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Month: March 2013

Emily Dowling | Paris, France | Post 3

Emily Dowling | Paris, France | Post 3

One of the benefits of living in Europe is that everything feels so close—at any moment, ancient monuments and breathtaking cities are only a brief train ride away. As if the destinations themselves weren’t attractive enough, my study abroad program provides a financial incentive to motivate students to explore France, offering reimbursements for up to 350 euros for travel within France and other Francophone countries. When my friends proposed a weekend getaway to Mont-St-Michel, a mountain-city in Normandy that is reputedly one of the most incredible European destinations, I jumped at the opportunity to enjoy a relaxing, all-expenses paid trip.

When planning a weekend trip, I find myself looking forward to the train ride almost as much as to the ultimate destination. I love the solitude of train rides—the ability to put in headphones, tune out the world, and spend three or four hours watching the landscape change outside of the window. Immediately upon arrival at the Paris Montparnasse station, however, I faced an obstacle to my fantasy trip: I had purchased a ticket online, but needed to redeem the ticket at a kiosk using my credit card. When I attempted to print the ticket, I received a flashing ERREUR message. Panicking, alone in the station, and with only ten minutes until my train departed, I rushed to the ticket counter in the hopes that the folks there could print my ticket. After seeing my worried expression and listening to my frantic, garbled French ranting, the ticket agent started laughing and explained to me the American credit cards did not work at the kiosks, but that she would be happy to print my billet.

Successfully boarding the train with only seconds to spare, I made it to Dol-de-Bretagne—a tiny, adorable town in northern France—in about three hours, then taking a bus to meet my friends at Mont-St-Michel. The Mont is renowned for its incredible location as well as the abbey located on its peak and built during the 11th century. Since Mont-St-Michel is an island, it is only accessible at certain times of the day due to the tide level, and can only be reached by bus or on foot. As we neared the island, the mountain-city suddenly appeared on the horizon—surrounded by miles of water and sand, the Mont rises from the landscape, a winding mountain of stone walls and turrets with the spire ascending towards the blue sky.

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We met at the bottom of the Mont, pausing to take some photos of the amazing scenery, and then passed through the stone arch that serves as the singular entrance to the island. Immediately it felt as though I had left reality and stepped into an ancient, magical realm—with all of the stone buildings and winding uphill passages, I thought for a second that I had walked into the City of Gondor from The Lord of the Rings, and that I would see Gandalf at any moment. After turning and walking up a narrow staircase to a stone balcony overlooking the landscape, we stood speechlessly gazing over the wall, stunned by the beauty of the stretches of sand crossed by currents of water. Once we had fully appreciated the view, we continued to follow the balcony around the periphery of the city, slowly circling higher and higher towards the summit of the island. Every few feet, we saw other narrow staircases that connected to other parts of the island. As we ascended, we could look down at the lichen-covered roofs of the stone houses and peer into the flower-filled courtyards.

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We finally reached the abbey, which was even more magical up close: surrounded by mossy rocks and trees, the church seems to be a product of nature rather than an elaborate human construction.

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Having seen several people walking on the sand, we decided to try to find a passage to the beach. After some searching, we finally found a stone staircase that led right down to the sharp orange rocks lining the water. After braving the endless rain and cold of Paris, it was amazing to finally be on a beach, lounging in the sunlight without a coat or an umbrella. We walked on the sand in a giant circle around the island. After constantly sinking knee-deep in the soft clay, we finally understood why the Mont is covered with signs warning against quicksand and rip currents.

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As the sun began to fall, we started to walk down the tidal pathway to the mainland, stopping periodically to look back at the darkening mountain-city. Looking at the turrets and spires rising into the pink clouds of the sunset and the water glistening in the bay, it was easy for me to understand why the Mont-St-Michel is considered one of the most magical places in the word.

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Ruth Bolster | London, England | Post 3

Ruth Bolster | London, England | Post 3

Close your eyes and think of England.

Of all the thoughts that may have poured into your head, I guarantee that “Tea Time” was one of the first (closely followed by HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Jane Austen, and of course anything steamy that you’d want to associate with the phrase “close your eyes and think of England”). A light meal comprised of finger sandwiches, buttery scones, sweets, and of course, an endless amount of hot, aromatic tea, Afternoon Tea has been a staple of British tradition since the reign of Queen Victoria.

