Saturday, December 20, 2014

2014 in Review

As per usual, every year I set a NYResolution to write more in my blog...and every year it seems like I get worse and worse with keeping up with it.  But one post that I always try to make time for, if not in my blog then at least in a handwritten journal, is my end of the year reflections.  This year was an especially important year for me in a lot of ways, so here are five breakdowns of my best and worst.

1. Love and Heartbreak
This is the first time I've ever written about my love life on my blog, but as it had such a huge impact on my life and my growth as a person this year, it would be counterproductive to moving on to 2015 to leave it out.  After casually dating (or barely dating at all) basically since high school, in February I met someone who completely altered my life and view on love.  Always being the cynic, scoffing at friends 'in love' or overly affectionate couples in the street, and even worse always dating people I already knew would bore me, I was knocked flat by what I began feeling for this person in just a matter of days.  We had an extremely intense relationship, squeezing what felt like years into months.  When the inevitable end came when he made a last minute move to Germany, I was devastated.  As he left my apartment for the last time, I went from living the highest high of my life to the lowest low with the closing of an elevator door.
After everything I experienced, and now that I am finally over the hump of heartbreak 7 months later, I can finally look back and appreciate it for all the ways that relationship allowed me to live an amazing new experience, and in doing so, make me a more empathetic person.  It's hard to understand people in love when you have never felt it for yourself.  I also see all the flaws that relationship had and understand more now about what I need and want, and what things are non-negotiables.  Despite a lot of hard feelings I had towards this person for a long time, I honestly wish him the best in his life, and I'm ready and happy to close that door.

2. Friendship
This year I realized some really important things about the friendships in my life and how distance really, truly makes no difference.  Most of my best friends in the entire world I get to see once a year or less, but every time I see them I feel my love for these people is just as strong or even stronger than the last time we were together.  I also chose to cut a few people out of my life who were once part of my friend circles or who I once even considered to be people who would be my friends for the rest of my life.  These weren't even conscious decisions, to be honest.  It was more so that at some point I didn't even have to think about it to realize these people were just no longer worth my time or efforts.   I also learned that all friendships have their flaws, and you don't always have to agree or get along with even the people you know are your friends for life.  If you can look past the disagreements and still feel a strong bond with a person, this for me may even be the best sign of friendship.

3. Bad Luck
I CAN'T WAIT to be able to write an end of the year post and NOT mention my perpetual bad luck. For the 3rd consecutive year I had something stolen from me here while living in Madrid!  The count so far is one bag, one computer, one wallet, and two phones.  This is why I can't have nice things.

I moved out of an apartment with the world's worst roommate right at the beginning of 2014 into another place with the world's most awkward roommate.  Just to give a small idea, I had a date over for dinner at the apartment one night and while we were eating a nice almost romantic dinner, my roommate came in and brought his own dinner and sat down at the {very small} table with us.  Talk about mood killer.

And of course, to end the year off JUST RIGHT, I broke my ankle about 2 weeks ago.  Anyone who's known me since middle school knows this was a long time coming, however in the last two months I've been doing more exercise than I have since leaving high school, so how on earth I break my ankle walking through a crosswalk I HAVE NO IDEA.

4. An Epic Summer
Sorry, not sorry, but I have to take a moment to brag about a summer for the books.  My parents came to visit for two weeks at the end of June and I loved having them here, getting to show them around Madrid and taking a trip together to Ireland, not to mention having someone else footing the bill for a time.  Then I "worked" tutoring in the mornings for a month, moved out of that awkward apartment and a generous and lovely friend let me crash her place for a few weeks before I went on my first solo trip.  After spending 3 days in Belgrade with my friend Aleksandra, I went to Dubrovnik, Croatia all on my own.  I'd been dying to go to Croatia and I finally got tired of waiting for someone else to accompany me, so in an attempt to also get some much needed personal reflection and mental health repair time (see #1), I pushed my nerves aside and planned a week there.  This was one of my favorite trips ever and I am now 100% convinced on solo travel.  It was so easy to meet other people and I was a lot more open than I would have been had I gone with other friends.  It reminded me about all the things I first fell in love with about traveling, not to mention Dubrovnik met all my very, very high expectations and even took me beyond what I hoped to experience.
Then, in September I attended my friend Mary's fairytale wedding in the French countryside.  Such a love-filled, beautiful, and romantic weekend reconnecting with two good friends from college.  And then I closed off my summer with a weekend in Munich at Oktoberfest - a big checkmark off my bucket list.  It's everything you would expect - boisterous, traditional, and full of massive, heavy pints of BIER...and cleavage.

