Spring in Amsterdam

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Amsterdam, Netherlands

This post is a long time coming. So long, in fact, that it’s almost like when you hide money for yourself, but forget you hid it and find it again three months later. Which makes it more exciting, right?

At the end of March, Lauren and I spent a weekend in Amsterdam. It was a rainy and chilly most of the weekend, but I fell in love anyway. The city is young, vibrant, modern and full of life. It’s full of artsy shops, interesting restaurants and beautiful museums. And I’ve never seen a city that’s so bike-friendly, although joining that biking throng ourselves was a bit nerve-wracking. (Trams + cars + pedestrians + other cyclists = a lot to navigate. I banshee-screamed through intersections more than once.)

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How could you not love it here?

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Me and my yellow bike.

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The 10 Commandments of Apartment Hunting in Spain

Gorgeous illustration of Madrid's barrios by Helena Ecija. See more of her work here.

Gorgeous illustration of Madrid’s barrios by Helena Ecija. Original photo and more of her work here.

I once spent a summer combing through apartment listing websites. Those were a simpler times, when a grainy photo of a terraza or the phrase “gastos incluidos” was enough to get my heart racing. My research quickly turned into an obsession. My friends nearly staged an intervention.

I’d been sending out general interest emails since June, which was completely fruitless. Rooms move so quickly here that I typically received responses to the effect of “Sorry, the room has been taken,” or “Move-in in October? We’re looking for someone for next week.” In fact, 80% of my emails went unanswered.

Compared with a few of my friends, who spent about two weeks in hotels and Airbnbs before they found rooms, my apartment hunt in Madrid was relatively painless. I owe about 70% of that to my trusty planning skills and 30% of that to luck. I arrived in Madrid on a Friday and had three apartment visits scheduled for that afternoon/evening. We had two more the next day, and one on Sunday.

I visited my current apartment on my first day in Spain. We returned the next day to meet the two housemates, and, after an hour-long chat with the girls, I called the landlady to rent the rooms. By Sunday I was settled in my new piso. I’ve spent 10 happy months in my apartment. We’ve had relatively few roommate issues (see number 6) and my neighborhood is perfect for me (see number 5). We have a huge terraza, a large living room, central heat, and two bathrooms. See, you can have it all!

This process can be really stressful, so I’ve put together some tips on finding an apartment. Without further ado, I give you the 10 Commandments of Apartment-Hunting in Spain.

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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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Belgium in Photos: Brussels, Bruges & Ghent

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Vibrant buildings in Bruges’ Markt, or Market Square.

In March, I visited Brussels, Bruges and Ghent with my mom, step-dad and sister. The beer was amazing, the food was delicious, and the architecture was beautiful. We ate Belgian waffles, toted around cones of frites, and enjoyed practicing both our French and Dutch. We learned Belgium is split into Dutch-speaking and French-speaking areas. Brussels, as the capital, is considered a “neutral” zone, where both languages are spoken. (For example, police officers in Brussels always work in pairs: One must be a French-speaker and the other must be a Dutch-speaker.)

While the weather was chilly and rainy, we loved our visit — Bruges especially. Here are some of my favorite photos from our trip.

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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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