Round Up: Five Months in Europe

Seeing as I’ve been home for several months, it might be time to do a little round-up of my trip through Europe. Probably.

Spain

(Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Almería, Granada, Cádiz, Seville, Madrid)

How long? Four weeks.

Favorite Memory: The moment I discovered that space heaters underneath tall, round and tableclothed tables was a thing. My feet were overjoyed and warm.

Another Favorite Memory: Becoming best friends forever with my Couchsurfing hosts in Madrid. I love it when you just click with strangers.

Notable Blog Post: Photoessay: Carneval and Cádiz

If I could go back to Spain, I’d… see what Northern Spain is all about and embark on a Camino de Santiago.

My favorite photograph:When you're driving somewhere and the road is blocked... goat figure.

When you’re driving somewhere and the road is blocked… goat figure.

Ireland

(Dublin, Galway, Aran Islands)

How long? One week in Dublin, one day in Galway, two weeks on Inishmore.

Strangest Moment: Um, that moment I woke up and had a buzzcut? Or maybe the time I became best friends with a donkey. Or maybe the time a sheepdog actually guided me to one of the old forts on Inishmore, by leading the way. A lot of strange things happened in Ireland and I liked it.

Notable Blog Post: The Ridiculous Story of My Buzzcut

If I could go back to Ireland, I’d… just road trip around the entire coastline, since I’m obsessed with coastlines and rock beaches, and then end with some time in Belfast and Northern Ireland.

My favorite photograph:

UK

(London)

How long? Four days.

Favorite Place: I really loved the cafe at the top of Tate Modern Museum (and the Afternoon Tea that came with it!).

Notable Blog Post: On Falling in Love With London

If I could go back to the UK, I’d… probably still spend the entire time in London despite any efforts not to.

My favorite photograph:
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France

(Paris)

How long? Four days.

Favorite Memory: My friend and I snuck into a long-term Catholic hostel, stealthily climbed five or six flights of stairs and sat on the roof. We watched the sun set over the city and Eiffel Tower. Fo free ninety nine.

Notable Blog Post: Photoessay: Paris in Spring

If I could go back to France, I’d… not have a fever and maybe budget a million times more money so I could enjoy all those expensive things the city has to offer.

My favorite photograph:Poor Oscar Wilde.

Poor Oscar Wilde.

Germany

(Berlin, Dresden, Halle an der Saale, Leipzig, Munich, Nuremberg, Weimar, Munich)

How long? A week in February, three weeks in April, one week in July.

Strangest Moment: Seeing my mom speak German was pretty strange. Seeing my dad jump on a street car. Basically just the whole thing with my parents being expats was strange at first. (Now it’s gloriously wonderful!)

Notable Blog Post: True Life: My Parents Are Expats

If I could go back to Germany, I’d… I AM! Over Christmas. Bring on the frozen cobblestone streets. I plan to wear a lot of scarves. It just feels kind of German to me.

Also: One of the most interesting tours I’ve ever taken happened in Nuremberg. I toured the secret tunnels underneath the castle walls, where soldiers hid out in case of attack, and as a bonus to my pride, understood the entirely-in-German tour.

My favorite photograph:
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Poland

(Szczecin)

How long? One glorious, pierogi-filled weekend.

Favorite Food: Pierogis.

Second-favorite Food: Umm… Pierogies.

My favorite photograph:
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Switzerland

(Geneva, Lucerne, Basil, Brienz, Interlaken, Thun)

How long? One week.

My favorite photograph:
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Austria

(Graz, Bad Radkersburg)

How long? Not nearly enough. One week.

Favorite Memory: All of the old friends I was reunited with and the hugs that came with them. I know those are technically multiple memories. But they all lump together into a big happy feeling for me.

Notable Blog Post: My Austrian Homecoming

If I could go back to Austria, I’d… stay there longer.

Also: If you get the chance, go to the Zotter Museum outside of Graz. Best. (Most Chocolaty.) Tour. Ever.

My favorite photograph:
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Croatia

(Zagred, Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik)

How long? Ten days.

Favorite Place: A certain beach on the island of Hvar, between Split and Dubrovnik, comes to mind. I biked down the coast and found a beautiful, quiet place to lay out by myself and fall asleep to the sound of waves rushing over the rocks.

Notable Blog Post: Photoessay: Ugly Beautiful Zagreb

If I could go back to Croatia, I’d… pick an island and stay there for a while. And eat less pizza. I ate way too much pizza.

Also: When I got off the bus to Dubrovnik, I listened to the first old man trying to sell me accommodation and got into his car to see the rooms. They were perfect. I ended up staying another two nights, making friends and enjoying the incredibly beautiful back patio area when I wasn’t in the city. Trust.

My favorite photograph:
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Montenegro

(Budva)

How long? One limp-tastic day. (Got sea urchin in my foot while swimming in Dubrovnik.)

