A Weekend in the North: Bilbao, Spain

Bilbao, Spain

“You have to go to the north. You have to go to Bilbao.”

These are one of the phrases I heard most from Iván, a native vasco and my speaking partner at college. As part of the Spanish program at Drake, each student was put into a small group with 2-4 other students and assigned three hours a week of conversation practice. These sessions with Iván did wonders for my spoken Spanish — he was a dedicated and friendly teacher who always had plenty to say. And, as a typical vasco, much of that had to do with selling us on the merits of northern Spain, including the food, the sights, and the landscape. (Also, every abuelito in Bilbao wears a beret, as I was soon to discover. I loved this.)

For some reason, though, I never made it to northern Spain while I was studying abroad. When I moved to Madrid in September, I promised myself I’d finally visit Bilbao. We had a long weekend in early December, so Jo, Kaitlin, Lauren and I hopped the high-speed train and headed north.

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November in Review

I swooned. He gave me two guitar picks. Everything was wonderful.

The Tallest Man on Earth: I swooned. He gave me two guitar picks. Everything was wonderful.

I’ve been trying to avoid writing one of these “Sorry for not blogging, this is everything I’ve done in the past month!” posts, but November really got away from me. I had good intentions and thought I’d be able to get individual posts down about each respective activity, but I just don’t think I’ll have time. So this will have to do. (Besides, I know you’re all just dying for information.)

Here’s how I spent November in Spain:

I went to concerts.

The National: Cara loves the National, so when we heard they were playing the Palacio Vistalegre in Madrid, we decided to buy tickets. They were €50, which was a bit on the expensive side, but the show was incredible and worth every céntimo — even for a new fan like me. They had amazing energy and we had fun the entire time.

Daughter: I bought tickets to see Daughter way back in August, and I almost forgot about them. Thankfully I didn’t, because their show was amazing, too. They’re a British band who just released their first full-length album this fall. The concert was pretty low-key, but the music was gorgeous. As a bonus, we were also able to get pretty close to the stage, although I have no photo evidence because my Spanish phone has the worst camera I’ve ever seen.

The Tallest Man on Earth: This was definitely my favorite show of the three, and also one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. My slightly corny story about The Tallest Man on Earth is that I started listening to him when I was studying abroad, so I really liked that I got to finally see him live now that I’m back in Spain. I’m a big nerd and know almost every word to every song.

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The Problem(s) with my Spanish Bilingual School

This is actually a typical conversation you might have with one of my students.

This is actually a typical conversation you might have with one of my students.

I’ve been debating whether or not to write this post  — especially because I’m not sure I’m “qualified” to write it. But then again, I’m not qualified to be a teacher and here I am. My intent for this post is not to blindly criticize, but to provide a comparison and critique of and/or have a venting sesh about the illogical classroom practices I see every day.

I understand that this is a different country and a different system, but I’m frustrated. And I want to talk about it.

I’d like to present a few disclaimers/basic facts before I start:

  • I’m not an expert on this system. If you disagree or if you have any other insights I’ve missed, please post them in the comments. I’m always open to a friendly discussion.
  • Yes, I’m American and, yes, I know our school system has plenty of problems of its own. I’m not writing this because I want to sit around and say “Our system is the best. The end. Amurica.” Because, while I did have a great public school education, there’s so much reform and work to be done, especially in our schools with less resources.
  • There are bad teachers everywhere. I recognize that. In high school I had an economics teacher who literally read the newspaper while we did worksheets or copied the textbook. One time we watched Bee Movie, because supply and demand of honey I guess. (?) We all suffered and, needless to say, I learned very little about economics. I did learn, however, that Bee Movie = two hours of my life I’ll never get back.

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A Visit to Snowy Segovia

Segovia Featured Image

One of the best things about living in Madrid is its location. Spain’s capital city is almost exactly in the middle of the country, which makes it temptingly easy to travel. Segovia, Spain is just a half-hour train ride from Madrid, so my co-auxiliares and I decided to take a day trip to see the city and its famous Roman aqueduct.

Quick Link: Getting to Segovia

Segovia, Spain in November

The snowy hillside from inside the train.

We woke up to a weather forecast of clouds and 1° C (35° F) on my trusty RTVE app, but that didn’t stop us. We packed scarves and hats and, after a leisurely we’re-so-late sprint through the Chamartín train station, we caught the train to Segovia. The trip takes just 30 minutes, but the weather and scenery is dramatically different from Madrid. When we came out of the first tunnel, we were thrilled to see rolling hills and — surprise! — a dusting of snow.