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According to legend, it was Anna, the 7th Dutchess of Bedford, who first popularized Afternoon Tea in the nineteenth century by offering her guests light meals of tea and snacks to hold them over until dinner. During this time, it was customary for those in the upper echelons of society to make breakfast and dinner, which was typically served around eight o’clock in the evening, their two primary meals. Naturally, for the upper classes, an Afternoon Tea served around four o’clock was not only an excuse to socialize and gossip with friends, but was also a means of keeping one’s blood sugar at a reasonable level. Afternoon Tea, also known as Low Tea, became so popular that the lower classes eventually adopted a version of their own, which was known as High Tea. Unlike the upper classes that had the luxury of snacking during prime work hours, the lower classes had to wait until after punching out on the time clock to indulge. High Tea was typically served between the hours of five and seven; because it was considered a substitute for a working-class dinner, it usually featured meats and other heartier fare.

Today, Afternoon Tea is available between the hours of one and five o’clock, and is a tradition enjoyed by people of all classes, at home, in restaurants, and in hotel lounges. The amount of food you receive at Tea certainly presupposes that you skipped lunch; served on a three-tiered platter, these “snacks” typically include scones with clotted cream and jam, assorted bite-sized pieces of cake or tart, and four or five finger sandwiches, which feature flavors such as salmon and butter, cucumber, egg salad, and ham and cheese. Additionally, many hotels and restaurants offer special “Champagne Teas,” which, for a few extra pounds, include a glass of bubbles.

Although Ozzie and Slash are often busy saving the world through the power of Rock and Roll, they always take a break around 4 o'clock for Afternoon Tea.
Although Ozzie and Slash are often busy saving the world through the power of Rock and Roll, they always take a break around 4 o’clock for Afternoon Tea.

Although Tea at some London restaurants carries a hefty price tag—sometimes upwards of £45 per person—it is possible to sip and snack like a fine Victorian lady on a student’s budget if you are willing to search around the internet for great deals. A booking website that allows you to compare Tea prices and menus of upwards of one hundred restaurants and hotels throughout London and the United Kingdom, Afternoontea.co.uk is an invaluable resource for those searching for Teas costing around £15 per person. As a bonus, venues offer deals for those who book through this website, which can either bring the price of your check down by an additional 15 or 20 percent, or get you a complementary glass of Champagne.

Before she got her baby bump and her doctor told her to stay away from caffeinated beverages, Kate Middleton loved tea and drank it every day.
Before she got her baby bump and her doctor told her to stay away from caffeinated beverages, Kate Middleton loved tea and drank it every day.

As someone who has at one point been to Afternoon Tea three times in one week, I like to consider myself a seasoned tea connoisseur. With that assertion, I feel perfectly qualified to give recommendations for some of the most budget-friendly Tea venues in London. Here are a few of my picks:

Strand Palace Hotel

Price: £14.95

Although the Strand Palace does not offer discounts on its Afternoon Tea, the price is already low enough to make it affordable for even the most ardent penny pinchers. Served in the Bar-Lounge, the atmosphere favors eclecticism over pretension—you are just as likely to sit on a couch or a tuffet as you are to sit in a chair at a proper table. However, for what Strand Palace lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in exemplary service. The waitstaff is more than accommodating, cheerfully bringing your party unlimited pots of tea or coffee while seeming as if they genuinely care whether or not you are enjoying your meal. The scones are deliciously moist instead of flaky, and the assorted slices of pound cake, although not incredibly extravagant, are rich and satisfying. Reservations can be made online by emailing [email protected], or by calling 020 7497 4158.

Strand Palace Hotel
Strand Palace Hotel

Kingsway Hall Hotel

Discounted Price through Afternoontea.co.uk: £12.70 (Regular Price: £16.95)

With crisp white table linen, dainty crystal chandeliers that reflect light onto the restaurant’s pale pink walls, and stunning views of the lobby’s grand sweeping staircase, Tea at the Kingsway Hall is as refined and pristine as a Tea should be. Kingsway Hall is particularly accommodating for those with dietary restrictions—in addition to traditional Afternoon Tea, there is a Gluten-Free Tea menu, as well as a Vegetarian Tea menu. Moreover, the waitstaff was particularly gracious when one of our friends who kept kosher asked to substitute her ham-and-cheese for an extra salmon-and-butter sandwich. Although we were only given one pot of tea each, the variety of breads used in making the sandwiches—pumpernickel, wholemeal, and rye—made up for the minor disappointment. The desserts offered to us were excellent, ranging from strawberry cheesecake bites to fruit tarts to miniature éclaires. Yet despite the impressive dessert spread, our party only received one of each offering, causing us to fight over the fruit tart and strawberry cheesecake. Despite this, Tea at the Kingsway Hall is a satisfying experience that will leave you feeling prim and extravagant for relatively little money.