Strangest Moment: Relying on a German guy I’d just met to help me limp to and from the restaurant. He told me about the time he biked from Germany to India. It was strange in a cool way.

If I could go back to Montenegro, I’d… visit Kotor. We drove through it on the way to Budva and it looked breathtakingly beautiful.

My favorite photograph:
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Albania

(Tirana, Saranda, Girocaster, Dürres)

How long? One month.

Favorite Memory: It took me a while to get used to the cold water (which warmed up later in the season and wasn’t actually that cold, I’m a wimp) but once I did, swimming in the ocean felt amazing, especially once I built up a little strength and could stay out for a while.

Notable Blog Post: Photoessay: Albania Blooms

If I could go back to Albania, I’d… try to volunteer somewhere. I’d love to hang with Albanians more.

My favorite photograph:
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Italy

(Bari, Rome)

How long? Barely a day in Bari, five days in Rome.

Favorite Food: Gelato. I was skeptical of everyone saying the gelato in Italy was soooo good, but my first cone turned me into a believer.

Notable Blog Post: iPhone Photoessay: Giovanni’s Mother’s Cooking

If I could go back to Italy, I’d… take my time seeing more cities and spend time in the heel and the toe.

My favorite photograph:

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Whatcha think?

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The Truth About Couchsurfing

Does the thought of contacting a stranger to sleep on their couch or spare bed freak you out? You’re not the only one. That’s about how most of my relatives react, with a bit of fear in their voice, when they hear I’ve been Couchsurfing. The first time I used it, traveling through Argentina three years ago, I didn’t even tell my parents what I was doing until after the fact. It sounds scary, and for some people it can be. It took me all of thirty seconds to find four different articles about how to Couchsurf safely, most of them centered on the idea that some people have ulterior sexual motives. But there’s more to it than that.

So what’s the point of Couchsurfing, anyways? Here’s the mission statement, straight from the website:

We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.

It sounds great and when it works, it is. But before you plan to travel several months without budgeting for accommodation, there are some things you need to know about Couchsurfing.

My very first Couchsurfing host, back in 2011.
My very first Couchsurfing host, back in 2011 in Bahia Blanca, Argentina.

Reading is Required

When you find someone on the website, you have to read their profile. Then you have to read through their references. Then you need to read about their couch, apartment location and any rules they have concerning staying there. It’s not an option, it’s a requirement. If you send a request to someone who’s profile you haven’t read, it shows, and you’ll either be denied or end up somewhere you’re not prepared to be. Either way, it’s much better to just read a potential host’s profile thoroughly before contacting them. You’re staying with a probably really awesome stranger, but even so, do your research.

It’s an Exchange

How would you feel if someone walked into your house, used your toilet paper, slept on your couch, ignored you throughout the morning and then left? Couchsurfing is not a free hotel. While money is off the table, you’re still expected to give something to your host in exchange for their time and hospitality. Think a small magnet from your last destination, a recipe from your home country, a note of appreciation or just a willingness to always wash the dishes are often well-accepted. Couchsurfing has a “Teach, Learn, Share” section of their profile that asks you to describe what you could teach or share with someone hosting you, and what you’re interested in learning. For most people, good conversation and some stories are enough, though in truth it’s just about the effort. I personally like to keep notecards with a photograph of Pittsburgh on them and write small thank-yous on the day I leave, or bring a bottle of wine from the region I’m coming from. Intangible or otherwise, you need to give something back to your host.

What You Save in Money, You Spend in Time

Going to Hostel World, picking out a hostel and making a reservation usually takes somewhere between five to ten minutes for me, depending on how lost my credit card is in the depths of my purse. It’s easy and your bed is guaranteed the second you click ” confirm”. When you Couchsurf, the opposite is true. While I wholeheartedly believe that the experience is worth every minute you put into it, dear golly, I have put a whole lot of minutes into finding hosts on Couchsurfing. First there’s the reading, then there’s more reading of more profiles just to be sure you found a good one. Then comes the writing of a good couch request or two. Then you wait for a response, which could come immediately or never (check those response rates before you choose someone!), and when you’re trying to surf in Europe in the middle of July, for example, you’re bound to get several rejections before finding a suitable place to stay.

All in all, sometimes Couchsurfing takes forever. And if you’re traveling on a more fast-paced trip, one or two days in each city, it may not be worth it to you to spend an hour or two daily on the Internet, trying to find your next place to stay, when you could be out soaking up your current destination. Whatever your circumstances, it’s important to know that Couchsurfing is going to take you a lot of time and weigh that into your decision.

You Will Live Like a Local

On one hand, this can be an amazing experience to see what people really live like in cities all over the world. On the other hand, they may not live as well as you’re accustomed to and this may mean grungy bathrooms, tiny kitchens and less than beautiful apartment complexes with way too many stairs. One time my host didn’t have air conditioning, and I sweat buckets in a windowless room and in the heat of summer for two nights straight. But I didn’t complain because she was sleeping in the same house with the same temperature, and it was part of her everyday life. Just know that when someone welcomes you into their home, it’s not always roses, but it will be authentic.

