Category Archives: International

Saudade

Portugal.

I had ignorantly thought of the Iberian nation as the jealous little brother of Spain. I used to imagine it looked, sounded and tasted just like its neighbor but with a funny accent and a smaller bite to the wallet.

To say I was wrong would be the understatement of the year.

Portugal is home to heart wrenching Fado music, sweet Port wine and the most beautiful tiled buildings I’ve ever seen in my life. I can still see skyline draped behind a glass of vintage Niepoort and the elongated “s” in words like vamos(h). It was love at first sight and sound. Much like my hometown, Detroit, there are areas that are dilapidated and not quite picturesque. There are streets where the charming white cobblestone becomes cumbersome as they unhinge from the ground beneath you. There are buildings with hand painted tiles cracking and chipping to the point that they could be considered dangerous.

But it’s beautiful. Really Beautiful.

It might even be possible that more people speak English here than in Catalonia. And word to the wise, do not try to speak Spanish here unless you actually are a native speaker and do not know a word of English. It’s a little impolite.

We were lucky enough to see the two most visited cities in the country, that also happen to be rivals — Porto and Lisbon.

In Porto, we learned the Inquisition origins of my favorite Portuguese dish, alheira, and visited the bookstore lauded to be one of the most beautiful shops in the world. Missing the morning tour we had planned on turned out to be a blessing when we decided to climb the Clérigos tower. Not being a regular fan of climbing endless medieval stairs, I must admit this was one of the best parts of the trip. The structure boasts the most beautiful aerial view of the city and it does not dissappoint! And thankfully, great physical effort deserves great libations. We quickly learned why it only takes one glass of vinho do porto wine to send you into bliss…ethanol and methanol make a good team. And when the average meal costs only five euros, no wonder JK Rowling wanted to live here…

In Lisbon, our excitement grew exponentially. Big cities always make my eyes grow wide and this one was no different. Above all else, Lisbon has the best chestnuts I’ve ever tasted in my life. Ever. Hands down. And my family makes them every year. They are one of my favorite Mediterranean staples. Trust me, eat them in Portugal. They use something that looks like a North African tagine with two handles to roast them in and a pulverized salt that coats the shell and makes them appear white. Fantastic. I bought a second serving. (And a third.)

I’ve tried to find an adequate explanation of their technique online, but to no avail. Ahh, oh well…assim é a vida. Maybe the mystery is part of its allure.

Rest assured, we did more than just snack in this beautiful city…tram rides, castle explorations, and ginjinha tastings took up most of the day. That night, we walked quizzically down hilly streets and dark alleys until we finally found Tasco do Chico in famed Bairro Alto. The bar had come recommended to us as a great place to listen to local music by many Lisboetas. In the crowded, smoky bar, we didn’t notice anything at first. No stage, no central focal point, no music. Finally, I saw a guitarist just before a woman came to dim the lights. With my history of classical music and vocal performance, I was nothing short of amazed. This was some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard. This was the reason I began singing so long ago.

After three songs, the lights came back on and the crowd whistled. It was truly emotive and truly art.

Our last day was nothing short of somber. Vowing to return and learn portuguese, we sadly departed the country with the momentary satisfaction of knowing we had seen all the customary tourist sites and tasted almost every national delicacy, but still we wanted more.

Portugal is such an enchanting place, they even have a word to describe missing it. Saudade. It means a deep state of nostalgia and longing.

Exactly.

Andorra is for Lovers.

It might seem strange to want to visit a country that has no naval access, no airport, or no train station. A country smaller than the city of Chicago and with less than a hundred thousand inhabitants, total. A country that didn’t get electricity until 1929.

It seems strange until you get there.

Andorra is a tiny, mountain locked community where you’d be hard pressed to find a seat with a bad view. The Pyrenees encase this tiny state like the petals of a tulip. The food is inviting, the people even more so and the scenery could compete with Alpine villages.

Andorra is also a place of conundrums. In a country with the second highest life expectancy in the world, you would not expect tobacco to be their top export, much less cigarette dispensers as abundant as trash receptacles. You do not expect a spa, a place to spoil your body, to be designed and dressed to the nines like a metallic, new age cathedral. You also would not expect an elevator built into the side of a mountain simply to allow easier pedestrian street access.