Reservations can be made through AfternoonTea.co.uk or by calling 020 7309 0909.

Lounge at Kingsway Hall.
Lounge at Kingsway Hall.

Kensington Close Hotel

Discounted Price through Afternoontea.co.uk: £12.00 (Regular Price: £28.00)

Tea at the Kensington Close is served in a relaxed yet modern, mirrored lounge with chic blue armchairs and coffee tables. Although it was difficult to get the attention of the waitress who initially served us, the waiter who took over for her halfway through our Tea was very obliging when we asked for additional tarts and after-Tea cappuccinos. To our delight, the waitstaff gave us free reign over their case of Twinings, allowing us to take as many tea bags as we wanted. The tea selection itself made it worth the trip, boasting various Indian teas such as Darjeeling and Assam, fruit infusions such as White Tea and Cranberry, and classics such as Earl Grey and English Breakfast. Reservations can be made through AfternoonTea.co.uk or by calling 087 0751 7770.

Kensington Close Hotel Lounge.
Kensington Close Hotel Lounge.
Jessica Tarantine | Marrakech, Morocco | Post 3

Jessica Tarantine | Marrakech, Morocco | Post 3

There are few phrases that I hate more than “single female traveler.” While I’m fine with the term “traveler,” the words “single” and “female” seem to suggest that it is strange for a woman to travel alone—that she would somehow be less capable of doing so than a single male.

Yet, before I traveled as a single female traveler, I Googled tips for single female travelers religiously. Most of the time, tips for female solo travelers were the same as for everyone else: lock your door, don’t follow people into strange places, look like you know where you are going, say you’re Canadian, etc. These basic tips served me well when I went to Southeast Asia as a solo traveler last summer. So, on my brief trip to Spain and Morocco before heading back to the States over Oxford’s six-week-ish spring break, I assumed that I would be fine. What I found slightly alarming was that various forums and travel sites warned of almost constant harassment. They cautioned that even wearing short sleeved t-shirts could cause unwanted attention. However, after reading several travelers’ accounts, I assumed that this was slightly exaggerated. After all, I was only spending a weekend in Morocco, not taking up residence there.

When I arrived in Marrakech, Morocco’s third largest city, I met the pre-booked transfer to my hostel. I arrived around 11:00 pm and was happy to not be taking a taxi. As in many countries, taxi drivers often overcharge tourists and can be unreliable about dropping you off in the right place.  My hostel, Equity Point, is located in the Medina (or old part) of Marrakech, which has narrow streets that twist and turn and lack street signs. Even equipped with an GPS-enabled phone (i.e., my iPhone), I could not find the hostel on the map, and a taxi driver could not make it all the way to my hostel because of the narrow streets. Thus, it was good that my transfer included a guide to take me to the hostel from the point where the taxi dropped me off—well worth the extra 15 euro.

Wandering around through poorly lit, narrow streets late at night was not near the top of my to-do list.
Wandering around through poorly lit, narrow streets late at night was not near the top of my to-do list.

As soon as I met the driver, I could tell that I was in a drastically different world. The driver—whose name I can not even attempt to pronounce, let alone spell—stopped every few feet to embrace or talk to one of his friends; there was no urgency in his manner. On the way into the Medina, the landscape was vastly different than anything I have ever encountered. Everything seem to be drenched in a reddish-brown powder and all the buildings seemed to be roughly the same height. Indeed, according to local law, no building in Marrakech can be taller than the Koutoubia Mosque.

You can see the Mosque in the background of this photo of Jamaa el Fna Square.
You can see the Mosque in the background of this photo of Jamaa el Fna Square.

When I got out of the taxi, the driver introduced me to the guide who would take me the rest of the way to hostel. After offering me some popcorn, we started off to the hostel. The streets of the Medina were largely empty and quiet. Every so often, the guide would stop to point out the souks (markets) that would be there the next day or the way to Jamaa el Fna, the main square in Marrakech. Despite his best attempts to teach me how to pronounce the various street names, I failed miserably. Luckily, most of the arabic signs were also in French, which made it easier to find my way around.