Some People Want Sex

I know, I know. Nobody wants to hear about this, least of all my mother. But it’s been talked about before, and it’s a fact of life that some people use Couchsurfing as a way to have exotic one night stands. I can firmly say that I’ve encountered no such unsolicited situations myself, over three years and about 30 different hosts, a third of them men. But it’s something women and men alike have to watch out for, and some Couchsurfers have even deleted their profile over. This usually happens more in man-centric cultures, though that’s not to say you shouldn’t keep an eye out for it surfing in the West as well. You can easily tell what someone’s intentions are, though. Just read through reviews people have left for one another and you’ll quickly find real people who are in it for the cultural exchange of ideas, not fluids.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

You gotta have it. You’ll need to respect not only your host’s home by keeping clean and not going through their things (duh!), but you’ll more importantly need to respect their rules and boundaries. If they only have one key and need you to get up in the morning at the same time they do, you’ll need to do it with a smile, 8 AM and all. If your host is vegetarian, it would be respectful to not cook hamburgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day or offer them a casserole with meat hidden in the folds. If they need to work or study during the day, you’ll need to respect that they can’t show you around and be independent, sightseeing on your own. Because Couchsurfing is a mutual agreement based on trust, respect is huge. HUGE!

The Kindness and Trust of Strangers is Real

I’ve had so many hosts go out of their way to make sure I’m having a great experience; everything from cooking me specific foods I wanted to try, calling their history-buff friends to give me an impromptu city tour, to bringing me out with their friends or to their work and even going so far as paying for my meal, when I’m the one sleeping in their space. I can’t even count the number of times my host has met me and immediately given me a spare key, so I could come and go at my leisure. If nothing else, Couchsurfing will give you a deep and life-long conviction that people are kind and good at heart, and then create in you the desire to be just as kind and good to the strangers you meet.

 

Just a few of the many, many faces from my Couchsurfing experiences.
Just a few of the many beautiful souls from my Couchsurfing experiences.

 

If you do it wrong, you could end up in an uncomfortable, or worse, compromising situation. But if you do it right, it may change not just the way you travel but the way you live and think about humanity.  And that’s the real truth about Couchsurfing.

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What have your Couchsurfing experiences been like? Any other truths you think I’ve missed? Completely disagree?

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Photoessay: (Delicious) Things I Ate in Spain

Spain, Spain, Spain. I had a really hard time narrowing down what photos to put into the post for two reasons: there was a LOT of delicious food to choose between and I also abuse my camera and take way too many photos of my meals. (This second issue has recently been given an outlet; I finally caved and made an Instagram account so I can bombard everyone with pictures of my food, woohoo!) But after much deliberation, I’ve narrowed the list down to the best of the best, the most delicious of the delicious; I’ve carved it down to eleven photos. I could go no lower! Don’t ask such a thing of me. This edition of yummy noms from Spain is a little special, since it features two things that are totally not Spanish. But they were drool-licious, so they qualify in my book, which happens to be the book that counts on my blog. Muahaha.

Tapas Platter

Let’s start with the real Spanish stuff: this platter of mixed tapas. Going clockwise and starting at 1 o’clock, we’ve got sliced sausage, mixed olives, cheese, thinly sliced ham, toast with tomato smeared on top (how Spanish!) and lastly Spanish tortilla with a fork stuck in for good measure. These are the classic tapas that come with your drink, though usually just a small plate with one of the below.

These are several tapas. All on one plate.
Perfect in its simplicity. (Barcelona)

Something kind of crazy happened the day I ordered this platter. For the first time in my life, I kind of liked an olive. But only the green ones, sicko, not the disgusting black ones!

Rabbit (Conejo)

I ordered something random off of the menu of the day, and I was pleasantly surprised with a kind of meat that I’d never eaten before! The taste was great, but the effort required to find all of the meat on the bone was even greater. Maybe someone else can de-bone my rabbit next time and just feed it to me?

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The only hopping this guy did after landing on my plate was through different parts of my intestines. (Barcelona)

Crème Catalane

My sweet tooth is a little bit, sometimes quite a bit, out of control. So when this dish came out, created likely by piling different states of sugar together and making it hot, I was especially pleased. Om nom, nothing like creamy sugary-ness covered in a hard crust of more sugar! This is apparently also a regional dish, which means maybe I need to live in this region forever.

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To my dentist: I’M SORRY. (Barcelona)

Migas

The second best part of these Spanish migas was getting to watch the chef put this together, the best part was devouring it. I don’t know if any dish could get more unhealthy, seeing as this is basically just starch fried in the leftover fat and grease of different kinds of meat, but that didn’t stop me from embracing the incredible meal with a mouth wide open. The variety of foods that you could pair with your grease-soaked starch just made it even better.

