Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: A Year in Travel

Though I moved back home to the States in 2015, before that I actually did a LOT of traveling. After finishing my Master's degree in Spain, I took off on a 6-week trip that spanned six new countries on two continents. I saw so many new places, learned so many new things...and then never wrote a word about any of it.

"Why not?" you may be wondering. I have no good answer to that question, or at least none that makes me feel good about myself. I wanted to, but I was overwhelmed. I tried to, but I felt too sad and uninspired to write. And then it was months later, there was so much to do to catch up, and it just felt easier to write about the present than to scrounge up the past.

But what is New Years for, if not to remember the best parts of the previous year, and hope to top them in the next one?

So without further ado, a remembrance of all the beautiful trips I took in 2015, as I dream of the places I might go in the year to come.

I actually started off 2015 abroad, celebrating by myself in an Airbnb in Nîmes, France and lamenting that the French don't know how to party like Spaniards do. I ate 12 raisins at midnight, a testament both to the Spanish tradition and the fact that there weren't any grapes to be found in the French Carrefour at that time of year.

Next up was an ill-fated trip to Marseille, which I hated despite its beauty. I was once again staying in an Airbnb, this time with an older French couple who seemed to go out of their way to make me feel subordinate and uncomfortable. "C'est pas mangeable," they said about the (apparently inferior quality) bread and cheese I had brought to share with them at dinnertime, "It's inedible." They took me to see the calanques (fjords) the next day, then spent the entire time talking to each other about people I didn't know, kissing, giggling, and ignoring me.

I was glad to get out on my own exploring downtown Marseille the next day, even if they had scared me with warnings about how I would almost certainly get my pockets picked by "foreigners" (whatever that means) and to not stray outside the heavily touristed areas. I appreciated their intent to help, but was even happier the following day when I could escape their unpleasant company and get back to my own place in Alcalá de Henares. 

In Alcalá, I watched la cabalgata de los reyes (the Three Kings Day parade) on my way back to my apartment, and appreciated running into my little students on the streets, their eyes lit up from the magic of seeing their idols (and their version of Santa Claus) in person. Then I headed home and celebrated myself, with pizza and ice cream! 

The next few months were filled with little international travel, as my weekends became devoted to writing my thesis and planning interactive lessons. But I still managed to have some little adventures, like hiking the madrileñan mountains a few times in El Escorial and Cercedilla, and exploring the downtown of Madrid, a city I'd always disliked but which was beginning to grow on me.

El Escorial


The mountains of Alcalá

Winter in El Retiro, Madrid

I even got away for a few weekends, on short trips to see the casas colgadas de Cuenca (the hanging houses of Cuenca), and a return visit to Segovia's Roman aqueduct. As much as I would have hated to admit it at the time, there are some really stunning spots within a few hours' drive of Madrid! 

Finally, in April I was able to return "home," or at least to the place where a large piece of my heart will always reside--Galicia. Eating delicious seafood, hearing sing-songy galego in my ears, standing on rocky cliffs and feeling the sharp salty sting of the sea's cool breeze--it meant so much, will always mean so much, for me to be back there, even if only for a short time. 

In April I was also able to see Madrid through new eyes, as I showed it to a friend visiting from Germany. I had never realized until that very moment, as I was walking her around town and saying "This is where I...Over there my friends and I...," just how many memories I had really made in Madrid over the years. Inadvertently, while claiming to hate it all the time, I had actually grown quite fond of Madrid, where so many different things had happened to me! 

Spanish kings

Madrid's Plaza Mayor

In May I had another weekend getaway, this time to Cataluña and my very first blogging conference--TBEX. While there, my eyes were opened to a whole new world of professional bloggers. I explored a little, learned a lot, made a few connections, but mostly ate and ate and ate until I couldn't eat any more. Open buffets are dangerous, y'all. 

Everyone was impressed with my intimate knowledge of queimada, a Galician specialty! 
(thanks to Linda for the picture)

Later in the month, I also got to go away for a few days on a field trip with several hundred of my students, again to the mountains surrounding Madrid. Mostly these few days were spent eating until I was ready to burst, then napping, but we did also do some hiking in the flower-covered hills.

Somehow, I don't know how, in the midst of all of this (which seems like a lot now, though it didn't at the time), I was able to finish my thesis, get through all my coursework, finish teaching, and graduate! Our June graduation from one of Spain's oldest universities was held in the same room where el rey, the King of Spain, gives away the Cervantes prize for literature each year. Our certificates may not hold quite the same prestige worldwide, but it still meant a lot to me!


A toast: to graduation!!

