Sunday, June 20, 2010

So Long, Sweet Sevilla

One might say that any good love story ends in a tragedy; that happy endings are just too cliché. Someone is always left crying, or if they’re not quite so lucky, dying. But every once in awhile, you find that certain tale that leaves you with a great sense of satisfaction and a glimmer of hope that the world isn't so bad after all.

Despite the fact that I left Sevilla one week ago with puffed eyes and quivering lips, I’d like to say that my love story with El Toro ended on a positive note. For starters, I am still alive (although another bite of jamón and I could quite possibly have been died of a clogged artery.) But Spain’s sacred animal aside, I end this story on good terms because I just spent the last six months of my life living in a city that literally stole my heart. From its sweet sangria to three-hour siestas, its reputation for charm rang true. But that’s not to say that Sevilla was all rainbows and ponies either—it’s a city that lets their dogs poo in the middle of the sidewalk and doesn’t believe in picking it up; a city that drinks beer instead of water after finishing 10K races; a city whose professors go out dancing at the discotecas with their students until 5am. But it is these very unique aspects about Sevilla that really captivated me. Where else will you find small children dressed in Ku Klux Klan apparel marching down the streets at 3 am?

Sevilla has a famous motto, which you can see branded on everything from architecture to pamphlets to Christopher Columbus’s tomb in the Cathedral. The slogan reads NO8DO, which combines the Spanish syllables “No” and “Do” with a figure eight representing a coiled piece of yarn (‘madeja’ in Spanish.) When read all together, the motto sounds like the phrase “No me ha dejado” (You have not abandoned me.) The story is traced back to Alfonso X (‘The Wise’), who was caught in a brutal civil war over who would rule Spain after his own son tried to usurp the throne from him. Eventually, Alfonso lost, yet there were three cities that continued to remain faithful to Alfonso, Sevilla being the most important. Thus when Alfonso’s own son had turned his back on him, Sevilla had still not abandoned him.

I take a certain comfort in knowing that after my semester in Sevilla, the city is and always will be ingrained into the person I am and have become. As I walked into the dentist’s office the other day, my dentist greeted me in the waiting room with “Gayle! Long time no see!” And I instinctively responded “Yo sé!” (I know!) before throwing my hand over my mouth in shock at the Spanish words that just escaped my mouth. SO even if I wanted it to, Sevilla will never abandon me, nor I it. While I may not be physically in Sevilla anymore, the experiences I had there and the things I’ve learned will continue to affect my everyday life from here on out.

I was put to shame this past semester at how much the international community knows about my own country—our history, culture and traditions—in comparison to how little I know about the rest of the world. But it took me being immersed in a completely different culture to realize my own ignorance, and consequently ignite my passion to change that. Forget mandatory classes and homework, I finally WANT to have a better grasp on world history, want to be able to recognize famous art when I see it, and want to speak more languages. I am ready to take the initiative. There is too much left out there to experience to just sit in my own little corner of the world for the rest of my life wondering what else there is.

So yes, I am dying to see what the rest of the world has to offer. However Sevilla will still always hold an especially special place in my heart. After far too many days soaked to the bone from the February rain, all my lost in translation failures, and my fair share of second-hand smoke, I am walking away from this past semester fluent in another language, with an ignited desire to see the world, and best of all, an incredible new family. I know I will be back one day, because anyone knows you can’t just leave your family forever. And just like my family, Sevilla won’t be leaving me either. So NO8DO Sevilla. I’ll be seeing you soon.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Changing the World, One Couch at a Time

“Michelle! Meeee-shellll!!?” The name rang through the streets of Paris’ 7th district and echoed off the apartment building window above us unanswered. We had made it to Paris safe and sound but had somehow managed to forget to write down our host for the week’s phone number. We had made it to the apartment, but our old-fashioned Romeo and Juliet approach didn’t seem to be working, so we finally tracked someone down to open up the building for us. From there, we found Michelle’s call number. “Michelle?” we called over the intercom. “It’s your, uhh, it’s your couchsurfers.”

Yes, Haley, Chantel and I were ‘couchsurfing’ in Paris—literally sleeping on a local Parisian’s couch we had never met before free of cost in order to widen our ‘cultural exchanges.’ Sound sketchy? We thought so too. BUT, the few people who we had heard of before participating in couchsurfers had all had amazing experiences, and the major positive news coverage the site has received was enough to convince us that we should at least look into it. is an international nonprofit network that aims to connect travelers from all over the world, where locals offer up their spare bedroom, couch, or extra floor space for travelers. In exchange, they expect their guests to be respectful and committed to the couchsurfing mission—i.e., not freeloading off their hosts. There are safety precautions taken, one must both verify their address and be vouched for, and all couch surfers leave unedited reviews for their hosts. So after an intensive search, the three of us had found two cousins who seemed pretty great, and arranged to meet them in Paris at their apartment our first night.

Michelle buzzed us in and we headed up the stairs ready for an adventure. The door opened. “Welcome! I'm Michael.” Our faces turned bright red and Haley and I turned to Chantel, who had convinced us earlier that the French pronounce it “Michelle.” Her 5th grade summer French class had clearly done wonders. Our brilliant first impressions didn’t end there. Michael introduced us to his cousin Remi, and the two began to show us around their apartment. Remi, who hadn’t done much talking before turned to us and asked with a deadpan face, “Would you like to visit my bed?”