Best. Meal. Ever. Maybe. (Almer'ia)
Best. Meal. Ever. Maybe. (Almería)

From the left, oranges covered in sugar (dessert), an olive oil and green onion liquid (for pairing with migas), fried chorizo/sausage, in the middle are actual pieces of pure fat grilled in grease, far right is grilled pork and the bowl in front is the migas themselves, or starch fried in grease, to perfection.

Razor Clams (Navajas a la Plancha)

Sally sells seashells on the seashore. JUST KIDDING, I eat seafood, and everywhere, not just on the seashore. Like these incredible razor clams, lathered in butter, and eaten in a bar in Granada. (Grandma, close your ears!) They were incredibly phallic. The clam part looks like a penis. But don’t let that freak you out, because the taste is, I assure you, not like a penis. On the contrary, it’s pure seafood-y gold. And that’s all I can say, because how am I supposed to describe the taste of clam? In the warped words of Michael Jackson, just eat it.

Don't look too closely, now. (Granada)
Don’t look too closely, now. (Granada)

Sea Urchin Roe (Gónadas de los Erizos)

Not only am I already a baby killer, but I’ve officially also eaten the gonads of sea urchins too. It’s like I have it out for them or something. This food definitely goes on the list of some of the strangest things I’ve eaten, though, and I’m surprised by two things: one, that this wasn’t eaten in Korea, where all strange things are eaten and two, that I didn’t hate it, once I pulled out all the crunchy shell bits that fell inside. I would recommend you ask for a small portion and then share with a friend.

Don't these look appetizing? (Cádiz)
Not exactly what you’d expect gonads to look like, eh? Or maybe exactly what you’d expect… (Cádiz)

“Black Paella” or Arrós Negre

Some Spanish people might string me up for calling this black paella, even though it’s prepared in the same way, contains more or less the same ingredients and tastes pretty dang delicious, just like paella. But the big difference is that squid ink is added to the Arrós Negre, which brings out the seafood flavors better. Now I can’t be sure that I had real, authentic delicious paella in Spain, but I do know that this dish (and its seafood paella friend, in the background) were miles better than the disaster “paella” encountered in Granada. And I was hungry. So it was nom-tastic.

Give me more. (Cádiz)
Give me more. (Cádiz)

Egyptian Moussaka (Messa’aa)

Oh irony. Except when you’re couchsurfing, the strangest situations arise and you end up at a group dinner with people from Romania, England, Brazil, Spain, Egypt, the USA (me!) and Taiwan, eating a traditional Egyptian dish alongside typical Spanish food. This was my first ever taste of Egyptian food, and it really makes me want to hop continents and spend some time with someone’s Egyptian grandma who’s handy in the kitchen. I want to learn their ways. Onion, garlic, various vegetables and cheese are a beautiful, beautiful combination.

Oh dear, I want to eat this all over again and then another ten times. (Madrid)
Oh dear, I want to eat this all over again and then another ten times. (Madrid)

Paraguayan Cuisine

Walking into a random hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Madrid can only mean one thing: random food. This restaurant was literally packed with immigrants from Paraguay having a little taste of home, and we ordered pretty much a giant sampler of everything. The verdict? Kind of like Argentine food, but different. And also yum. But let’s be honest, fried pockets of meat are always my friend.

Also featured: grilled kabobs of beef marinated in something delicious.
Also featured: grilled kabobs of beef marinated in something delicious.

Calamari Sandwich

Yes, I did eat some famous Madrid-ian/Spanish food while in Madrid too, I swear. Well, thanks to Olivia of Halfway Somewhere, at least, who herded me to this shop as soon as we’d met up. If you like calamari, then imagine calamari in your hand, with bread. Best with a bit of lemon, though most locals add ketchup and mayonnaise, which, if you know me, was absolutely not an option. And then the day after meeting Olivia, I went right back to the same place and ate another sandwich; no regrets were had by me nor my stomach. (I can’t speak for my waistline, though.)

Seafood wins my heart, everytime. Fried seafood? Forget about it. (Madrid)
Seafood wins my heart, everytime. Fried seafood? Forget about it. (Madrid)

Churros con Chocolate

Fried things with chocolate can pretty much never go wrong. After eating these, I realized Taco Bell did churros so right (cinnamon is delish), yet so, so wrong. They were perfect. My fingers shined with pride and grease afterwards, and the “napkins” reminiscent of Buenos Aires did nothing to clean them. I solved that problem by licking every bit of my fingers clean.

CHOCOLATE AND FRIED THINGS, OH MY GOSHHHH. (Madrid)
CHOCOLATE AND FRIED THINGS. No elaboration needed. (Madrid)

Really, after this roundup, all I can say is that Spain was straight up nom-licious.

Have you ever been to Spain and eaten delicious food? What was your favorite? Did Taco Bell do it right or wrong?

