Return to the Motherland

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Madrid’s Plaza Mayor.

Looks like I’ve officially joined the masses of sporadic bloggers. We should all form a sorry-guys-but-life-is-just-crazy-right-now society or something. We can sit around at Starbucks in our yoga pants. It will be rad.

Anyway, I have a good excuse. (I swear!) I just got back to the U.S. on the 11th, so I’ve been overcoming jet lag/unpacking/going through weird reverse culture shock since then. Things that have surprised me include:

  • One-dollar bills are really bulky. The other day I thought I had $20, but I really just had 6 one-dollar bills. I have a new appreciation for the Sacagawea dollar coins.
  • Toilets flush via a handle on the side. In most of Europe, there’s a button on top of the tank or a plunger that you pull up. For some reason that was really confusing to me for the first week home.
  • We have to drive everywhere.
  • Grocery stores. Our grocery stores are huge and have an enormous selection of items. I missed that.
  • Free water. I’m consistently surprised by those random glasses of water that appear on the table. “Is that really mine?” I whisper, eyes gleaming at such a beautiful sight.
  • Everyone understands everything I say. It’s funny, but I have a hard time talking to people when I buy things or order food. I spoke the majority of my Spanish that way, and it’s really unnerving that people here understand me with such clarity. (On that note, I can no longer use English as a secret language.)
  • A beer at a restaurant costs at least $4. Thank goodness I have all those dollar bills.

Overall, though, it’s been good to be home. I was sort of gloomy and unhappy for the first few days, especially since I didn’t really have much to do and was waking up at 6 a.m. every day. I don’t do very well without some sort of life plan, so I’ve shed a few frustrated tears and indulged in my fair share of emotional eating. I spent the first couple days here cleaning my room and purging all my old clothes to make room for my two 50-pound suitcases.

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An Afternoon at el Mercado de Motores

A vintage stand at El Mercado de Motores.

A vintage stand at El Mercado de Motores.

You probably don’t know this about me because it’s nerdy and I keep it to myself, but I like transportation. No, I don’t have elaborate model train sets in my basement or hundreds of hand-painted balsa wood airplanes. But I get a kick out of efficient transport systems, especially public transportation or high-speed trains.

So, imagine my happiness when I discovered that there’s a market in Madrid’s Museo del Ferrocarril. Trains and a market? Is this heaven?

On the first weekend of the month, artists and antiquarians set up their stands alongside centenarian steam trains and art deco train cars. They peddle their artisan, vintage and gourmet goods while live music plays on the terrace outside.

I wasn’t sure what to expect — I was picturing something more akin to El Rastro, which is fun, but in the same way junk-filled rummage sales are fun. Upon arrival to the Mercado de Motores, however, I was immediately impressed by all the beautiful things for sale. The museum’s main depot area hosts the hand-made and artisan goods, while the space outside the museum is filled with antique and vintage finds. You can even hop on a miniature steam train, but only if you’re accompanying a child. We learned that the hard way.

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What’s Keeping Me Up At Night

And here we are, in June. It’s part of the block-lettered expiration date on my Spanish residency card, yet I somehow never thought it would arrive — it always seemed like some distant, intangible construct of time. In Madrid, its arrival has been quiet and understated, marked by warm breezes and long, sunny days. Madrileños and tourists alike are flocking to the city’s countless terraces and plazas, making each barrio hum with laughter and clinking glasses. Summer is here, and everything is as it should be. Except for my growing feelings of indecision and doubt.

I’ve been keeping my plans quiet because I’m still not sure what they are, but here goes: at the last minute, I decided to renew my position here in Madrid. I adore this city, thanks to its endless supply of museums, restaurants, nightlife, terrazas, and concerts. I love speaking Spanish, and I’ve made some wonderful friends from all over the world.

That said, I don’t think I’m coming back. Why, dear readers?

For the past seven months, I spent nearly six hours a week repeating 50 basic questions to hordes of second-graders. The goal was to prepare them for the notorious Trinity exam, but most of them only memorized the questions and the proper responses since the teacher never taught them what the questions meant in the first place.