This is a place, not just for avid snow bunnies, not just for spa-goers, but for travelers. Real travelers.

People who want to go to a place with community pride seeping onto the streets. People who want to be able to wander in a local shop and have a slice of chorizo and garlic waiting for them or watch a local demonstrate how to make syrup from pine cones.

People who are looking for something different.

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A Day in the Life of a Spanish Import…

I begin my day usually with the sound of clinking dishes, pouring water and hearing-impaired television seeping in through my window. I wake up, get dressed and head to class. I take the train because, sadly, I have yet to master the art of telepathic bus riding, as the stops saunter by unannounced. Not a bad tradeoff, though, as I’ve never waited more than three minutes for a train, something every Chicagoan would deem a miracle. A coffee, however, might cost you as much as four whole minutes to perfect.

A half hour and a sixty cent café amb llet later, I am in Economics class. It took eighteen months to get here but I am here. In Barcelona. Finally.

Let me tell you about Spain…The women are golden and curly haired, the men are dark and handsome. Moped riders are almost evenly split between genders, suit-cladden and otherwise, and it seems an almost unwritten law that every home deserves a balcony.  Every morning, the streets are sprayed with water to clean the previous day’s debris at just about the same time the Spaniards return from a night out. These people love to socialize and I am finding it more and more alluring to take the afternoon nap in an effort to keep up with them.

It isn’t out of the ordinary to see some light love making on the beach, nor walk home from Mercadona with a two foot long fuet sausage gently poking out of your bag. It isn’t out of the ordinary to stop what you’re doing at any time for a coffee break, or to hear lions groaning during all hours of class in Ciutadella…another comical reminder that you are not in Kansas anymore. It is strange to be in a hurry here. The Spanish stride is one of observance and existentialism, to put it delicately. Pedestrians of all ages and size stroll the avignudas and carrers gingerly and without a sense of time – tolerable on a Sunday, infuriating on a Monday.

Like most other European cities, alcohol is cheaper than water and a bakery is always within 100 yards. My diet of pan y vino is treating me well so far, but I fear I will need a real salad soon. Does Protein Bar deliver? Dinner before ten simple isn’t Spanish, but my American stomach doesn’t seem to want to cooperate. Snacking is vital.

After a whole day of classes and studying in the Dipòsit de les Aigüesa renovated labrynth of arches designed by Josep Fontserè and calculated by Antoni Gaudi, I head home. Students, couples and tourists accompany me on the commute and I begin to feel like I fit in. Even if its just a little.

Tomorrow is another day. And in Spain that means more tapas, more wine, and more animals roaring to the drone of economic theory.

Oktoberfest

A couchsurfer’s dream, a hosteller’s heaven, a traveller’s most coveted party. The Oktoberfest in Munich is known all over the world. Hoards of people come together every year to one town in Bavaria to do, what else, but drink beer and enjoy themselves. What’s not to like?

This iconic festival originally began as the annual celebration of the wedding of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese in 1810. It was primarily a wine drinking event, until the wine makers could not handle the demand. The beer companies stepped in and have since become the more renowned vendors, creating giant “tents” fashioned as beer halls. The festival has become so popular, as the love for German beer is obviously universal, the city’s population roughly grows by about 5 million people during this time.

What do I have to add to this distinguished drinking festival that I’m sure many, many people already know about?

It’s actually really fun. I mean it. It sounds like a lot of drunken imbeciles and maybe even a few snooty beer snobs, but it’s the complete opposite. Everyone is extremely friendly. No one cares if you don’t speak the same language. No one cares where you come from. No one cares that it’s 10am…it’s time for a stein.

This trip was probably the best I could ever recommend for meeting a wealth of new people from around the world in a short, jovial amount of time. In roughly two days, we met Russians, Czechs, Germans, Canadians, New Zealanders, Italians, and of course, other Americans. It was truly fantastic. Never before have I ever seen that many people, from different backgrounds, congregate in the same place with the same goal – let’s have fun.

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A Rose By Any Other Name…

…would smell as sweet.” Romeo & Juliet.