My heart stopped beating for a good 5 seconds before Michael jumped in and quickly corrected him. “NO, NO!! See his bedROOM! BedROOM! Our English is not quite perfect.” Breathing again.

Despite our rough start, our next four days in Paris were made because of our stay with Michael and Remy. We never stopped laughing, had great conversations, and exchanged some key cultural traditions (kings under the Eiffel tower?) They had explained to us that they were participating in couchsurfers because, as both of them had full-time jobs, traveling was not much of an option. They were bummed they couldn’t meet new friends on the road, so they had decided to bring people into their own home! We met up with them every night after work, and they took us to all their favorite spots—we picnicked on a student filled bridge our first night and shared a bottle of wine under the Eiffel Tower our last. In exchange, we introduced them to the art of ‘jumping pictures’ (with the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral serving as our backdrop) and even made them watch a clip of our trip’s theme-movie—Mary Kate and Ashley’s ‘Passport to Paris’ (some quality American cinema right there.) I left Paris still singing Frere Jacques and repeating my favorite French phrase (I don’t speak French…)

Even though we were sad to leave Paris and our new Parisian friends, our trip was far from over. After a semester filled with excruciating amounts of homework, exams and stress (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating…) we decided to treat ourselves to an 11-day mini Eurotrip and Dublin was our next stop. We spent our nights with hundreds of people all over the globe in Temple Bar area, singing and dancing along to live bands playing the Beatles, Journey, and of course some good Irish folk music. By day, we toured the Guinness Factory, where we watched the ‘magic’ process of fermentation take place. Fun factoid: the 1759 lease agreement Arthur Guinness signed for the brewery is older than the United States’ Declaration of Independence (‘and more important too!’ as our tour guide gladly informed the Americans of the group.) Some four million pints of Guinness are produced in the factory everyday, and as part of our tour, we were treated to our own pints. We sipped the beer in the ‘360-birdeye’ glass bar located on the 7th floor of the factory, looking out onto the gorgeous Irish countryside. Unfortunately for our far-too girly group, the Guinness had a little much of a ‘liquid bread’ taste for us, so we finished about 4 sips each, and sat and enjoyed the view.

Our weekend in Dublin ended too quickly, and we continued onto our last stop: Londontown. Between Billy Elliot’s beautiful onstage ballet, Winston Churchill’s war rooms (where you can still see the original maps used to track the course of WWII), staring in awe at the Crown jewels, attempting to run through the wall at Platform 9 ¾, marveling the ‘Pet Boutique’ in Harrod’s—a whole floor dedicated to designer pet fashion, and reuniting with our dear friend Brian, London was the perfect ending to our journey. I found throughout it all that the more I traveled, the more I realized how little I’ve seen of the world. I spent my flight home creating my ‘Oh! The Places I’ll Go!’ travel bucket list (only 31 countries total…) I know it sounds lofty, but when you're conquering it one couch at a time, anything can be done.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

While you were celebrating Detroit's Downtown Hoedown...

The music got louder and above the dancing crowds, smoke and hopping bar came the sole word through the microphone: ‘Michigaaaan!!’ Michigan frat party? Not quite. I had just entered into my señora’s private tent in La Feria de Sevilla, and like everywhere else in this country, my face stuck out like a true red-white-and blue American. The band’s lead singer had met Haley and Melissa the day before, and because he happened to remember the name of our wolverine state, he happily alerted the rest of the tent that, yes folks, the Americans have arrived! I did a little dance of surprise/Michigan pride until I remembered that I was in Spain and NOT at a frat party—somewhere people actually dance like professionals…

So what is this ‘feria’ I am talking about? Originally a cattle trading fair, Sevillanos took up the opportunity (as they often do) to turn this random social gathering into a giant party and it quickly evolved into a weeklong round-the-clock spectacle including drinking, eating and best of all, dancing. There are hundreds of tents decorated with streamers and lanterns, many filled with live bands and of course all the tapas you could want. Just like at the most elite frat parties (is there really such a thing?) you have to be on the list to get past the intimidating looking suit-dressed bouncers (basically the same as a sober monitor t-shirt, no?) but once you’re in, you’re set for the night.

The women all wear elaborately styled flamenco dresses, complete with flowers in their hair, while the men all dress in suits. The music and ‘rebujito’ (famous Feria drink—pretty much straight up sherry) get flowing around the same time and pretty soon, the dance floors are packed. For the preteens who tire of the dancing too easily, there are dozens of carnival rides and roller coasters on the other side of the tents, where screams of terror fill the air. People arrive as early as 10am, and stick around until 6 or 7 the following morning (just in time for a churros and chocolate breakfast on the streets!)

Melissa had decided to buy a dress in Sevilla, but as I spent the first half of the week in Italy, the 200 euros for the dress wasn’t really worth it for three days of Feria. But as we got ready to leave the house (Melissa looking oh-so-Sevilliana and me, well, far too American in my sundress and sandals) Carmen casually mentioned that I might be able to fit into her daughter’s dress (who was conveniently traveling that weekend.) What ensued was an hour long make(-Gayle-into-a-Sevilliana-)over, with a whole lot of squeals of excitement from every direction. As we made it to the bus stop, (all these fancily dressed people took the bus to the Feria grounds—quite the sight) and asked two girls to take our picture, they asked where we were from, followed immediately by “We would have thought you were Spanish before you started talking!’ (Note—we asked them to take our picture in Spanish…)

We spent the next three days in Carmen’s tent, making our best efforts to limit our dancing partners to only other Americans, men over 60 or children under 10 (the ones least likely to judge.) Below you can see my favorite step of the Sevillanos dance (it's the last one, and far too much fun to just throw up your hands as so in the very last second and smile confidently, alerting others that clearly you've been doing it right all along.)