As June drew to a close, I set off on my 6-week adventure, first meeting my parents in Copenhagen. From there, a side trip to Malmö, Sweden was in order. Both were beautiful, but we soon realized that these Nordic countries were costing us ridiculous amounts--$80 for a shared meal at a Mexican restaurant was enough to send us packing! 

Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark

Malmö's town hall

Where did we go but another Nordic country (silly, I know)--Finland! At least we were back on the Euro, but we couldn't figure out anything beyond kiitos (thank you) in one of the more difficult languages on the European continent. We enjoyed ourselves, but I felt silly for going to a country with expansive wilderness and then only seeing the capital city! Next time, next time. 

Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral

From there we took a ferry to the magical fairyland (see what I did there?) of Tallinn, Estonia. Suddenly everything seemed ten times more beautiful than it had in the countries we had visited previously, and exploring the walled city felt at times like being in Disney's Epcot--too beautiful to be real. 

I was loathe to leave Tallinn after such a short few days, but another new country was calling us, and this time we took a bus to Riga, Latvia.  The name "Latvia" to me always conjures up images of people in monochrome clothes, living their lives in crumbling-yet-uniform Soviet apartment blocks. And yet, the architecture in Riga would not have been out-of-place anywhere in Germany! Riga was full of surprises, not least when my mother and I went into a Russian Orthodox Cathedral to admire the beautiful paintwork and got accidentally caught up in a service. We had to don headscarves and quickly stand and emulate the people making the sign of the cross, bowing facing the priest as he moved about the room swinging incense. Eventually we bowed our way out of there, then took a quick selfie to remember the crazy experience!


Vilnius, Lithuania was another surprise, managing to be off-the-wall crazy, delicious, cheap, unique, and yet still somehow a crumbling town straight out of the Italian Renaissance. I enjoyed our time there, but would have liked to have had more time to sit tranquilly in cafés, having a pint and eating potato pancakes covered in sour cream. Still, while in Lithuania we got to see Trakai Castle, one of the more beautiful castles I've seen so far! 

Soon we were on the move again, to Poland, where we learned about the horrors of World War II, took a Crazy Commie tour in a Trabant (a plastic car from communist times), and ate many delicious pierogi. Oh, and saw one of the most gorgeous churches I've ever seen in my life, in Krakow!

Wawel Cathedral, Krakow

After then showing my parents around Alcalá de Henares in some of the hottest temperatures they'd experienced in their lives (45ºC/113ºF, and my apartment without air conditioning!), it was time to say goodbye to them and fly off on my own separate adventure to a new part of the world--Mexico! There I was reunited with my one-and-only wonderful Roomie, who graciously showed me all the best that her country has to offer for two whole weeks. 

To say that Mexico was a shock would be an understatement--from eating delicious tacos al pastor, seeing ancient Mayan ruins, and gossiping about boys with one of my BFFs, to witnessing a terrifying car crash, nearly fainting from heat exhaustion in a Cancun Walmart, and being told that my castellano from Spain makes me sound rude to latinos, México fue una experiencia. 

And then, suddenly, after 6 weeks on the road, living life out of a small backpack, at the end of August I was back in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by the many vestiges of a life once lived there, jobless and with WAY too much free time. 

The next few months saw me do almost zero travel, the farthest I got being a Baha'i temple in Evanston, IL in one direction, and our family farm in Wisconsin in the other, with a stop at a Madison farmer's market in-between. At the farm I did get to ride on my uncle's powered parachute over the countryside, so that was at least something! 

Who knew there were such beautiful things in Evanston??

Madison had pimientos de padrón!

Western Wisconsin=farms forever!

And then, in September I got a job and I REALLY wasn't traveling, except in my own backyard to bike around and shoot fall leaves (and later, snow).

Still, I got to have a cozy Thanksgiving with my big family in a cabin in West Virginia, hosted by ACE Adventure Resorts, hot tubbing and having a fierce cookie competition. 

Lucky for me, even when I'm working all the time, one of my favorite cities in the world is only a short train ride away, and I can go there whenever I please, and the last few months have seen me make a few trips down (though perhaps not as many as I would wish)!

Can you guess which city it is?

I'm so fortunate that when I'm feeling bored or lonely or just in need of a jolt of electricity into my veins, Chicago is always there to wake me up and make me feel alive. At Christmastime this year, I was pleased to be able to check out the Christkindlmarkt in Daley Plaza (and feel at least a little bit like I was back in Europe), see the Nutcracker performed by the Joffrey ballet, and see "my" city decked out in Christmas finery.