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Photoessay: Stunning Sunsets in Spain

When I visited Germany for two weeks last summer, I was extremely lucky with the weather. Blue skies hung above me for nearly the entire trip and I even put together a photoessay of all the sky shots I captured throughout my time there. As I left South Korea, as well, I went through my photographs and found a ton of beautiful sunsets and was quite grateful for the fair weather I was able to enjoy, as well as the beautiful scenery that went with it. Along those same lines, my month in Spain was graced with clear skies and some gorgeous sunsets, some of the best I’ve seen in my (admittedly short) life.

From Barcelona to the Southern coast, from Cádiz to the urban metropolis of Madrid, the beautiful sunsets followed me and forced me to stop and appreciate the beauty that surrounded me.

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Port of Barcelona, Spain
Also see: Featured Photograph: Sunset of Barcelona’s Waters
Alicante, Spain
Cala de la Palmera, Alicante, Spain
Also see: Photoessay: Quiescence in Alicante, Spain
Agua Dulce, Spain
Agua Dulce, Spain
Also see: Semi-Domestic Bliss in Almería, Spain
Mojacár, Spain
Mojácar, Spain
The same sunset, with purple-tinted sunglasses held in front of my camera as I took the photograph.
The same sunset, with purple-tinted sunglasses held in front of my camera as I took the photograph.
Cádiz, Spain
Cádiz, Spain
Also see: Photoessay: Cádiz and Carneval
Madrid, Spain
Madrid, Spain

Have you ever been gifted with spectacular weather or sunsets while traveling? Do you need more reasons to visit Spain, now? Which sunset is your favorite?

You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d so please.

A Tale of Three Cities (In One Week)

While I’m not a homebody, per say (I do write a travel blog), I will always enjoy a good day spent in the sun, eating crackers and reading a book. That is to say, doing absolutely nothing is one of my favorite things in the world. And if I get to do that while people watching a foreign culture, well, that’s even better. So when I say that I visited three different cities in Spain in the span of a week, it’s not only with great joy, but also fatigue.

map southern spain

This tale begins in a fourth city, a city of friendship and relaxation and wonderful memories and even a gorgeous a morning run: Almería. My friend Liz and I decided to take advantage of her early weekend and took a Wednesday night ride to Granada, Spain.

Granada, Spain

The city of white houses on a hill, the largest Muslim fortress in Southern Spain, hippies galore and a kind of horrible first experience with paella drew me in with a strange variety of experiences. Our first night was spent on a friend’s guest bed a bit outside the city center; we visited her favorite local restaurant and became acquainted with her very adorable but feisty kitten. We ate big tapas. We met her Spanish friends.

Fast forward 24 hours and Liz and I had moved to a hostel and were laughing raucously in a seafood tapas bar, having met up with two other friends who’d come to see the city with us. Liz and I had already visited the famous Alhambra, hiked up to a beautiful overlook of the city, pretended the paella wasn’t “that bad” and wandered through tiny shops filled with strange smells, bright colors and people with dreads of all styles. (Did you know there are different styles of dreads? It’s true. Granada will prove that to you!) One tapas bar led to another, which led to a nightclub, which quickly led to the next morning greeting us with sunshine and a rushed check out of the hostel. It was already our last half-day in Granada.

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Inside the iconic Alhambra.

That Friday afternoon, Liz and I boarded a bus to Cádiz and I endured what I’m sure is the greatest torture known to modern mankind: being stuck on a 5 hour bus ride and having to pee. For nearly two hours, I endured what is probably the CIA’s secret training weapon. With each apartment building we passed, I could think of nothing else but how many unused toilets must be in each building. Just a little longer, Sally, just a little longer. You’re tough, you can do it. Sprinting to Sevilla’s bus station loo (the mid point of the long journey) will always be one of my great accomplishments. I did it. I didn’t pee my pants on a bus in Spain.

Cádiz, Spain

We arrived in Cádiz at night and dragging our bags to Liz’s friends place, exhausted, we walked into what could only be described as a frat party sans fraternity brothers. Americans teaching English in Spain had converged on Cádiz for Carneval and as I met each person, decked out in tutus, wigs, light-up glasses and glitter, I struggled to figure out what they actually looked like. Exhausted, Liz and I joined into the beer pong and conversation but let the rowdy crowd leave us behind as they headed out into what were likely packed streets, full of celebration and similarly tutu-clad Spaniards. Conversely, Liz and I changed into pajamas, brushed our teeth and hit the sack.