I work with teachers who constantly tell me they haven’t planned anything, and that’s okay because we can just look at the book right now. The other day, one English teacher told me that she doesn’t like English. Nay, it goes further: she wishes everyone in the world spoke one language because it’s “inconvenient to learn other languages.”

And then there are the kids themselves, many of whom are so talkative and disrespectful that I can’t teach them anything. I’m forced to spend half the class period trying to keep them quiet while the teacher sits on the computer or leaves the room entirely.

Don’t get me wrong, some of my classes are good. Fun, even. (Read: Only my classes with teachers who prepare coursework and control the students’ behavior fall into this category.) I adore all of the first-graders, most of the second- and third-graders, and even a few of the fifth-graders. Sometimes we do special projects or help with holidays, which is usually a good time. But the teachers I work most closely with are so frustrating that I’m not sure I could handle another year.

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Planning a Trip to Cinque Terre

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Buongiorno, Vernazza.

When I planned my trip to Cinque Terre, I had a surprisingly difficult time finding information on where to stay, what to do, and how to get there. This might have to do with the fact that Cinque Terre is still a relatively up-and-coming destination, and there aren’t that many places to stay since the villages are so small. So, I wanted to use my experiences to create a cohesive guide to visiting Cinque Terre.

What is Cinque Terre?

The phrase Cinque Terre, or “Five Lands” in English, refers to the five villages that form part of the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. The national park encompasses both the land surrounding the villages and a protected marine area. It’s also dotted with miles of hiking trails of varying difficulty. The villages — Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore — are relatively close together and connected by ferry, train, and trails, so you can easily customize your visit to your own travel preferences.

We stayed in Riomaggiore, one of the larger villages. We chose to stay there we’d read it has plenty to do and places to eat (ahem, gelato), but it’s also less touristy than the better-known villages of Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza.

We spent four days and three nights total in Riomaggiore, which I’d say is the minimum amount of time needed to really experience the Cinque Terre. I’d recommend five days and four nights to really enjoy everything the villages have to offer. We didn’t want to leave!

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Cinque Terre: Four Days in the Five Lands

Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Vernazza, one of the five villages that form Cinque Terre.

March and April have both been a whirlwind. Between three separate family visits and two other trips with friends, I have a lot of catching up to do! (I keep saying I won’t do this to myself. I’m a masochistic blogger, apparently.)

In the middle of March, I realized I had a free weekend between the last day of school and the day my family arrived. My destination? The five quaint and colorful villages on the northwestern coast of Italy, known collectively as Cinque Terre. I’ve wanted to go ever since two of my friends made the trip during our semester abroad in Alicante. I asked Jo to come along, and, after a little research, we booked tickets to Milan on everyone’s favorite low-cost airline. I couldn’t wait to see the beautiful place I’d heard so much about.

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London, Part 2: Pho, Missed Trains & Winston Churchill

Big Ben and a double-decker bus.

Big Ben and a double-decker bus.

Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, and Parliament

After the Apple Store, we visited the Apple Market and had a coffee break in Covent Garden. We walked to Trafalgar Square, where Lauren bought two disposable cameras to compensate for her broken iPhone. (We have yet to see those photos, but I have high hopes for them.) We enjoyed the blue skies while we strolled past Big Ben and Parliament, then we caught a bus to Picadilly Circus. We sat on the top deck, of course. It was kind of thrilling.

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London, Part 1: The Tower, Afternoon Tea & Late-Night Dinosaurs

Telephone Booth London, England

Sterotypical, but so fun.

Two weekends ago, Lauren and I jetted off to London. And we absolutely loved it. We ate (a lot), we drank (a responsible amount, of course), we saw the sights, and we visited museums.

Since we flew Ryanair, “jetted off” makes our flight sound a lot more glamorous than it really was. Unless you enjoy listening to your Spanish co-passengers block the aisles while negotiating with each other because they all must sit together or doom at the expense of an on-time departure. But hey, Ryanair got us to London and they got us there for 80 euros round-trip.

We caught the Express Airport Bus to Barajas because our flight left at 6:10, and neither the Metro nor the Cercanías could get us there on time. After having our passports stamped by Ryanair’s minions, we headed to the gate where we sat on the floor, vigilantly guarding our places in the boarding line.

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