Eventually, we made it to the hostel. Coming in at only 10 euro a night, the hostel was a steal. Not only located close to the main square, the hostel had also previously been a raid—a mansion converted to a luxury hotel. It boasted a large open central courtyard, a pool, and a free breakfast.

Right outside of my hostel room.
Right outside of my hostel room.

Spending only a little over 48 hours in Marrakech, I went to bed early in preparation of my early start. Like many Western travelers, I found myself awake at 4:00 in the morning due to a loud noise coming in from the streets. My sleep-addled mind only barely recognized it as the call to prayer before heading back to sleep.

The next morning, after a lovely breakfast, I headed out into the Medina. A bit paranoid, I dressed in long pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt. I soon discovered that this was a bit over the top—many tourist were dressed in shorts and skirts. Not even all Moroccan women wear headscarves—overall, it is a very liberal country. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should wear a mini-skirt and a halter top—respect for the local culture is important no matter where you are.

Walking through markets, I felt relatively comfortable. Yes, some woman grabbed my hand in attempt to do some henna, I was often asked where my husband was, and shopkeepers constantly asked me to visit their shop. But a quick “Non, merci” was enough to wave them off.

A street of shops on the way to the main square.
A street of shops on the way to the main square.

The rest of my trip pasted without any unpleasantries. I even got some henna, albeit not in the square. It’s best to get henna done in your hotel, hostel, or an established shop. Some henna artists in the square use dye that contains harmful chemicals.

Henna dye drying.
Henna dye drying.

With a taxi trip from the main square, I was back in the airport.  Overall, it was a pleasant trip and I was happy that the negative accounts didn’t stop me from going.

Yes, there is a cat in the photo.
Yes, there is a cat in the photo.

 

Andrew Jdaydani | Dunedin, New Zealand | Post 2

Andrew Jdaydani | Dunedin, New Zealand | Post 2

Beach..Beach Otago and O-Week!

After making my way back from a hectic week of settling into my new home and traveling around New Zealand, I was ready for some time off in my new town of Dunedin. I decided to start off this period of relaxation with a nice, friendly run through the beautiful Botanical Gardens. Weaving our way through the trees and exploring the maze of foliage, Cathy and I came to a beautiful fountain, a pristine rugby field, and a winding road with a view of both Dunedin and the Forsyth Barr Stadium, which starred in Orientation Week (otherwise known as “O-Week”) at Otago.

The beautiful botanic garden.
The beautiful botanic garden.

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Exploring our way out of the forests of the Botanical Gardens, Cathy and I found ourselves at a small rugby practice grounds. Little did I know that this run, full of unexpected twists and turns, would set the tone for the week. A surprise rugby game with my new friend Stewy and the sizzling New Zealand sun informed me that heaps of sunscreen is a good idea. The next day at the deserted and gorgeous sands of Aramoana Beach, sunscreen proved to be just that. Running down a sand dune was absolutely thrilling. However, when comparing it to maneuvering the loose sands and small footholds surrounding a heart-shaped rock structure, it was fairly calm. With that scare, I was ready for some solid downtime.

Woah! Check out Aramoana.
Woah! Check out Aramoana.

Fast-forward to St. Kilda. Heaps of bros. In contrast to Aramoana the day before, I did some serious relaxing in St. Kilda before body-surfing for the first time, having a sand fight, and snapping some sweet pics while running along the beach. Afterwards, on another whim, I decide to walk the 5.6 kilometers back to my flat with Charlotte, a recent acquaintance. This spontaneous walk became a friendly chat about life, love, and the future.

Spontaneous walk to the beach with friends.
Spontaneous walk to the beach with friends.
Chillin' out like a rock star at St. Kilda.
Chillin’ out like a rock star at St. Kilda.
Sand Fight!
Sand Fight!
The walk back with Catherine.
The walk back with Catherine.

Just two days later, it was my 21st birthday! Though I thought that this would not be a big deal in a country where the legal drinking age is 18, that wasn’t the case.  I decided to kick off the night with a lively, close gathering that starred BBQ and drinks. Earlier that day, I went to a club sign-up that offered lots of free food and merchandise. The night was…well, I’m going to leave that up to your imagination. However, I will say that it was filled with heaps of adventure and good times.

Continuing to travel and explore, I took a gorgeous train ride on the Taieri Gorge the next day. The scenic ride south of Dunedin was beautiful, not to mention that each car of the exquisite train had unique designs and styles. Moreover, the train ride, reminiscent of the Polar Express, allowed me to poke my head outside and let some fresh air blow through my hair as we passed through the tunnels.