The weekend of Carneval was a blur of activity, and I don’t mean because of alcohol, though that is certainly true of others I may or may not have seen stumbling around the streets. A morning run preceded hours of sightseeing with Liz and suddenly it was time to dress up and get ready to go out. Saturday night was already knocking on our door, and thankfully I’d purchased a 3 Euro golden, glittery mask to complete my all black ensemble. Or shall I say… the all black outfit that I wear in normal life, too. What can I say. I don’t like dressing up.

duckface carneval

Singing in the street. Tutus. Masks. Rum and cokes poured from our friend’s curbside “bar”, or plastic bag full of beverages. A concert. Long lines for the port-a-potty bathrooms. Glitter. New friends that turned out to be a mere 18 years old. Hunger. Liters of beer. A filafel with sauce, when I’d asked for no sauce. Dancing. Singing. Dancing. A shot of whisky I passed off to a stranger, because there’s no way I’m going to drink that. The sheer amount of people still on the street in the wee morning hours. An eventual return to the apartment where I collapsed on chair cushions placed onto the ground. (I was one of the lucky ones. Nearly twenty people in one apartment doesn’t go so well for everyone.)

The next day, Liz and I took a relaxing beach-side walk and caffeinated ourselves. Back at the apartment, she packed her bags for the inevitable return to work in Almería. I photographed the area a little more, pushed my way into the parade crowd and snapped a few more shots. Later, when Liz left for her ride home, I felt a little pang of sadness as one of the only friends I’d spent 7 non-stop days with, without beginning to hate her, diverged paths from me and I was once again “solo” traveling. I stayed another night in Cádiz, rectifying my previous horrible paella experience and enjoying a quieter apartment (and a real bed) with more friends I’d stolen from Liz. The next morning I woke up earlier than everyone else and enjoyed a private dance party / karaoke session in the kitchen with my coffee, cleaning dishes from the night before.

Seville, Spain

The bus pulled into Seville around six, what would have been dinner time in most of the world, but not in Spain. Finding my way over cobblestone streets to the hostel, I passed the world’s largest Gothic cathedral. I didn’t know that yet. I buzzed into the hostel, surprisingly not getting myself lost along the way, and was welcomed by British accents and one of the friendliest atmospheres I’ve ever experienced from any pay-for-accommodation set up. I replenished myself (both with water and internet access) and headed into the streets to wander a bit before grabbing dinner with friends I’d met just a few days earlier at Carneval. For the first time in ages, I was able to talk politics, international policy and other intellectual riff-raff that I just don’t have the Spanish vocabulary for. That, and most of my friends don’t have the patience for such nerdery, either.

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The Seville Cathedral before I headed inside.

Monday morning I started out on an ambitious foot, after breakfast I ventured into the Seville Cathedral and spent some time wandering the massive halls of the world’s third largest church. Somewhere between the first and fifth side room, it hit me. I literally don’t care. The massive and overwhelming structure had achieved its goal of overwhelming me; though I was overwhelmed not with a reverence for god, but with how much money was wrung out of common people and poured into a big bunch of carved rocks. Money which could have been diverted to easing social ills of the time, would have been used to feed hungry mouths otherwise, and which was extorted in the name of forgiveness from god or pious duty. Then I was overwhelmed with tourism and the meaninglessness of paying 9 Euros to walk through an old building. A steady parade of people, paying their dues to enter and stare and take photographs as proof. I was here. What’s the point of all this travel, I suddenly wondered, if I just look at a bunch of things all day?

I took that thought with me as I sat by the river for the remainder of the day with my Kindle and a bottle of water.

Returning to the hostel that evening and hanging out with the owners and other folks staying there, I was reminded of at least one reason travel is well worth it: the people. I ate dinner in that night, the hostel cooked for everyone and we sat family-style on the roof, introducing ourselves at first and later laughing heartily. The world’s largest Gothic cathedral stood lit up in the distance.

Much thanks to La Banda Rooftop Hostel for helping me and my electronics recharge in Seville. Even though you didn’t know it.

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Photoessay: Carneval and Cádiz

Cádiz, a small city on the southwest coast of Spain, is seemingly quiet. The waves are a surreal pale green, the sand white and clean and the boardwalk was surprisingly empty as I went for an “early” morning run at 9 am. It was a Saturday morning in late February, and the peace of Cádiz was in full effect, but within hours the streets would take on a very different feel. Carneval is a celebration that occurs just before Lent all over the world, mostly in countries that had a strong Catholic influence in the past. People dress up in costumes, eat, drink, sing, march in parades and generally just indulge in all of those things you’re supposed to give up for Lent. Cádiz is the epicenter of Spain’s festivities; before the actual festivities dancers and groups spend weeks practicing and preparing for the grand celebration.

But running down the beach boardwalk at 9 am Saturday morning, aside from the occasional group of costumed teenagers still awake from the night before, you would never know. The peace, the ocean and the patter of my feet on pavement filled the air.

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Have you ever been to Carneval in Spain? To Cádiz? Would you like to wear one of those blue or green tutus, too? (Hands up, because I do!)