As I have plans to spend New Years Eve tonight with old friends in my tiny Illinois village, it looks like Chicago was my last real "trip" of the year. As I look back, I realize I've done an awful lot of traveling in 2015, even though I would characterize it as a rather calm year, filled with lots of work. It's strange, that. As I'm constantly being made aware again and again, it's hard to see the forest for the trees, at least while you're surrounded by them. But as you're exiting, suddenly the majesty of the wide wood settles upon you, and you realize what a great voyage it was to make it all the way through. 

Thanks for accompanying me in my travels this year, and I'll see you all on the other side! 

Feliz año nuevo, bonne année, próspero aninovo, and HAPPY NEW YEAR! 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Delight of My First Real Snowstorm in 5 Years

I've been waiting 5 years for a day like today. Last night, just as I was about to leave work, I spied few big beautiful fluffy snowflakes starting to fall from the sky, so I called the kids over to the window to see. Their gleeful grins and shouts of delight matched my own--the first snow of the year is a magical moment, one that I haven't been able to experience since 2010.

The snow started to fall more thickly as I drove home, flakes obscuring my view and whizzing past the windshield like stars past the Milennium Falcon, and yet I couldn't keep the smile off of my face. Finally, my favorite season is here--winter!

This morning when I woke up, I rushed to my bedroom window to find the scene below transformed, wiped clean, made perfect by the snow. So many times in the years I was away from home I'd dreamed of being able to have that exact moment of waking up to find the world outside blanketed in white, and experiencing it now I felt like a little kid again, made giddy by the snow.

Like Lorelai Gilmore (Gilmore Girls), snow and I have a history that goes WAY back. Some of my life's biggest moments have happened in the snow, including the day I was born. Maybe that's why I feel such a deep connection with snow, but all I know is that it fills my heart with a joy few other things do.

So during those 5 years that I was living in Europe without snow, I tried to appreciate the winter walks on the beach in the sun, or the days I could go outside in no more than just a sweater. But really, my soul was aching for a day like today.

A day where I went downstairs to make myself a hot beverage and found my mom stuffing a turkey and baking Christmas cookies. One where I spent the whole morning in the kitchen with her, licking batter-filled beaters and eating cookies fresh out of the oven. One where I watched the snow fall outside the cozy kitchen, measuring it as the day went on (16 in or 41cm by the time it stopped). One where we were snowed in and felt no pressing need to leave the snug warm house all day long.

I'd been nervous in the past few weeks, anticipating the cold of my first real winter since 2010. But I'd completely forgotten the delight that winter brings, the enjoyment of putting up Christmas lights and drinking hot cocoa and sledding and skiing and building snowmen and spending quality time inside with family.

It's so cliché, but for me it's absolutely true--winter is the most wonderful time of the year, and right now I'm so glad to be at home in this winter wonderland.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Snapshots of Autumns Past and Autumn Present

I've already talked in here about how overly interested I am in autumn colors. Even though those are totally gone here now, I haven't quite gotten over wanting to look at them. The other day, while looking at old photos, I kept going back to the ones that featured beautiful fall scenes in various places I've been in the world, and I really wanted to share (mostly because my wanderlust is pretty epic right now and the only cure seems to be reminding myself of my awesome past travels). But since there are so many lovely autumn vistas from such different points in time, with about a million stories to go along with them, I started to feel overwhelmed about trying to write a blog post that could do them all justice! As I just don't have the ganas to do that at the moment, and since I'd also like to give an idea of how my life is going right now, I'm just going to let you all look at the pretty fall pictures while I give a written snapshot of my lately.

Bermeo, Basque Country (Spain)

Recently, I've been:

Reading: El Príncipe Caspian (Prince Caspian), of the Narnia series, en español. I read all these books when I was a kid and really loved them, so when I found a copy of one in Spanish at the local used bookstore, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to relive old times while also brushing up on my castellano (necessary now that I'm a Spanish teacher)! I don't get a lot of other opportunities to stretch my Spanish vocabulary these days, so I'm glad I'll always have books to help me out.

Somewhere in the Highlands (Scotland)

Listening to: I'm almost embarrassed to admit this...the Frozen soundtrack, en français. What, it's empowering to sing along to Liberée, delivrée as I drive to work, and at least I'm not forgetting all the French I once knew! Can't help being a #languagenerd4life (plus, you know, a regular nerd as well).

Denali National Park, Alaska (USA)

Worrying about: How to get good, cheap health insurance in the States. I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but after living in Europe for 5 years I've become used to not paying an arm and a leg to maintain my health. This is one of the things that drives me craziest about America, that nobody seems to have figured this out here yet. Yes, Obamacare is trying to make things better, but even that is confusing and kind of a mess. Help?

Vigo, Galicia (Spain)

Trying to: Properly equip myself for the coming winter. I have to spend several hours outside every day now for work, and while we've had suerte with the weather so far, the forecast says it may snow sometime in the next week. On the one hand, YAY pretty snow, on the other, OH NO I don't have any good boots and wet frozen feet are the worst. Boo.

