive to destination B with ease. Once it’s time to officially say bye, you bite your lip mentally screaming at yourself NOT to cry, but tears swell up and fall down but your laughing at the same time because your family are the only people who know how to make you feel better.

In Bilbao, you’re exhausted from the layovers but you’re greeted by your host family and you attempt at conversation but at this point, you can’t even remember your first name.

You’re situated in your new home, meeting your host siblings and you can’t help but to feel like an invasion of their space no matter how welcoming they are. But once again, it’s only an adjustment. You break the barrier by finding similar interests such as football, films, Beyonce, Formula1 racing, and the love of food.

Orientation. Finally you’re surround by people that are in the same boat as you. Clueless in this new foreign land. You talk to everyone, ask the same questions, and just hope that you’ll find your set of friends. Once that’s completed, nothing can stop you from having an amazing time.