Let the rebellious walk begin!
Let the rebellious walk begin!
Egyptian Ratscrew--making friends on the train
Egyptian Ratscrew–making friends on the train.

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Ooh, the rocks are getting closer!
Ooh, the rocks are getting closer!
Beautiful Taieri Gorge.
Beautiful Taieri Gorge.
Flatlands at the end of the road.
Flatlands at the end of the road.

After returning from the train ride and attending my second rugby practice, there was the Macklemore concert—sold out with over 5,000 students filling the Forsyth Barr Stadium. I had not been to a concert of this sort, and he rocked the house! Wow, that was only Thursday.

You know who this is.
You know who this is.
If you don't...
If you don’t…

At the end of the week was the event that I was really looking forward to: the Super XV rugby match! The Otago Highlanders faced off against the defending champs, the Hamilton Chiefs. That day also marked the beginning of my brewing career. My friend and I decided to save some money and try something new—brew our own hard cider. Sweet As Brew©, as we would later name our mixture, began that day when we bought our supplies. However, in the middle of making our celebratory gourmet meal, my partner and I lost track of time and realized that we needed to head to the game. Skulling some wine and brews for the road, we hustled to the stadium and the zoo in which we would be sitting. The game was a good one, boasting plenty of back-and-forth play and national-level rugby players. Unfortunately, the Highlanders—the home team—lost in a close match, but that didn’t stop Dunedin from partying, nor us from enjoying our gourmet pasta bake.

Lineout to the Highlanders.
Lineout to the Highlanders.

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The rafting trip the next day reminded me of the wonderful food that goes hand-in-hand with every IFSA Butler event. Also, it reminded me of how much I enjoy everyone within the program and having that sweet, sweet food. Sian, the Butler coordinator for Dunedin, was nice enough to bring me a cake in celebration of my birthday earlier that week! The rest of the weekend was pretty low key, full of some much-needed Skype conversations with some of my best friends from both home and Vassar. The twists and turns of travel and the adventures that come with it are quite exciting, as I am only at the beginning of my New Zealand story.

The Sea Nymphs.
The Sea Nymphs.

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Skyla Lowery | Bologna, Italy | Post 2

Skyla Lowery | Bologna, Italy | Post 2

La Vita Bolognese

One of the advantages of being abroad is that you’re already across the Atlantic Ocean, which means that traveling to different places for a weekend only costs about 100€ instead of $800-$1000. Anyone who’s traveled around Europe knows how wonderful it is to take a train or plane to another not-so-far-away place that speaks a different language, eats different food, and boasts different romantic stereotypes. Despite the convenience, however, I’ve decided to forego the traveller’s life for the past few weeks and stay in Bologna, my Italian home.  Of course I want to see new places and explore other countries, but right now, I’m really enjoying Bologna, its familiarity, and its people whom I’ve come to know.  I’m starting to feel like a regular Bolognese.

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Hopefully, you already know about Max—the colorful character who serves me my morning coffee and brioche—from my last post. About a week ago, Max invited my friends and me to have “aperitivi” at his bar, which is basically the Italian version of pre-gaming that includes snacks. This is when we finally met “Max della sera,” or “Max of the night.”  Now, Max della sera and Max della mattina (of the morning) are two very different Maxes. Night-Max is a lot more open with his thoughts and a lot bolder in his speech—characteristics probably spurred on by the four to five glasses of wine that he drank with us. After trying to get me to scopare (sleep with) his son for a while—under the condition that I tell him how his son is afterward so that Max, as a true Italian father, can disown him if he’s not on par—Max went on to voice some of the more intimate thoughts that he is too polite to say in the morning. In short, Max is a bit of a pervert; but then again, most Italian men are, despite their age or marital status. I’ve been going to Max’s cafe a little less frequently lately, mostly because I realized that making my own espresso is a lot cheaper, but also because my image of Max della mattina has been a little tarnished by Max della sera.