5. Work 
In a rare moment for me, I came to one very firm decision this year which is that I will not be continuing with BEDA Auxiliares for a 4th year during the 2015-2016 school year.  This has normally been one of my most difficult decisions in the past two years, but throughout the course of 2014 I realized that yes, I am finally finished being a teacher's assistant.  I love my school and seeing all my incredibly funny and painfully cute kiddos, so I know that saying goodbye and closing this chapter in June is going to be very emotional.  As for what's next, that remains to be seen in 2014.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Lands of Bikes & Blondes

Last month I embarked on my 4th consecutive Spring Break trip, this year to Scandinavia (Sweden and Denmark)!  This was the trip that almost wasn't.  My heart had been set since early this Fall on spending 10 days in Turkey but as the months went by, my flight tracking was producing terrible results-- nothing less than 500 euros that didn't include a flight less than 24hrs.  The plan was to reunite with my friend Aleksandra who I hadn't seen since I visited her in Macedonia the first summer I spent in Spain in 2011.  In the end we picked Scandinavia because we both knew a fair amount of people studying or living there that we could meet up with.  I will spare the rest of the details, but in short because of financial reasons neither of us were sure until practically the week of if we would be going, but it all worked out in the end!  The worst part of getting ready for this trip was that as I was packing my WINTER COAT, the weather in Spain was finally moving fast away from "winter".  But in a rare twist of luck for me, we had great weather and only had 2 days where it rained.

In Sweden, I spent 2 nights with a friend from Moldova who studied at UWEC for a year (as the story goes with 99% of my friends abroad).  She is doing her masters in Lund, a tiny University town across the sea from Denmark.  It is very small and cute and I quickly realized you could see everything there was in 2 hours.  That wasn't too helpful when I was trying to spend an afternoon out of her dorm to give her some time to focus on her thesis.  After 45 minutes listening to a choir and orchestra rehearse in the town cathedral, an hour wandering up and down the same empty streets (at a snail's pace...I think even the Spanish would have been whizzing by me), and 30 minutes sitting on a bench reading a magazine article about new condom design ideas... I was cold and bored and needed to return to social interaction.  Swedish people, at least in Lund, are exactly how you imagine: BLONDE. EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON.  I have never seen so many yellow-white blonde heads in my life.  Blondes on bikes, blondes on bikes, blondes on bikes.  The biking culture is amazing.  More on that in a minute.

Lund streets

Stayed warm and entertained listening to their rehearsal

Seas and seas of bikes!

Aleksandra arrived on the 2nd night and the following morning we headed to Copenhagen.  We stayed at the Copenhagen Downtown Hostel, an excellent place that I would recommend with flying colors.  They offered an amazing breakfast buffet for around 50 krone, which is the cheapest breakfast you will find in the city, and you cannot beat the selection they offer.  If you've stayed in youth hostels that offer breakfast, you know that the selection is 9 times out of 10 annoyingly underwhelming.  This would have you fooled into thinking you were staying in a 4 star hotel.  There was also free dinner each night, plus a great social area mixed with a bar/restaurant and very friendly and helpful staff.

I can say I knew nothing about Denmark, and Copenhagen, before I went.  We joined the free walking tour (which I am now a loyal fan of, despite my "no plan" travel philosophy) and I got a speed lesson on Danish culture and history.  The main thing that I am (still) fascinated and in love with is the tax system.  Pay attention, my American readers.  According to our guide, the LOWEST tax bracket pays around 39% income tax, while the highest could be somewhere around 60.  Yes, you read those numbers correctly.  How un-American!!  Those high numbers guarantee that EVERY SINGLE PERSON has access to FREE higher education and FREE health care.  Free. Everyone. Forever.  Recently, the government took a poll of the Danish people asking if they would like their taxes lowered, to which the majority said no.  Learning this information made my American blood boil...because I was thinking about the crippling affects the trillions of dollars of student loan debt is having on my generation and the negative effect that will inevitably leave on the economy.  Not only that, but recently I had a conversation with my mom about the lack of care my grandpa is receiving at his assisted living home.  I said to her "If you can get him on a plane, send him here.  It's free."  Isn't it amazing that the "freest" nation on the planet leaves its people in invisible chains?

Sash and I in front of New Harbor in Copenhagen, one of Hans Christian Andersen's points of inspiration

Rosenberg Castle in Copenhagen

That's a REAL Danish pastry
After a couple days in Copenhagen, we took an hour ferry ride to visit Aleksandra's friend, Sandra, in Aarhus, another small University city in the north of Denmark.  Aarhus was great.  We got a chance to delve into the bike culture by using the free bikes they have placed throughout the city center.  Bike lanes back home have nothing on the Danish bike lanes.  They are very well designed and you do not feel unsafe at all riding side by side motor vehicles.  On streets that have higher traffic, there are separate lanes off the road and also apart from the sidewalk so you have no real fear of pedestrians becoming obstacles either.  We spent one whole day biking to the deer park, the beach, around the city, as well as a couple trips to and from Sandra's apartment (4km from the center).  This was the first trip I think I can safely say I got in better shape, especially compared to my trip to Munich where I wouldn't have been surprised to not fit in the airplane seat on the way home.

Getting cozy with the freely roaming deer in the Aarhus Deer Park
Bike time!