We spent one afternoon with some 15-year old friends we had made riding the carnival rides, where (though the oldest in the crowd by at least 5 years), I STILL managed to scream the loudest on the pirate ship. And we finally finished off the festivities with Carmen’s whole family, up until the grand finale fireworks show. I can easily say that Feria has been one of my favorite weeks in Sevilla thus far, and as I promised Carmen, I’d be sure to be back. The older Sevillanos will tell you that for them, the weeklong activities of Feria is just too long (too many people and exhausting), but for the young people, it’s not quite long enough. Considering my 15-year old friends were shocked to find out I was actually 21 after spending all afternoon together, I figure I’ve still got plenty of time to be young (or at least look it.) So Feria, adios for now, but know I’ll be seeing you again.

Monday, May 3, 2010

When in Rome…Eat as the Romans Do

In her bestselling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love”, Elizabeth Gilbert narrates her yearlong journey to Italy, India and Bali, where she attempts to rediscover herself through each country’s ‘specialty.’ Clearly, Italy was the ‘Eat’ country, where Gilbert chooses to indulge herself in pleasure, or rather the three key p’s—pizza, pasta and pesto, with an added emphasis on gelato. She fittingly names it her “no carb left behind experience.”

Following in Gilbert’s footsteps (or rather her increasing pant size), I successfully managed to use my weeklong Italian spring break vacation to fill myself with enough of Italy’s culinary goodness to last me at least until the next time I make it back. My friend (half)-joked before we left for Florence, “Is it bad that I’m more excited for the gelato than I am for David?” The most famous sculpture of ALL TIME versus rich, creamy deliciousness in hundreds of flavors? Clearly an easy choice.

I began my trip in Rome, where I was greeted by my lovely Ann Arbor roommate Carly and her lovely Roman roommates, who had prepared a three-course dinner for my arrival. After ingesting far too much bruschetta, lasagna and finishing a full platter of tiramisu between five of us, we submitted to our food-induced comas and called it an early night.

Our next day started out well. Pizza for breakfast. Gelato for lunch. And a 4 hour trip into a new country and back. Wait, what? We spent the day in Vatican City, the sovereign city-state in the heart of Rome, which, with a population of 800, is the smallest country in the world. Vatican City is home to the Pope (currently Benedict XVI), the Vatican Museum (housing Caravaggio’s ‘Entombment’ and Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’, among other world-famous pieces of art), St. Peter’s Basilica (one of the ‘holiest Christian sites’ and burial site of Jesus’s disciple Peter), and the Sistine Chapel (my personal favorite, and the site of daily neck straining on account of all those attempting to fully take in Michelangelo painted ceiling, which includes images ‘The Last Judgement’ and ‘Creation of Adam’).

We finished the day at the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, where legend holds it that any visitors who toss a coin into the fountain are ensured a return to Rome (upon hearing this, I immediately tossed my coin.) An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain each DAY, which then goes to a supermarket for the poor. Our cultural excursions continued the next day in the Colosseum, built in 70 AD to be used for gladiator battles, animal hunts and executions. The inhumane idea of slaves being torn to shreds by wild beasts as the upper class crowd watched in delight made me uncomfortable to say the least, but I was relieved to find that today the Colosseum is a symbol of the international campaign against capital punishment. The local Roman government use special night lights in the Colosseum whenever a person condemned to the death penalty anywhere in the world is released, or a state abolishes the death penalty, illuminating the city of Rome as a symbol of peace and hope.

My last day in Rome, I managed to squeeze in the Roman Forum (the remains of ancient Rome and the ‘underground’ city), and the Spanish steps (longest and widest staircase in all of Europe…also exceptionally beautiful at this time of year when they are covered with bright pink azalea flowers), and most importantly, a 4-hour cooking class at the greatest restaurant in Rome. Learning how to flawlessly whip homemade pasta, curl roman artichokes, season grilled zucchini and soak tiramisu’s ladyfingers for just the right amount of time was my favorite part of Rome, and skills I will definitely be bringing home with me.

I hopped on the train to Florence, a city whose history is often compared with the Biblical story of its famous patron, David. In his 23-foot beauty, David, a scrawny, poorly equipped and doubted boy, looks off into the distance at his competitor Goliath, a large, strong, heavily armed man with a look of determined calm. We all know that at the end of the story, David ends up conquering Goliath with his wit and intelligence. In a similar manner, Florentines had cast out their tyrannical ruling family (the Medicis) in 1494, only seven years before Michelangelo (also a Florentine) began constructing The David. With hopes of creating a new Republic from what was a weak and rocky start, The David stood as a reminder to the Florentine people of the strength of mind over matter.

I spent the next three days with my good friend Laura—seeing the David AND eating gelato (ha! Managed to do both!), touring the Uffizi Art Gallery (got to see Martini’s ‘Annunciation’ and Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’), marveling Brunelleschi’s Duomo, hiking in the famously scenic town right outside Florence, and of course, shopping in the leather market. We ended my trip literally ‘under the Tuscan sun’ with a night watching the sunset over the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio (only bridge in Florence not to be destroyed during WWII by the Germans…supposedly because of its beauty) from the highest lookout point in Florenze.

