Los Países Bajos – The Netherlands

IMG_5189I had high expectations for my first trip outside of Spain and Amsterdam did not disappoint. When my USC Madrid friends and I landed, my dear friend Ellie greeted us. She and I are both Thetas at USC so I was thrilled to be traveling with her.

We made our way to Bob’s Youth Hostel to kick off a very full weekend. Let’s just say I don’t know who Bob is, but I’m not sure if I would recommend his hostel. Our room was situated atop three unimaginably steep staircases, but the room itself was clean, and that’s what’s most important.

10551041_10152707173348589_1911780208403330387_nWe heard that, among many things, Amsterdam is famous for its pancakes. We tried confirming this with some Dutch people, but they made it seem that it was an American rumor and pancakes aren’t even that Dutch. Regardless, we enjoyed the pancakes all the same. At The Pancake Bakery,  Ellie and I split one savory and one sweet. Dutch pancakes are similar to crepes in thickness, but are larger like the size of pizzas.

Our traveling group consisted of Reed, IMG_5200Janice, Alden and me from Madrid and Ellie and her friend Stephanie from London. We spent the rest of the day wandering the city’s canals, stopping for dinner at a place called Getto. It’s part burger joint, part bar, part club and part drag show. We took advantage of its first two functions, though each burger was named after a drag show diva.

That evening we visited the Red Light District. Photos aren’t permitted unless you want to be harassed by large bouncers. Even if they were allowed, I would not have wanted to take one. Some of the scantily-clad women in the windows framed by red neon lights were posing provocatively or gesturing toward potential clients, while others looked terribly bored and stared at or talked on their phones. It was an unusual and uncomfortable experience. Though it wouldn’t have been a trip to Amsterdam without passing through, I don’t feel the need to visit the Red Light District again should I return to Amsterdam in the future.

Day Two began early. After a scenic walk through the canals laced with morning fog, we got in line for the Anne Frank House. Walking through the house took about one hour. It is hard to put into words the sense of emotion, pain and Canal - 2/13/15history that fill the walls. I was moved to tears a few times during the self-guided tour. Some of Anne’s original diaries are on display, along with other artifacts. There are interviews with people who helped Anne and her family evade the Nazis for two years. You can watch video clips of her father, the only member of the family who survived the concentration camps. Anne died about one month before the camps were liberated.

From one landmark to the next, we headed to the Rijksmuseum, where we met up with Tenaya and Elena, two other Thetas studying in Amsterdam. We took the obligatory photos in front of the “I amsterdam” letters before heading insideOutside the Rijksmusem - 2/14/15. For such a large museum, I was underwhelmed. The works were cold and dark, communicating the subjects’ sadness caused by the harsh weather conditions. I am beginning to prefer the warmth and colors of Southern European painting, but I did enjoy seeing Van Gogh’s self-portrait and Vermeer’s Milkmaid. Across the Museumplein plaza is the Van Gogh museum, which we didn’t have time to visit. You can’t do it all!

We finished that evening and the next morning with a combination of walking, taking photos in front of every canal in sight, eating, experiencing some of Amsterdam’s nightlife, and a spontaneous visit to a Dutch cheese shop and museum.

Amsterdam is a city like no other I have ever visited. A cityIMG_5249 of concentric semi-circular canals growing from the city center, the quaint Dutch architecture of the buildings lining the canals enchanted me. I found the Dutch people to be kind and helpful, and if you didn’t gather already, the food was divine. It was a wonderful weekend with even better friends in a city I certainly hope to visit again.

Click here for more pictures from Amsterdam!

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Gran Granada – Great Granada

My weekend in Granada marked my first trip outside of Madrid. We were traveling in a group of 10 so it was almost a miracle that we all made it to the estación de autobuses to catch our 8:00 am bus. The trip lasted cinco horas, but between good conversation, cat naps and admiring the diverse Spanish landscape, time passed quickly.

IMG_5153We arrived by lunchtime and checked into Hostel Dolce Vita. It marked my first time staying in a hostel, which means I am now an official study abroad student. We occupied two rooms. One room was entirely our group and the other, my room, had four of us along with two strangers. An Italian man was our roommate for one night and was replaced by a Argentine woman, but our two night roomie was a character named Bernard – more on him later.

The main event Friday was touring the Alhambra. A palace and fortress built in the late 9th century, the Alhambra is situated high upon a hilltop. The views of Andalucía from the palace were magnificent and were only surpassed by the incredibly detailed Moorish and Spanish arquitectura of the Alhambra itself. I marvelled at the intricate columns, arches, vaulted ceilings and muquarnas.  My favorite parts of the tour were either the reflecting pools and gardens or the plazas lined with scalloped columns.

We started off Day 2 walking through the streets lined with colorful buildings, making our way to the gypsy community of Sacromonte. Janice, Reed, Alden, Alayna and I made a pit stop at a cafe we found along the way. After sitting in a quaint garden patio and nourshing ourselves with tapas y bebidas, we pressed on, but not before taking a selfie, of course.
Gloria recommended Sacromonte to me, a neighborhood in the gitano quarter of Granada that sits on the hills across from the Alhambra. We came upon gypsies and their homes, which are actually cuebas, or caves, carved right into the hillside.  After passing through channels of chain link fences and scrap metal halls of the gypsy neighborhood, we made it to an incredible look out over Granada. To our left were the snow-capped Sierra Nevada montañas, to the right was Andalucía and in front of us was the Alhambra.
We spent the afternoon eating our way through the streets of Granada, stopping in bars and restaurants for meriendas and more tapas. Janice, our resident foodie, recommended we visit Rey Fernando to sample piononos, the local dessert. They were about the size of a large marshmallow and were made of a doughy cylindrical pastry coated in two different kinds of syrup and topped with toasted cream, giving the dessert a sweet and rich flavor. That was not our only stop at Rey Fernando.