Stratford-Upon-Avon (England)

Watching: Jane the Virgin. The reintroduction of Netflix into my life has brought a sudden burst of knowledge about currently popular TV shows. While in Europe, I barely watched TV and never had any idea about what the good new shows were, but now that I'm back and consumerism has invaded my life, I've become addicted to shows like Jane the Virgin. I feel both silly that I'm so into a dramatic telenovela and at the same time completely invested in what crazy incidents next week's show will bring. At least one of the characters only speaks in Spanish, so I'm technically practicing?

Bayona, Galicia (Spain)

Eating: Kielbasa. I've been very into Polish things lately, after my second visit to the country this past summer. It was a nice way to connect with my roots, as I, like so many Illinoisians, have a certain amount of Polish ancestry. Since that is a common ethnicity in this area, there are a fair number of traditional Polish goods in the grocery stores here. So I've been stuffing my face to my heart's content with kielbasa (Polish sausage) and not thinking twice about it.

Porto (Portugal)

Craving: real bread, good coffee, tortilla española, crunchy müesli, and a million more things! There is just nowhere around here that can make a baguette that tastes anything like actual bread. American sliced bread is just so...sugary! I'd really love a crusty slice of fresh warm baguette with some beurre salé spread on top. Oh, that's another thing...good butter! We always want what we can't have, I know. Last year at this time I desperately wanted a piece of real deep-dish pizza. Now all I can think about is quality European food made with fresh ingredients. C'est la vie. 

Cañones do Sil, Galicia (Spain)

Missing: My friends over on the other side of the pond. I have good friends here too, of course, but a lot of Americans just don't identify with my stories about voyaging through Europe and speaking foreign languages, and I miss seeing the people that I shared good times with over there. I don't know when I'll be back on that continent again, unfortunately, but maybe I can convince some of them to come visit me over here?

Reykjavik (Iceland)

Wishing: I could figure out how to validate my Master's from abroad in the United States. I swear to god, if this process were any less organized or streamlined, I would think I was back in Spain! None of it makes any sense and every time I try to figure anything out I get super overwhelmed by the inconsistent and unclear information and have to stop before I start hyperventilating. Fun fun.

Saint-Malo, Bretagne (France)

Planning: Some fun personalized gifts for Christmas. Yes, already! Creating interesting gifts takes time, and I am nothing if not a perfectionist. I just hope I can get them all done before the big day. Only 38 days to go!

Munich, Bavaria (Germany)

Grateful: I have my family around to support me during this transition period. Without them, I'd be in serious trouble, so I can't thank them enough for helping me get on my feet while I adjust to being back in the States.

Munich, Bavaria (Germany)

Waiting for: The pretty snow to come and cover up all the ugly bare trees and dead grass. Yes, the snow will be cold and wet and a pain to clean off my car before work in the dark, but it will improve the outdoor aesthetic so much! Plus, then it'll be possible to go snowboarding and make snowmen and all those other wonderful winter activities!

Passau, Bavaria (Germany)

Excited about: A Thanksgiving trip to visit my sister in West Virginia. Of course, I've been there many times before, but I'm really excited to have a chance to do even the most miniscule amount of traveling. It will be so nice to break routine for a few days and see some new scenery, as well as spend time with family!

Salzburg (Austria)

Loving: Having access to a car again. Freedom! It's so wonderful to not have to beg your friends to take you places, or try to figure out cheap public transportation options to get anywhere, or walk dozens of kilometers with heavy groceries in hand.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria (Germany)

Wanting: A new camera. I'm thinking about finally taking the plunge and buying myself a nice DSLR camera sometime soon, once I save up enough money. I'm excited to play with all the fun settings and to finally be able to take the pictures I've been trying to force my point-and-shoot to take for years!

El Escorial, Madrid (Spain)

Hoping: I can squeeze some more travels in sometime between now and the end of May (when the school year finishes). I spend half my time nowadays drooling over other people's travel pictures, and I feel like if I don't get out somewhere new in the next few months, I'll burst!

Phoenix, Arizona (USA)

Feeling: Saddened by all the violence happening lately around the world. While it's hard to imagine terrorists attacking France, a country so near to my heart, it is also hard to know that there are other attacks every day around the world being ignored by the media. It's also scary to think that all this terrorism may only beget more violence and retaliations, more families torn apart, more blood thoughtlessly shed. I wish it were easier for us as humans to overcome our differences in race, religion, language, and nationality. I wish it were easier to forgive the mistakes of the past. But I fear that things may only get worse, and that makes me very sad.

How is your lately?