I somehow managed to escape the hovering cloud of volcanic ash and made it back to Sevilla just in time for La Feria. After 7 days of nonstop eating, I pulled a 180 to 3 full days of dancing (remember those flamenco skills I’d been practicing so much??) Managed to burn off a good amount of the calories I'd consumed in the previous week AND embarrass myself to no end. Details to come…

Monday, April 12, 2010

Forget Vicky and Cristina...this was Campbell Family Barcelona!

(Spanish family meets American family…lunch with Carmen!)

My dad has always been a do-it-himself kind of guy. Whether it be his insistence to take our whole family into northern Michigan backcountry every winter to chop down a Christmas tree, or his ability to catch, gut AND fillet a fish himself, he likes to feel self-sufficient. So, it was no surprise that before he left for Spain, he bought a ‘learn Spanish in 10 days’ audio kit—guaranteeing him all the essential skills needed for a 10-day vacation in Spain. Trying out a few of his favorite new phrases on me before they left (the main essentials being ‘Where is the bathroom?’ and ‘I’d like another glass of wine, please’), his progress (when not aided by google translator) seemed promising.

When I met my family in the airport of Sevilla however, it seemed any sense of Spanish confidence my dad had before leaving had immediately been shattered upon entering good old España. One of the first stories I heard was about a restaurant in the Madrid airport, where my dad attempted to order a milkshake. After it was clear the waitress didn’t speak English, my dad repeated, slower and more deliberately (and have no doubt, still in English), ‘MILLLLKK-SHAAAAAKE.’ The third time, he resorted to getting louder. Needless to say, upon arriving in Sevilla, he let me take over most of the talking, resorting to only ‘Sí’ ‘Gracias’ and his personal invention ‘perdito’ (his term of affection for everything and everyone.) I knew it was going to be an interesting vacation.

We spent our first 3 days in Sevilla—diving head first into the crazy Semana Santa activities, where the small winding streets are packed shoulder-to-shoulder with masses of elegantly dressed people watching the processions pass by. During Holy Week, each church in Sevilla (55 in total) puts on a procession, where they dress church members in Ku-Klux-Klan-like apparel (a Catholic tradition which symbolizes repentance and grief), design elaborate floats dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Jesus (some weighing over 4,000 pounds and carried by about 40 men), and march through the streets for up to 9 hours. Kids as young as 5 march in these processions (it’s quite the honor), and many of the older, braver participants walk barefoot (as an attempt to more closely emulate the hardships Jesus faced before his crucifixion.) Some processions start as early as 9am, and others don’t even end until 7am.

Apart from the processions, the Campbell family conquered all of Sevilla’s cultural landmarks, including lots of yummy meals and a much-needed morning of relaxation and massages at the Arab bathhouse. We continued onto Barcelona Easter Sunday, where we met Anne, and began our weeklong whirlwind of adventures. We made fast friends with the world-famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, as we toured the Sagrada Familia, Casa Mila, and Park Guell, 3 of his most renowned projects. Gaudi's unique style seems to combine gothic art with elements straight out of Candy-Land, all the while producing a perfect harmony with the surrounding natural elements. We continued onto the '92 Olympic Stadium and the Picasso museum, where I surprisingly learned that Pablo was quite the ladies man (managed to have 7 mistresses throughout his life AND 'relations' with a 24-year old shortly after he turned 70! Who would have thought.) We finished off the week window shopping, relaxing on the beach, and dining at a 5-course dessert restaurant (where my lucky mother got the selection that came with both bacon AND beet ice creams…mmm mmm.)

I sadly said goodbye to my family and returned back to Sevilla yesterday, only to have spring break round two begin this Friday. I’ll be spending the week in Italy, and despite my lack of Italian skills, I figure that with pizza, pasta and gelato galore, one can’t really go wrong. The gordita’s about to make her reappearance Italian style.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Oh, Portugal, That’s Where I Want to Go…

…To get away from it all. I know, I know, that’s not how the Beach Boys sing it. But Cocomo was too far away for a five-day spring break trip, so Spain’s friendly neighbor Lagos, Portugal had to suffice. Unfortunately, our 6 hour bus ride did not entail ‘getting there fast’, but as soon as we stepped foot in Lagos, we certainly were ‘taking it slow.’

Spring break while in Spain? It seemed too good to be true. It was a break from THE break. But nevertheless, 6 friends and I took advantage of our one-week vacation for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Sevilla to soak up some sun on the gorgeous beaches of Portugal.

To put it simply, I fell in love with Lagos. The long stretches of sandy beaches and caves were perfect for relaxing and exploring during the day, and the center is packed with bustling little restaurants and bars for the nights. With a population of only 11,000, we were already running into people we recognized on just the second day. Unfortunately, this included our bartender from the night before who was prancing around the beach in a banana hammock, but let’s focus on the positive. This included…

1. Having my first real hostel experience! This particular hostel scored bonus points because we came the first weekend of the season, so they threw us a party with free sangria and Portuguese Easter cake (aka bread with a full hard-boiled 'easter' egg in the middle…including the shell. We found this out the hard way...) But all in all, hostels are the opposite of what I had ever thought before coming to Europe—they are clean, safe, and a great way to meet people from all over the world. The owners are also not people who want to cut you up and keep your eyeballs (thank you to the horror film Hostel.) The amount of traveling our fellow Hostel-ites had done made my list feel pretty inadequate, but it was inspiring at the same time. I now know that after conquering my first hostel, it will be far from my last. Let’s just say it was such a success that I left asking the owner if they’ll be hiring in Summer 2011.