We watched a Viking club train for their Viking fighting competitions

Sun, cookies, and some coffee is really all I need for a great vaca

If it weren't for the weather and what I perceived to be a cold and closed attitude from Danish people, this would be a top destination for me to relocate to.  I think it's amazing that people are willing to overlook a percentage on their tax form because they can see the bigger picture of the benefit that comes from a nation full of well educated and healthy people who care about helping their neighbor without needing to know what's in it for them.  I can think of one big blob of land to the west that could really learn something from that.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lisbon, My Love

In December I took a semi-impromptu weekend trip to Lisbon, Portugal with my friend David just before Christmas.  After an intensely busy month and the holidays just around the corner, I was exhausted and thought a trip was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had already committed and it was the first trip David and I have done together, so there was no way I could justify backing out.

Best. Decision. Ever.

At one of the many city lookout points
Lisbon is, in a word, AMAZING. Cheap food and accommodation, breathtaking views, bursting with romance, and full of the nicest people.  To get there we opted to use BlaBlaCar, which is a ride sharing website where people can post trips they are taking by car and find others who need a ride to the same areas.  David has used it several times for trips to the south of Spain, but for me it was the first time and I would 100% recommend it to anyone. It was the same cost as taking the bus, but saved us almost 3 hours, the company was better, and it's obviously a lot more comfortable.  My parents thought I was practically hitchhiking when I told them and looked at me with their "You did what!?" eyes, but I tried explaining that it's a legitimate and reliable website and I'm not as crazy as they think.  UWEC and many universities in the states have similar "ride boards", which I used more than once while in college to get a little extra gas money for trips to Madison.  
Arriving fairly late on Friday night and starving, our goal after locating our hostel was to find food.  In typical bad tourist fashion, we ended up eating at an Italian restaurant (in Portugal) but simply out of pure desperation.  Being unsure whether or not the Portuguese culture stays up as late as the Spanish, we didn't want to risk restaurants closing while we tried to find something Portuguese in a place we had never been before, so we went straight to the first thing we stumbled on.  But we can't be as bad as the couple sitting at the table next to us...who were Italian. C'mon guys, really?

On Saturday, the weather was sunny and glowing making this already enchanting city even more beautiful.  Add the Christmas decorations from rooftop to sidewalk and it was next to impossible not to fall in love with Lisbon.  David and I have really opposite travel styles, which I was nervous about when we started the trip because incompatibility when it comes to travel can ruin even the best of friendships.  Luckily I was mentally prepared, and am a very flexible traveller despite my anti-tourism attitude, so we spent the entire day doing not one but two of Sandeman's Free Walking Tours with a splendid Spanish guide from Granada.  I definitely recommend if not Sandemans then any kind of walking tour in a city you have limited time in.  It cuts down the time you waste trying to find things on your own.  I'm usually a big fan of wandering, but the fact is when you have a lot to see and only 2 days to do it, a walking tour lets you see all of it through someone who knows exactly how and where to go.  Plus it helps you become familiar with the city to make your own exploring easier afterwards.
That night we made a reservation at a restaurant called Chapito after it was recommended to us by one of the guys in the car from Madrid and also our tour guide.  

Located on top of one of Lisbon's many hills (it's not known as the City of Seven Hills for nothing), it's a bar and restaurant inside a clown school. Yes, a clown school.  From the outside it doesn't look like anything spectacular, but once we went inside through the jewelry store, we were greeted by a mysterious woman offering free samples of chocolate liqueur "love" potions.  Once we escaped her (which was hard because those potions were damn good and her voice was so enchanting...), dim mood lighting by dangling chandeliers and garden lights, wooden stairs and open air seating (for the summer) led us inside the restaurant where we were seated next to the windowed patio overlooking the city.  After we got over the shock of the menu prices, we spent our first hour justifying them by commenting on the amazing view.  The food was equally as satisfying.  We went for the dinner hour, but if I could have a do-over, I would definitely love to go at sunset.

Some succulent duck leg
Wine is a girl's best friend

The following day we ventured a little farther out of the center to Belém so David could take pictures in front of his precious historical monuments, like this one: 
The Belem Tower never looked so sexy
For me, it was all about the pasteles de Belém, custard filled pastries topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar.  In fact, it seems that Belém is famous for these delicious little delights.  The pastry shop Pasteis de Belém is named for them and they have been a staple since the mid 1800's.  A coffee and sweet treat for only a couple euros you say? Where do I wait in line?
No, I did not eat all four myself...although it would have been easy
 We had planned to spend our last day taking the train out to Sintra, a small village with an incredible castle (Palacio da Pena) straight out of every kid's Disney fantasy.  I was looking forward to this the entire weekend.  So of course it would rain.  The heavy fog made it almost impossible to appreciate the colorful towers and intricate design and I won't lie, I complained about it like a pouty brat the entire time we were there.  Give me a break-- I spend a lot of time with toddlers.  If you click the link, you will understand my disappointment.  Here's the best photo I could manage:

I fell head over heels for Lisbon.  It's the Mediterranean lifestyle without the harsh personalities you sometimes find in Madrid, not to mention exponentially better views.  And let me assure you as a girl who never fantasizes about weddings or proposals, if either of those things are in my future, the latter better happen in Lisbon.  It's the only way to the former.
Lisbon, my love, I will be back soon. Wait for me.