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Semi-Domestic Bliss in Almería, Spain

I gave myself a month to see Southern Spain, but it wasn’t until I arrived and actually got my feet on the ground that I realized what a tall order “see lots of important things in Spain in one month” actually is. Each person I spoke to insisted on another city, another place, and another event that is, to them, a must-see and since I have an entire month, I must see it. Well, my entire month disappeared somewhere between five days in Barcelona (not enough), two nights in Valencia (enough), one night in Alicante (not enough), five nights in Almería (not enough) and several more cities that I’ve gotten to and plan to go to before March 12th flies me away to Ireland. Somehow what I thought would be a leisurely-paced trip through Spain has turned into a whirlwind tour of only a fraction of the important things this large, complex and gorgeous country has to offer. And while I love to add new cities to my brain’s conversation fodder, I have found myself completely exhausted. That’s why my five days in Almería, a small city on the southern coast of Spain weren’t spent only seeing a few of a multitude of sights nearby, they were spent pretending I was home, even if just for a little bit.

An old friend of mine, Liz, is teaching English in Almería and offered to put me up for as long as I’d like. I arrived thinking that I’d only stay two or three nights, but my friend’s gracious hospitality and equally as incredible Spanish friends reeled me in, and as Liz and I reconnected over cañas and tapas (translation: beer and food) in a small but busy restaurant, I realized that I probably wouldn’t be ready to go as soon as I’d planned.

While I can safely say that I’ve seen the Alcazaba, the second largest Muslim fortress in the province of Andalusia (the largest is Granada’s Alhambra), walked the white, shining streets of Mojácar for a panoramic view of the area, hopped tapas bars around the city, sampling Spanish food and even picked up a postcard along the way, my best memories are a little different, and a little more domestic.

Proof: I did the things you're supposed to do in Almería.
Proof: I did the things you’re supposed to do in Almería, like an obligatory beach picture.

I went running down the boardwalk; the ocean on my left and plenty of other people exercising all around me made me feel like I was part of the daily life, at least for a moment, and it was really just a moment. Within ten minutes I was back to walking, as it turns out you can’t run away from being super out of shape!

We went shopping for fresh produce at a local market and cooked a full dinner for us and friends. There’s something comfortable about shopping for ingredients and creating a meal out of them that I sometimes miss while on the road (even as good as those tapas bars are!). The busy market, the unbelievable amount of fresh vegetables we could pick up for under two euros, and the end result of tons of laughter and excellent food all while sitting on L’s living room couch were much needed after so much of the unfamiliar.

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Liz’s Spanish friends (or shall I say my new Spanish friends? I’m stealing them!) cooked us a homemade, authentic Almerian meal. We all sat together at an old kitchen table decked out with food galore, stuffing our faces and laughing, and enjoying migas. One of the friends is actually a chef, so even though it was a relaxed atmosphere, I essentially got to sit in on a cooking class as I watched him cook one side dish after another, all to be added to the migas (a kind of friend starch) when it was finished.

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Earlier that same day, we toured around an old farm house and then picked organic oranges from an orchard. The chef and his wife showed me the backyard full of olive trees, small plants and other odds and ends that little Spanish farm houses have (like oregano). Standing on the small roof and looking over the nearby landscape wasn’t just beautiful but intimate. Spain felt a little bit more like a place that I could imagine life in. A quick drive down the road and the group of us were in the midst of an orange orchard picking fruits to take back; my Spanish friends said that their parents who are now too old to keep up with the labor are constantly asking them to drive out and pick oranges for them. We were rewarded for our hard work (yeah right!) with way too many oranges for one person to even attempt to eat, alone.

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And, bonus, I watched a herd of goats block the road.

Later my friend and I left to shortly tour Granada before drinking ourselves into oblivion during Carneval in Cádiz (well, other people did that and I mostly just watched) (get excited for those blog posts!), but when I think about Almería, I’ll always think of it as the place where I was most able to immerse myself into Spanish culture and customs, and see a little bit more of what life is really like for those who live here. It was also the place where I was able to rest in between two exhausting bursts of sightseeing and travel. As for things to see, the city didn’t hold a candle to the big bad boys of Spain (Barcelona, Madrid, Granada, etc.) but that’s not why I adored being there; it was the laughter and friendship that I’ll always associate with this little town on the ocean. And all of the oranges I had to eat after picking them from the orchard. So. Many. Oranges.

But next time I go, I definitely wouldn’t put up my nose to doing a little more sightseeing, specifically those incredible beaches everyone has been talking about. Laying on the beach does count as sightseeing, right? Right.

Have you ever associated a pretty typical city with incredible memories? Have you ever had migas? Want to pay for me to visit these incredible beaches this July? (If so, let me know! I’ll send a postcard.)

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

Photoessay: Quiescence in Alicante, Spain

Alicante is without a doubt a typical tourist town. The bus terminal is nicely laid out and has cubbies for locking away your things for the day, the local bus system is easy to navigate, suitcases were a common sight and I heard almost as much German and British English as I did Spanish. But there is usually tourism for a reason, namely beautiful beaches, and Alicante did not disappoint. Particularly so after an especially challenging 24 hours up the coast in Valencia, a city who’s street map could easily be converted into a book of mazes, placed next to the Sudoku puzzles in the bookstore. Gorgeous, clean, easy to navigate, but a little touristy? I was happy for the trade off.