2. Learning how to surf! And I stood up…3 times!! (picture proof below if you don’t believe me.)

Sunday afternoon, Chantel and I, along with 3 surfboards, wetsuits, and our new surf-instructor friends, crammed into a tiny station wagon, and set off on our surfing adventure. After a short road trip, we arrived in the most southern-west corner of Europe, and piled out of the car to see one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever seen—the brilliantly blue Atlantic waves crashed up onto the cliffs, and where the sky ended, the ocean began. We practiced on the beach for awhile before even getting into the water, and after getting made fun of to no end for my insistence on keeping my hands out and pointed surfer-style (I guess that’s only in the movies…), we headed out. After my fair share of wipeouts and swallowing far too much saltwater, I finally got myself up. My last time was a record high of 5 whole seconds standing! (I know, I couldn’t believe it either.) I decided I didn’t want to curse my good luck, so I quit after that.

We reluctantly left Lagos, with big plans to return in May. Luckily, I left one adventure and continued right onto the next, as my family arrived in Sevilla the day I got back. We leave for Barcelona today and if you know my family at all, you know Campbell family vacations are sure to bring good (or at the very least, awkward) stories. Stay tuned for an update.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Walk Like a European

Albert Einstein once wrote:

“The American lives even more for his goals, for the future, than the European. Life for him is always becoming, never being.”

This is one of the greatest and hardest lessons that I have learned in my past 2 months here. The Europeans lead very SLOW lives—where basically everything but speaking (the only thing I truly need them to slow down for) is done at a very leisurely pace. As a person who is constantly on the go, I have been forced to breathe, relax, and remember that I am in SPAIN, where I am allowed to enjoy the moment I am living in instead of constantly looking ahead at what will come next.

I (as a true Ann Arbor-ite pedestrian) have problems waiting at stoplights. For some reason, it is the one thing that truly gets under my skin, and I can’t stand standing on a corner as all the cars get to whiz by. But the other night, as I rushed home from class, dodging cars, dogs and bike-riders, I was forced to wait as a giant procession of cars took a good 10 minutes to pass. Annoyed, I happened to glance up at the sky above me, and my heart flipped at the image above me. The sky was filled with the most beautiful dark clouds, illuminated by the lights coming from Sevilla’s world-famous cathedral. For the first time since I’ve been here, I stopped and just stared, awe-struck at what I could have easily missed just by being so concerned about getting home as quickly as possible. I spent the rest of my walk home gladly strolling at the same pace as those around me, enjoying my scenery and soaking up the MOMENT.

I unfortunately have not had the same awe-struck reaction to my classes here, but I figured that after finishing my first full month of classes at the University of Sevilla, I should at the very least verify that, yes, I am ACTUALLY completing the ‘study’ segment of my ‘study abroad’ program. I have elected to take 3 classes at the University, and 2 classes at my center, which go as follows:

Creative Writing (my famous birthday rhyming poems translated into Spanish are unfortunately not cutting it)
History of Love, Passion and Death in Spanish Literature (5 words—balconies, horses and dark cobblestone streets)
History of Slavery in America (interesting to study this from another culture’s point of view)
History of Modern-Day America (currently watching a Robert De Niro dubbed-spanish movie…I’m not complaining)
History of Contemporary Andalucia (figured I should get some studying in on the region I’m living in)

I have also joined a conversation program through the university which pairs people who want to learn English and those who want to learn Spanish together. My first partner, after living in the US for 3 months, had come to some interesting conclusions about Americans altogether…

Surprise! The fat American image. He told me that his dad, who would be considered heavier here in Spain would ‘definitely’ be considered skinny in the US. He also excitedly told me that when he returned, for the first time in his life he could ‘look down and see his stomach bulging out.’ Lovely.

His second impression was a little more profound. “It appears that you have everything in the world and still aren’t completely happy.” Going back to Mr. Einstein, the world’s view of Americans seems to be of people constantly pushing for bigger and better, never content with what the moment holds.

I took his statement as a challenge. In my six months here, I hope to leave every person I meet with a more positive imagine of Americans. Certainly there are aspects of American culture that are materialistic, but to classify the whole country as unappreciative and unhappy, this doesn’t fly by my book. I happen to appreciate what I have AND am happy! So granted I make more friends, watch out España, the American is about to surprise you.

On a final note of surprises, I have clearly been speaking too much Spanglish here. The other day I accidentally told my friend (who had lost his voice over the weekend) that all I wanted to do was molest him. (Molestar in Spanish = bother.) His eyes grew wide and barely able to speak, managed to spit out in a raspy whisper, “You want to do WHAT to me?” So yes, España, watch out. Surprise! The American is coming out to molest you.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait (Tables)

As a true-blood college student, when I hear the phrase ‘free food’, my ears immediately perk up. So when our group arrived in Granada last weekend, and the guidebook recommended a restaurant where free paella was served with a drink, we headed straight there. Reputedly the oldest bar in Granada, it was no surprise to us why it had stuck around so long. When we arrived, the restaurant was the typical Spanish ‘bodega’—packed full with people, the majority standing with plates in hand, waiters yelling in rapid Spanish, people throwing their money behind the bar, and just general madness. But amidst all the chaos, it was clear the diners were enjoying their food and their atmosphere.