In Madrid, none of us are able to cook in a kitchen so we took advantage of the small cocina in Dolce Vita and made ourselves dinner. We prepared chicken, pasta, peas, fajita-style veggies, salad and bread. Our group dined around the hostel’s communal table, enjoying each others’ company and sharing highlights of the weekend thus far.

IMG_5151Once some of our group peeled off, other hostel guests filled their spots. That’s when we learned about Bernard, the kind of person you’re meant to meet in a hostel. Bernard, a 50-something from Oakland, worked as a consultant for many years until he was let go. Though he said he could have argued his dismissal as age discrimination, he realized being fired is the best thing that could have happened since he identified himself as “a cog in the machine, man.” He took the severance and came to Spain to tackle the Camino de Santiago, a pilrgimage through Spain that some say is life-changing and others say is overrated. He plans to complete the trek in 51 days, walking at least 27 kilometers per day. Good luck, Bernard!

The morning of our departure, we enjoyed breakfastOur group walking through Granada - 2/6/15
and one last stroll through town. Though I was there for less than 72 hours, I noted some differences between Madrid and Granada. Granada was más pequeña and a bit sleepier – places closed earlier and opened later. The Granadans seemed more laid-back than the urban Madrileños and their accents differed. It was interesting to me to identify regional differences among Spaniards. I look forward to my future trips to the east (Valencia), west (Extremadura) and hopefully north (Barcelona) of Spain to learn more about the country and its people. What a great first weekend out of Madrid!

Aprovechar – To Make The Most Of

 Aprovechar. What a great word. It means to make the most of and it has been the mantra of my time abroad. I strive to make the most of each day and take advantage of opportunities available to me. This week, marking my third abroad, provided me with unmatched experiences, sights and, as always, adventures. (There aren’t too many pictures, but I promise more are to come in the next post!)

Remembering the pleasure of last week’s afternoon in Retiro, I went back, but this time for urban exercise. Outfitted in running leggings, two shirts, a jacket, another jacket and an ear warmer, I was ready for my corrida. Admittedly, I underestimated the perimeter track distance of Retiro and the second jacket was a little excessive, but I when I finished my run, I had completed almost 2/13 of a maratón!

Santiago Bernabéu Stadium - 2/3/15My current project of assimilating into the cultura of Madrid made tremendous strides when I toured and loved El Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Ten days ago you asked me if I was a fan of soccer, the world’s favorite sport, I would have responded, “nope”. But the anti-soccer Kimberly is a woman of the past. After touring the impressive stadium built in 1947 and witnessing firsthand the century-old storied legacy of Real Madrid Club de Fútbol, I was hooked. You could feel a century of support for a team pouring out of every seat, wall and hallway.

We saw the stadium from every angle. We climbed to the top deck and saw all 81,044 seats . We toured the halls that celebrated Real Madrid’s countless wins, trophies and other shiny achievements whose significances I will never truly know. We watched goose bump-inducing highlight videos with incredibly fit (and handsome) athletes running across a field that I still believe to be too big. I didn’t recognize a single player in the footage, except for #7, but  I was ready to leap out of my seat when I saw another goal scored. It was an unexpected sensation to feel an excitement for a sport I had so long thought I disliked. With my newfound love for Real Madrid coursing through my veins, I could barely contain myself when we toured the locker room and then emerged onto the field! When asked, I’ll now identify myself as a Real Madrid fan.

From sports to art, my week was well-rounded. My theatre class attended its first of five live performances of the semester. We went to Teatro Valle-Inclán to watch a production of La Ola. It told the story of a 1967 social experiment that took place in a California high school. The entire performance was in Spanish and my classmates and I were impressed that we followed the entire dialogue with ease.

Lastly, here are some quick takes that have all proved unexpectedly delightful:

First, I took the bus to school! It was a pleasant change to be above ground. I saw more of Madrid and noted some cafes and tiendas I’d like to visit.

Second, I popped by a nail salon one block from my apartment enjoyed a lovely conversation with Natalia, a 29-year-old manicurist from Colombia. Though I was there for no more than half an hour, I never expected that to be one of my most immersive Spanish conversations thus far. We conversed in Spanish the entire time and she helped me with my grammar. I guess I’ll just have to go back for more Spanish lessons, right?

Third, every night at dinner, Ashima and I watch the most amazing Spanish game show, Pasa Palabra. The reigning champion, Luis, a police officer, has won 23 consecutive episodes! It’s a fast-paced, word-based show about trivia, memory and strategy. I don’t think I’ve ever been this invested in an American game show! It baffles me that this show hasn’t made its way to the US.

It’s hard to believe that I did all of this while still going to class. I debate whether I should include more anecdotes on my class discussions and academics, but I don’t think you’re checking out this blog for that…This post doesn’t even touch on my three days in Granada as it would be too lengthy for one read, so check back soon for the latest on my weekend in Andalucía. In the meantime, please enjoy some photos as a preview!