I didn’t do much more than relax and walk the beaches, either, and I’m sure my photographs show that. Enjoy a little look into the tourist town that helped me reclaim my sanity, something I desperately need to complete the next four or so months living out of a carry on suitcase.

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Have you ever really enjoyed a place that wasn’t especially authentic? What do you think of Alicante, Spain? How’d you like that fancy vocabulary word in the title?

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An Introduction to Spain in Barcelona

As “well traveled” as my relatives like to say I am, let’s be clear that I didn’t know very much about Spain before arriving in Barcelona. I didn’t even realize until about two weeks ago that Barcelona doesn’t speak Spanish as much as it does Catalan, a Spanish-y French-y language of its own. Thankfully most people are bilingual (if not trilingual) and can communicate in Spanish quite easily, but my “remember and practice Spanish in Spain” plan got off to a rocky, this-isn’t-Spanish-is-it start. So I’m not exaggerating when I say I didn’t know anything about Spain before arriving. During my five days in the city, Barcelona (and my Italian Couchsurfing hosts) taught me quite a few lessons.

Lesson 1: Spain is really, really old.

I can't tell you exactly what this is, but it is realllllllllly old.
I can’t tell you exactly what this is, but I can tell you that for once, this tree is the younger subject of a photograph.

Germany was impressive with its 15th century towers, but Barcelona blew those timelines out of the water. They have sections of an old Roman wall dating back to the 4th century, for example. Just try to even imagine life in the 4th century… because I can’t. That’s so old, it’s abstract. And there’s even remains of a temple dating from the first century BC, which is even more difficult to imagine. All I know about BC is… togas, right?

Lesson 2: What is a “Tapa”?

These are several tapas. All on one plate.
These are several tapas. All on one plate.

You might be like me in the sense that you understand that Spain has something you eat called Tapas and they are famous, but you have no clue what the hell that even means. Well, folks, the truth is a little anticlimactic. Tapas can literally be anything. It just means a small portion of food to be eaten with your beer (or other alcoholic drink of choice), like cheese, olives or ham.

Lesson 3: Tomatoes are for spreading.

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Tomatoes are not to be cut and consumed in slices, tomatoes are not to be squished into a paste and become part of a pizza (at least not all the time). No, tomatoes are to be cut in half and then the insides are to be dragged across pieces of toasted bread until it’s pink and delicious. Olive oil and salt as desired. (If you get the chance, try this. Simple genius.)

Lesson 4: Dancing is for everyone.

WHY ARE STOCK PHOTOGRAPHS SO WEIRD. This came up when I searched for "dance". I have so many questions.
WHY ARE STOCK PHOTOGRAPHS SO WEIRD. This came up when I searched for “dance”. I have so many questions.

I don’t really do nightlife. I definitely don’t do strobe lights, and I prefer my beers with laughter and for the grocery store price. Still, I took it upon myself to do research into Barcelona’s nightclub scene for the blog. Or maybe my Italian friend just invited me out and I said “Sure, why not!” When in Barcelona. In any case, first, the club we went to lacked strobe lights, which was a huge plus. Second, I was astonished by the variety of people in the place. Not just young high school and college-aged folks, but older twenties. And also some people in their forties, some married people, some single people, some dating people, some guy in a wheelchair, also a giant group of 50+ year old lesbians. Everyone came to the club, bought their overpriced drinks and then got down to the business of dancing, laughing, and generally just having a great time.

Lesson 5: It’s impossible to sleep early (unless you know magic).

Cooking dinner well after 8pm with my couchsurfing hosts.
Cooking dinner well after 8pm with my Couchsurfing hosts.

This was the case in Argentina as well, but people in Spain don’t eat dinner until it’s late; most restaurants are open and ready at 8 and people will eat as late as 11 at night. This means that even if you don’t go out on the town until 3am (see above), it’s still pretty tough to get back home, stop talking to whomever you’re with and catch some shut-eye before the next day rolls in. I love sleeping early and I adore waking up with the sun to enjoy the quiet morning hours, but in Barcelona, it just wasn’t possible.

I’ve only been in Spain for about a week now, so if I say anymore, it’ll become borderline presumptuous and pretentious, two things I’d really prefer not to be. I really enjoyed Barcelona, the balconies all over the city were breathtaking and I found the streets surprisingly easy to navigate, despite the insanity of several large roundabouts with ~8 streets coming out of it, all at different angles. I’m really curious to see whether I’ll like Barcelona more or less so be after seeing several Spanish cities; it’s hard to pick your favorite cereal when you’ve never tasted more than one kind. But regardless of what opinions I form later, I left Barcelona behind with quite a few fond memories, and not only of the tapas.

At the end of the day, Barcelona was the perfect introduction. Spain, it’s very nice to meet you.

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