Shakespeare was right in that no matter what we are called by others or what we choose to call ourselves, neither affects who or what we really are. That doesn’t seem to stop us, though, with good and bad name calling.

As humans, we are constantly identifying ourselves. Whether it be by our race, ethnicity, religion, citizenship, profession, hobby — whatever — we love picking out details about ourselves that we can use to define us. These characteristics make us a part of smaller, special societies, thereby showing our uniqueness in a world of 7 billion people.

I’ve only been in Barcelona for three days and already I’ve been given three new titles. Names that I never thought to call myself but nonetheless, they are accurate and they’re growing on me.

“¡Hablas español bien!

I’ve studied Spanish for over ten years. You’d think I wouldn’t be so nervous to speak with the locals, but alas, my terrible American accent makes me gun shy. However, from years of grammar drills, flashcards, essays and what have you, I do know a lot of vocabulary and can form coherent sentences pretty quickly.

This was said by a Hispanic girl at my hostel. She came into the room and asked a general question out of friendliness, to which I responded in Spanish. She asked where I was from and after I answered, “Los Estados Unidos”, she said that I spoke Spanish very well. Her tone was excited and impressed. Mine was surprised.

Even after years of study, two trips to Hispanic countries and numerous language exchange partners, I still had never thought of myself as a good Spanish speaker. I’ve never called myself fluent nor do I refer to my years of study to anyone unless specifically prompted. I see fluency as the point in which the speaker no longer has to mentally translate each word and my mind is still constantly running during a conversation. I’ve even read that the real turning point in language acquisition is when one starts dreaming in the second (or third) language.

Sadly, this has not happened to me yet.

But that doesn’t mean I should shortchange my abilities just because I’m self conscious. I can read. I can write. I can speak. Puedo hacer todos. I should start acting like it.

“You are all colleagues of each other.”

This may not seem like much, but I had previously only used this term to describe people I worked with. I had thought this phrase only applied to employment settings, so I only used it to describe coworkers.

In general, the academic consensus is that a “colleague” is an associate. Someone with whom you work in the same profession, department or staff. But profession does not implicitly imply a status of employment. “A profession is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training.” A teacher during our courses this week used that phrase to remind us that we are all professionals and colleagues amongst each other. Simply studying the subject at length makes one a professional.

I felt elated and yet a bit confused. This was obviously a compliment but I felt I had not earned it yet. She saw differently. I had to reconcile that I was still a professional regardless of whether or not I have job.

“You’re not a good scientist if you try to agree with everyone to avoid criticism.”

Scientist?! There’s a word I’d never thought of to describe myself. A faculty member this morning said that to be a good social scientist, one must pick a side. A social scientist. She was addressing us as scientists. I couldn’t believe it.

With each new title, I felt more and more confident. They all seemed to infer a certain amount of respect, I thought. In a matter of 72 hours, I had become a professional, bilingual, social scientist. What more could I want? Courage? Conviction?

Even if I don’t believe I can speak well, that doesn’t mean I don’t. Even if I see myself as unqualified that doesn’t mean I’m not. And just because I call myself a student doesn’t mean I’m not a scientist.

Moral of the story: Never undercut yourself or assume the worst. Labels are only good if they help you grow in positive direction, not hold you back.

With so many new hats to wear, who knows if I’ll have time to have a social life. (I’m sure my parents would be happy to know that.)

Who knows what I will become next.

“The world is mine oyster.”

Making the Move…Barcelona

Over two years of dreaming has led to this. Going back and forth with self doubt, planning out my application period, actually applying, and then all the paperwork to legally and financially be able to do this. You would think I would’ve been more prepared to see my adoring parents tear up at the security check point to see me off, but I wasn’t. It still made me sad. Coupled with my own personal anxiety, I definitely needed a beer before that flight.

Twelve hours later…I am sitting in a Starbucks on Consell de Cent just catching an hour of Americana comfort to re-group before adventuring to the cute tapas bar I passed on the way here. I’ve already muddled through my shy Spanish with the cabbie, the hostel’s front desk, and the barista. It’s not pretty, but it works. But isn’t that the motto for most things in life?

Either way, I’m over the moon to be here for a year and truly experience España!

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