You might not know this about me, but I absolutely love snow. Even though there was less than an inch on the ground, I was really, really excited. Actually, we all were: Cara and Jo are both from Australia, and it doesn’t snow too often there.

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The Truth About Living Abroad

Estanque del Retiro

El Parque del Retiro.

I’ve been struggling with the fact that I live in Madrid.

I don’t mean “struggle” in the negative, how-can-I-go-on sense of the word, but in the sense that I can’t quite believe I’m here. Even though I’ve been here for two months already, I still oscillate between random moments of Spain-fueled elation and a deepening sense of normalcy.

I realized the other day that I’ve been boxing the majority of my Spanish activities and purchases into this strange new “temporary” category of my life. Things you might typically hear me say include:

  • “I’m not going to buy that because I can’t take it home in June.” (I’ve never been on a sadder trip to Ikea.)
  • “I’ll just wait to replace my laptop battery until I go back to the States.” (My battery recently took a turn for the worse and now has less energy than Lana del Rey.)
  • “I don’t need to get a coffee maker. I can survive on green tea.” (Hahaha who am I?)

Over the past two weeks, though, it’s dawned on me that maybe my life in Spain isn’t so temporary after all. I’ve started purchasing scented candles and tacking up posters with reckless abandon. I even bought a throw pillow. (Talk about putting down roots.)

My newfound sense of permanence made me start thinking about what it means to live abroad. It’s a fact that my days in Spain are numbered — I have a job contract and a visa to prove it —  and I know I want to make the most of my time here. But it’s hard for me to decide what I’m supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis. Is it okay to stay in and read a book on a Friday night, or is that “not taking advantage” of my time in Spain? Should I instead dedicate my free hours toward the quintessential expat quest for new tastes, new sights, and new sounds?

The bare-bones truth (drumroll, please) is that I’m doing many of the same things I’d be doing back home, just in a foreign country. Whether that’s what I’m supposed to be doing or not.

Which brings me to my first point:

It’s not all tapas and siestas, kids.

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Alicante: Off the Beaten Path in Spain

Alicante's Castillo de Santa Bárbara

The Mediterranean Sea from Alicante’s Castillo de Santa Bárbara.

As many (most?) of you know, I studied abroad in Alicante, Spain in 2011.

I’m doing some travel writing for Lucerna Media, and my first assignment was a budget travelogue about my favorite Costa Blanca city. (Which was ideal, since I was definitely on a budget when I lived there.)

Alicante isn’t the most well-known city in Spain, but it has much more to offer than you might think — that is, if you know where to look.

Check out my travelogue to discover my favorite sights, restaurants, and bars in Alicante.

The Concise Spain Survival Guide

Guide to living in Spain, Spain Survival Guide
Spain Lesson 1:

Even though you purchased them, you cannot take glass water bottles with you.  Everyone will get mad.

That’s right, folks. Not only do you have to pay €2-3 for your bottle of water, but you have to give the bottle back. This is precisely why I always order wine.

Spain Lesson 2:

Cheap restaurants like 100 Montaditos, Lizarrán, and La Sureña are the poor man’s (or woman’s) friend. Want to drink a huge mug of tinto de verano for €1.50? (Or €1 on Wednesdays/Sundays?) 100 Montaditos is your place. Want to get 5 bottles of beer for €3? Go to La Sureña.

You can even get Chipotle-style burritos at Tierra Burrito Bar (pictured below; metros Alonso Martínez and Guzmán el Bueno) for a reasonable €6.

I like to eat, so I really like this about Madrid.

Spain Lesson 3:

All fruit you wish to purchase must be weighed by the Official Fruit-Weigher. They don’t always have scales at the cash registers, so the fruit-buying process looks like this:

  • Step 1: Put on the plastic gloves that are provided for you. (You’ll know to do this because there are 30 million “POR FAVOR, USAD LAS GUANTES” signs everywhere.)
  • Step 2: Pick out the fruit/vegetables you want and put them in separate bags.
  • Step 3: Bring all fruit/vegetables to the Official Fruit-Weigher. He’ll weigh them and put a barcode sticker on each bag.
  • Step 4: Walk away with your produce.
  • Step 5: Congratulate yourself because you know how to do yet another Spain thing.

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