A few more consistent characters have come into my Bologna life lately, one of whom is Marco, my favorite barman. Not only is a true artist at making drinks, he is also a circus-master of juggling bottles, catching ice cubes thrown from across the room in a glass, and peeling complex patterns out of oranges, which he lays on his drinks like Michelangelo carving his final touches in the David. Marco always puts on a great show.  He also has great taste in music, which is a true rarity in barmen. I can always count on Marco to play some Chili Peppers, Bowie, or Nirvana while every other bar in town is playing “Gangnam Style” for the twenty-fifth time that night. But more than anything, Marco is a great friend.  After hearing about a particularly unfortunate situation that took place back home, I did something I’ve never done before: I went to a bar by myself. I needed a drink, as well as somewhere I could be alone for a little while with my thoughts. Marco let me in at 5:30, just as the bar was opening, and poured me a whiskey. He didn’t ask me what was wrong, although he did raise his eyebrows a little bit when I ordered my drink straight. Marco played Pink Floyd for me while we talked and commiserated for over an hour as he refilled glass after glass. It was exactly what I needed, and I think we found some true solidarity in each other; the next time I went into the bar, he came over and gave me the most enthusiastic high-five I’ve ever received.

Every weekend, the streets in the center of town are closed to traffic and they fill up with the citizens of Bologna who walk in the street, listen to street musicians, buy balloons for their children, shop, and enjoying the simple pleasures that Bologna has to offer. I love joining them and leaving the safe-cover of the porticos that run through the city, feeling a bit of sun on my face and looking up at the tall medieval tower that looks over the city. No matter if it’s snowing or sunny (both of which we’ve experienced in the past week), the Bolognese take to the streets every Saturday and Sunday with me right there beside them.

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There’s something truly great about coming to know a foreign city so intimately. I know where to go for the best pizza, gelato, tagliatelle al ragù, prosciutto, and mozzarella, while I buy my fruits and vegetables from the same grumpy old Italian woman every week at a shop near my dorm. I even have a favorite pescheria where I buy fish. There, I always have to elbow my way past crowds of Italians to order at the counter, but it’s worth having to intimidate people when I see the fishmonger chop and skin a piece of the freshest salmon I’ve seen in my life. I could have flings with Pisa, Paris, or London every weekend, but I feel like I’m in a solid and comfortable realtionship with Bologna right now, and I’m really enjoying the process of discovering all of the small details and imperfections that make this city so beautiful.  There’s still so much more that I have yet to see.

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Katie George | Madrid, Spain | Post 1

Katie George | Madrid, Spain | Post 1

A kiss on the left cheek, a kiss on the right cheek—that’s how people greet each other in Spain. Not just old people; everyone. So when I showed up at the door of my new host family’s apartment as a complete stranger with a big suitcase and funny pink hat, the first thing we did was kiss.

But that was two months ago. Now, we greet each other with a casual, “¡Hola!” or “¿Qué tal?” It’s a strange reversal of acquaintanceship, I think.

Then again, everything was new to me on the day I arrived in Spain. After two weeks of insulated orientation in the country’s southern region, I was thrust into a buzzing metropolis as well as the home of complete strangers who were probably worrying just as much as I was about what type of person they would be living with for the next 5 months.

In a sense, both my host family and I already knew we’d be okay with each other—one of my closest friends at Vassar spent the past fall in Madrid living with the same family. So this semester, we basically swapped lives; she returned to Vassar while I took up residence with her host family of three (plus four cats) in Madrid. Yet despite our many Skype sessions, I did not know what to expect.

And Madrid is not like what I expected.

In my “medioambiente y sociedad en España” (Environment and Society in Spain) class, we discussed the “romanticized” image of Spain, to which I had previously fallen victim. My image was of serpentine cobblestone streets winding though old Mediterranean-style houses with terracotta roofs—think Vicky Christina Barcelona with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz motorcycling around. Think bull-fighting and flamenco dancing. Sure, these things do exist, but they are far from daily reality, especially in Madrid.

As an architecture nerd, the most interesting thing to me is the vast differences in the style of Madrid’s various buildings. In my head, I had pictured a homogenous Mediterranean city; again, the image of cobblestone streets came to mind. But most of the buildings are fairly new; the streets are often wide and straight. Madrid’s layout is no New York City grid, but its streets are much less congested and spacious. Old historical sits right next to sleek modern.

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The culture and food is much more international than I expected. Unlike other European cities, Madrid has quite a variety of ethnic options—all of them very good, from what I’ve tried. For dinner, we eat everything from roasted chicken to fried fish to tortilla Española—the classic dish of Spain.

Right now, I sit in the kitchen with my host brother who attempts to make sushi while one of my host cats eyes me evilly from under the table. The two months since I left the States have flown by. For anyone contemplating going abroad, don’t let the amount of time scare you—it is in reality too short.

To conclude, I’ve been documenting my adventures here in Spain more closely on my personal blog, if you care to look.