Once we finally managed to squeeze ourselves up to the bar, we ordered our paella, served with small baskets of bread. A group of friends came in after us and asked me for extra bread, so I asked the waiter to exchange my small basket for a bigger one. Hearing my request, our 40-year old bartender did a double-take, and said, “Más pan? Eres gordita!” (More bread? You are a little fat one!) clearly not realizing I was not planning on eating the whole bread basket myself. Though I tried to explain it was not for me, he chose to continue believing I would be eating the whole basket alone. A few minutes later he returned to ask me if I had a boyfriend. Clearly, he was into the little fat ones.

As I shouted across the bar, “You are way too old for me!” I realized I had used the wrong form of old—the kind that you should never use with anyone under 60. I worried about this for about 10 seconds before Haley reminded me that I was worrying about offending a man who had just called me fat. He attempted to assure me he was only 22, and then shouted something I could not quite make out. I have this problem here in Spain that when I don’t understand something, I just kind of nod my head along as to say ‘mmhmm.’ My friend whipped around next to me and informed me, “You just told him you believe in love at first sight!” That was news to me.

Our exchanges continued for the next hour or so. I watched as he gave an older couple a bread basket that was twice the size of mine, and demanded to know why he hadn’t called them fat as well. Because they are ACTUALLY fat, he reassured me. You, are not. Thank you, Mr. 40-year old waiter, you are too kind.

But the lunch was not quite complete. Egged on by the rest of my group, I told the waiter I’d like to take a picture with him. The deal was, a picture with one kiss on the cheek = 5 euros for Gayle. Instead of reaching across the bar like I thought we might do though, he kindly invited me to come around the other side of the 40-foot bar. As I squeezed my way through the hoards of people and got behind the bar, I assured the other confused looking bartenders that I had a ‘friend’ back there. I made it to my man, and cameras ready, I gave him the promised big old kiss on the cheek. The restaurant exploded into cheers—the fat little American girl had kissed the bartender…YAY! The aftermath, indicated by the picture above, was filled with one bright red face, and the quickest restaurant escape I’ve ever had. The conclusion—I actually don’t believe in love at first sight, but love at first bite? With free paella, anything is possible.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Once (and only once!) in a Lifetime Experience

Though it seems to be February’s buzzword of Europe, up until last weekend, Carnaval had been a foreign concept to me. But Saturday night, we got to know one another quite personally. For all you fellow Wolverines, imagine a Greenwood block party plus Nightmare on Elm Street, but multiply it by 100 and take away the police arriving at 11 pm. For all of you who have never had the privilege of experiencing an Ann Arbor block party, try to visualize the masses in Times Square on New Year’s Eve dressed in the most ridiculous costumes you can think of. This should give you a general idea of Carnaval, or the rest of the world’s version of Mardi Gras. Carnaval in Cadiz is one of the biggest street festivals in the world, where people come from all over Spain, and even Europe, to celebrate.

But to celebrate what? To be 100% honest, I couldn’t tell you. I’d say it’s somewhere along the lines of celebrating life in general. Carnaval begins the weekend before the start of Lent, and was originally intended to be a meat-eating holiday, as all the Catholics prepared to enter a 40-day fast from meat. But unless churros with chocolate now have some sort of meat in them, I unfortunately think the original purpose has long-since been lost. As my group stepped off our tour bus into the throngs of people, we turned to each other a little confused and said, “But what do we DO?”

The fact that there really seemed to be nothing to do besides walk through the streets socializing with all the elaborately dressed people just added to the novelty of Carnaval. Our groups mission quickly became to make as many friends as possible and find the best costumes on the street before the night’s end. I had chosen to forego the 30 euro cliché costumes that filled every store in Sevilla and put my creativity to the test, spending 5 euros on glow-in-the-dark stars, glow-stick style glasses, and some face paint, from which I morphed myself into a starry night sky! Despite the face that I started the night with 40 stars covering my clothes and returned home with only four remaining (turns out that star tack doesn’t work too well on clothes!), I’d say it was a general success. And though arriving in a group with both a lamp (Haley) and a tree (Lyndsay) heightened our standards for creative costumes on the streets, we still managed to find Shrek and Fiona, a bush to match Lyndsay, and a transvestite wearing a dress I own!

While the night was clearly a blast, I would definitely put it into the category of a ONCE in a lifetime experience. It was fun while it lasted, but I don’t plan on going back anytime soon. Leaving my house at 7:30 pm to not return until 6 am is not something that I would like to do on a regular basis (I now know why the Spaniards love their siestas so much…)

And on one final note, after an inspiring video passed along by my dad, I have decided to trade in my current salsa dancing partners (Shakira and the bathroom mirror) for my dog, Rhumba. Enjoy ☺

Monday, February 8, 2010

A City to Celebrate

Yesterday, February 6, marked two significant events. Not only did the ‘snowpocolpyse’ hit the US’s East Coast, bringing the heaviest snowstorm in 90 years to the nation’s capital, but it was also the first day of flip-flop season in Sevilla! (I can start the hate mail now..) I happily wandered through the sunny streets in a sundress and sandals, an outfit that at this time of year here screams ‘American’, and yet I still wasn’t concerned. It was the perfect day in Sevilla.

While on a run, I discovered a huge park that combines the best of both NYC’s Central Park and the Arb in AA. Accordingly, I immediately fell in love. I stumbled upon a free outdoor concert, where a string quartet was playing Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’ (aka the ice-cream truck song!) and I couldn’t help but laugh as the audience listened intently. I later wandered past a group of street musicians playing Celion Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ again with a group of avid appreciators gathered around, clearly unaware of the nude Titanic scene this song brings to the minds of all who have seen the movie.

I ended the day out with some friends, where we discovered a new bar filled with Spanish students (finally escaping the American scene—success!) One of the boys I met asked me if I was interested in ‘studying the body,’ and just as I was about to tell him I was actually studying political science, I fortunately realized he was attempting to be witty and wasn’t actually talking about human biology. Picking up Spanish sarcasm AND telling someone off in Spanish: Check!

Aside from my fabulous Saturday, I had my first salsa lesson in Sevilla’s classiest club on Thursday night (note: sarcasm.) Melissa and I stood in an awkward line of uncoordinated American girls trying to mimic the steps of our bodacious instructor who shook her hips like Shakira. After about 20 minutes of embarrassing myself, I decided Americans are just clearly not meant to dance like the Spaniards.

But, I have a little more than 2 months till Feria, Spain’s giant spring street festival, where salsa-dancing skills are essentially mandatory. So I have not given up! Just acknowledged that it may take a little longer than I was hoping to start ‘moving my hips like yeah’ (yes, I have not forgotten about Miley Cyrus since getting to Spain). Luckily my program center offers free weekly lessons, which I will start come March. Until then, looks like it will be me, Shakira, and the bathroom mirror...

Saturday, January 30, 2010

More Than Just a Holiday in Spain

Good news…I am alive and back to the blogging world! And with a week’s worth of news to catch up on. I spent the weekend in the country’s cultural capital (Madrid) and saw some of the world’s finest collections of European art in both the Prado Museums (home of Velazquez’s Las Meninas) and El Reina Sofia (home to Picasso’s Guernica), toured the Palacio Real (official residence of the King of Spain) and for all you non-art lovers, still managed to squeeze in a night at Kapital, Madrid’s famous 7-story discoteca. I dined at a delicious Peruvian restaurant where my table of 7 girls was serenaded by a completely authentic 70-some-year old tooth-missing mariachi man, and people-watched while strolling down the narrow cobblestone roads.

In the past week alone, we have conquered all the major cultural sites of Sevilla as well—the Cathedral (third-largest church in the world, and where Christopher Columbus is buried), Giralda Tower (with the most incredible view of all of Sevilla, as seen above), the fine arts museum, and the royal palace. We managed to squeeze in a night at the theater (and I thought symbolism in ENGLISH tragedies was hard to understand) as well as a traditional flamenco show (complete with stereotypical long greasy haired Spanish man in tap shoes.)

Spain is certainly one of a kind. With each day’s laundry blowing in the wind from atop every apartment balcony, the city is rich with vibrant colors, and there always seems to be the distant sound of an accordion playing everywhere you go. The people here have a surprising appreciation and curiosity for Americans and the U.S. in general, renaming famous Americans such as Mareecaree (Mariah Carey) and Seenconree (Sean Connery), and my personal favorite, Guy-el (my own name seems to be one of the most difficult.) The 4-year-old host sister of one of my friends here has named her darker skinned doll ‘Obama.’

I continue to learn more and more everyday. I now know that sometimes Spaniards find it hard to understand me because I ‘smile too much when I speak’, making it difficult to vocalize (if you know me at all, you know this will certainly be a long process to change.) I also have realized that when Carmen asks if we want ‘pan de molde’ she is not actually asking if we want to eat moldy bread, but rather if we want sandwich bread (think bread molded into a square, instead of bread growing with mold...) And I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that unfortunately Sevilla is not Ann Arbor, and the pedestrians here actually obey the traffic laws (imagine that!)

But now that I have my dog, my running route, and my peanut butter (thank goodness Carmen has had exchange students for the past 5 years who have all happened to gift her with peanut butter that she does not eat), things are starting to fall into place. I've even decided that maybe it is in my better interests not to treat this like a 6-month vacation after all and started wearing my retainers again! So aside from the fact that I have my laundry done every day (quite different than the 'wait till the hamper literally can't hold a single piece more of clothing' policy I usually stick to at school), I am finally finding a place 4,000 miles across the globe I can call home.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Home, Sweet Home

No, I have not changed my flight and come back to Michigan early. Instead, I have finally moved into my Spanish homestay! Meet Marie Carmen Rodriguez, my new señora, or host-mom for the next five months (photos to come, she insisted she was not beautiful enough today). Carmen is an adorable widow with 5 kids, 3 precious grandbabies, and one yellow lab—my new best friend whose name is Rhumba (and won't sit still for a picture, as seen above.) Only one of the five still lives here—22-year old Marta—but the rest love to visit, so the apartment is always fairly lively. Yesterday, I walked past the TV where 1-year old Marcos was watching ‘Bob Esponja.’ Yes, it is what you think it is, and funnier than you can imagine.

My roommate Melissa (from U.Penn) and I each have our own rooms and share a bathroom. In an attempt to leave this country completely fluent, we truly only speak to one another in Spanish, which has provided for many learning experiences. Carmen (who is a cook extraordinaire) asked us what type of food we usually eat back at home. I told her that among other things, I love pasta with chicken (pasta con pollo—fairly simple, right?) Instead, Carmen heard ‘pasas con pollo’ (raisins with chicken). She seemed so surprised by this, but I continued to insist that I loved it, and that, yes Carmen, raisins with chicken is a really popular dish in the US! I can only imagine the kind of impression of Americans I am giving her. Thus, I have created my favorite new Spanglish word—‘estruglio’—to define our lives here.

However, we continue to try to transition into this new culture. Along with not eating dinner until at least 9 pm, living in apartments with no central heat, and taking showers with only half a door, we have been trying out bits and pieces of the nightlife. Friday night we tried the club scene, and before Melissa and I left the house, Carmen excitedly told us about one of her other students who met a boy at a club in Sevilla, started dating him, and then ended up MARRYING HIM. We told her she should probably not get her hopes up. The only thing I met in the club that night was The Baja Men, as ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ (yes, from 1998) blasted through the speakers. I suppose this was three men, instead of just one, but I don’t think this was the same thing Carmen had in mind.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Spanish Surprises

I have finally found wee-fee! (How the Spaniards pronounce wifi—and accordingly my new favorite term.) Spain has yet to stop surprising me. For some reason, younger boys here (I am talking pre-teen style) think that it is acceptable to try and pick up American girls nearly twice their age. As I watched the Barcelona-Sevilla soccer game in a sports bar the other night, a boy probably half a foot shorter than me (I have no idea why he was in the bar in the first place…let’s just say the Spanish are a little more lax with ID-ing), reaches across a table to me and grabs my cheek (like a grandma would do) and, in the sexiest voice he can muster, asks me my name. I only wish I knew the translation for ‘creeper-in-training.’

Did I mention I ate fish ovaries? (pictured above) Another mix-up, but not quite the same as when I confused time and weather. Turns out the ‘huevas’ on the menu in a tapas restaurant I ate lunch at weren’t just a misspelling of chicken eggs (‘huevos’), nor a type of foreign fish. Instead, a not-so-delicious combination of the two. As the small pieces crumbled in my mouth, I swallowed thinking, ‘what a strange type of fish this is.’ But, as I am trying to live like the Sevillianos do, I finished my portion. Only after we had all tried some did Haley suggest that it was possible that we had just eaten fish eggs. Our waiter cleared up the confusion as he told us, “Oh no, not fish eggs!” We all breathed a sigh of relief. Until he continued. “Fish OVARIES!” Yum.

I am attempting to reduce the number of times I hear ‘Americana’ as I pass by groups of Sevillanos on the streets, so I guess I will continue to try new things. Not quite Spanish, but ‘carpe diem’. I am in Sevilla, after all, and how often in the US do I have the opportunity to have a million little fish babies swimming around in my stomach?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Rain In Spain Stays Mainly In the Plain...

...Or on the heads of young American girls. Yes, the rain has continued. All the Spaniards continue to tell me that this is "muy raro" and it should be stopping soon, and I can only hope they're right. I braved the rain today to get my mandatory extra visa pictures taken, and they were accordingly drenched in beauty. Despite this, however, I can't complain. I would rather be dealing with warm rain in Sevilla than freezing sleet and snow in Ann Arbor. The Sevillanos seem to think that anytime the weather drops below 50, it is necessary to pile on the snow coats, boots, and full winter apparel. Though I would gladly leave my coat at home, I am doing my best to not stick out like a sore thumb. Alas, I leave the coat on and do my best to continue my transition to the Spanish lifestyle.

After signing a pledge to speak only in Spanish for the rest of my time here (we'll see how long this lasts..), I started classes today. I was told by two professors that I would be learning information that might actually come in handy in my life here ("like ordering a beer, or picking up a guy at a bar"--as one of my professors excitedly told us). My Spanish still needs a bit of touching this will certainly be helpful. After I attempted to ask our waiter at lunch today how long our pizza would take, he told me "two days." It was only after another minute or so that I realized he was actually talking about the rain outside. "El tiempo" means time AND weather. I'm not sure what exactly happened to the pizza or the cooking, but, ah, to be lost in translation. Thankfully, this mistake was fairly innocuous, but there's always the future. Let's hope I learn quickly.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Just The Beginning

Like any good love story, this one starts out a little rough. But after only one airport meltdown, 16 pounds of luggage too many, a six hour delay in Frankfurt, and about $100 of cab fares, I have successfully made it to Spain. It is raining and far colder than my suitcase packed with little ballet flats was ever prepared for, but I have faith in this relationship with my future home of six months.

This blog is a story of how the Wolverine (me!) falls in love with El Toro (Spain!) For those of you who don't speak quite as fluently as I do, el toro is code for the bull (bulls are pretty popular here in Spain...)

As many of you know, I am spending a semester in Sevilla, Spain with 35 other students from U of M, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania. I will be spending the next six months in this city that smells of oranges, eating tapas galore and dancing my nights away to flamenco. I will also be LEARNING! (believe it or not). I hope to return completely fluent in spanglish.

The rest is to be continued. I have already successfully eaten shrimp with the eyes still in it and mastered the art of arguing with cab drivers, and am sure things can only go up from here.