Lebanon Valley College Study Abroad

For Students

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Spanish and I have maintained a strict love-hate relationship for the past six years; unfortunately, our constant bickering and habitual arguments have left little room for love.

As a begrudging, mediocre Spanish student, I have always taken the time to focus on how the language has always been a second choice, a pathway that I have either stumbled upon or has been chosen for me. This dissatisfaction has always translated into a respectful but subtle disdain for the country and its language: scoffing at the nation in an ever-present series of history classes while frowning at its irregular verbs and inconvenient gramatical structure. My initial forays into its study were marred by disappointment and dissatisfaction, something I held tight to and never let go.

Our relationship is one of complacency and convenience; divorce is expensive, and moving into separate rooms is much easier than the arduous task of moving into separate apartments. It is not exciting, but it is comfortable and secure. Any and all passion remains reserved for my first love, German.

As an elementary school student, an accidental series of events resulted in my family hosting a high-school German exchange student in our home for a year. His stories about his country and anecdotes in German left me intrigued and eager to study the language.

As a middle school student, an unfortunate combination of scheduling conflicts removed the opportunity to study German and left me trapped between French, Spanish, and Latin. Two years of disagreeable French lessons and a consideration of Latin as a dead language eliminated those options and left me with Spanish. Spanish, the language that everyone and their brother was taking; therefore, not different or exciting enough and leaving my anti-social-self immediately repulsed. I entered my first class with crossed arms and a closed mind and refused to study any of the material placed in front of me. The next three years passed in the same way, and the more I understood about the culture the more I disliked its loud and boisterous nature.

As a high school student inspired by the importance of my GPA in the fourth year, I attempted to take the final course seriously–efforts that ended disastrously and left me even more disillusioned and dead set against the language than when I started. European and world history courses swept the culturally-rich country off to the side in favor of its stronger, more militaristic neighbors and stuck to portraying Spain as a passive participant in world affairs. Suspicions “confirmed,” I too swept the nation off to the side and felt glad to be rid of it for the final part of my high school career.

A trip to Germany to visit our exchange student and his family solidified my mental dichotomy: German was the language that I wanted to study, while Spanish was the language that I had been forced to study. While many find it off-putting, the abrupt tones of brisk German hold a calming rhythm, pleasant to my ears. The Spanish dialect, whose rolling, lyrical timbre many find soothing, sounded abrasive–a serrated serenade of sordid disquietude. The more reserved German culture and its traditional stoicism provided a welcome change from the discomforting openness and emotionalism of Spanish society.   The Nordic nation simply felt right, and I enjoyed every moment of a month that was over much too soon.

As a freshman student in college I was finally given the opportunity to take German classes for the next two years, which further confirmed my unfounded prejudices. Commensurate to an afterthought I had added a Spanish course to my schedule, an act of drudgery born of habit and the dormant fear of loosing my lackluster abilities. I dreaded every arduous moment spent studying Spanish, memorizing an endless litany of vocabulary words and irregular verb tenses, and used my simultaneous German courses as an enjoyable distraction from the toil. Each matriculated phrase marked a small victory and proud celebration.

The final fight was an impassioned brawl exemplary of the end of any heated romance as sensibility overcame the sensuous: I would study abroad in Valladolid, Spain for the spring 2016 academic semester.

***

Contrary to copious student testimonies, studying abroad has not changed my life. With less than two weeks in the semester, it is safe to say that this will not change and I will not return to the United States with a newfound sense of independence and individualism. I do not feel more prepared or enlightened about my future as a first-semester senior, and I have not gained a fresh outlook on my calling in life. My internal purpose has not been rejuvenated nor reinvigorated. Study abroad can do all of these things, and for many students, it has and will continue to do so.

While study abroad has not changed my life, in four short months it has reversed six years of resentment and cynicism. It has shown me the beauty of the Spanish language and the rich meanings of its words that could never be fully divined or appreciated from within the confines of a textbook. Lifeless on the page, their heated cadences spring forth in cascading crescendos and diminuendos from those around you. Once barren, the words now mean something: bocadillos hold the memory of afternoon excursions and cenas the memories of laughter and togetherness. Mi vida is a simple, expository statement until it is used by a husband in reference to his wife or a mother to her children.

Though arguably factual, to spurn the role of Spain throughout history as a secondary, supporting nation is to ignore the resilient strength of its people and their capacity for pained endurance. They are tenacious and proud of their capacity for perseverance, and in the face of past and future hardships, will continue to persist. Though worn to the bone with economic turmoil and political corruption, the Spanish spirit progresses.

Its festivals must be experienced in person, as pictures and eloquent descriptions cannot do justice to the feeling of pure excitement and absolute energy. They cannot match the exuberance of the crowds and their insatiable appetite for celebration. As the United States clings to the last cultural vestiges of its holidays, Spain remains a steadfast observer of its heritage.

***

Three out of my four courses for next semester will be Spanish courses, and I could not be happier about it. If I had remained the torpid and obstinate student and stayed in the classroom, I never would have had the privilege of understanding the crucial aspects of the language and cultural I had been mentally maltreating for so many years. Spanish, nor any language, is not stagnant, and to take a stationary approach to its study is to barely scratch the surface of its essence and do it a grand injustice.

Language and international studies students: you are required to go, and so you will go, but keep an open mind when you do. For the rest of you? Given the chance, go. Skeptical? So was I, so go buy your suitcase and start packing.

Au revoir, Paris

Two weeks ago, Rachel, Alisha, and I headed for Paris after classes on Thursday. Even though I had already visited the city on a trip with my high school a few years ago, I was excited for a weekend there. I guess I should begin by saying, this weekend wasn’t what I expected. With high expectations, we arrived in Paris late Thursday evening around 11:30pm. We were instantly faced with a steep language barrier. Far from the city center, and unsure where exactly to go, we headed outside the ORLY airport to find a taxi to take us to our hotel. Luckily, I knew the metro stop near our hotel and somehow our taxi driver understood where we wanted to go. We arrived quickly at our hotel, checked in, and climbed over 6 flights of stairs to our room (the elevator did not appear trustworthy). We threw our things down, desperate for supper and headed to McDonalds around the corner (the only place open at this time around our hotel). We each ordered and paid. When I looked at the change I had received, I realized I was missing a few Euros. I asked the cashier for the rest of my change and he refused to give it to me. As I tried to explain, he just gave me a blank unwavering stare. Although he knew English, he refused to use it and in turn got a few extra Euros from me. Frustrated and losing my patience, I walked away and knew from that point this was not going to be the trip I had imagined.

After our greasy dinner, we headed back to the hotel and found ourselves in a long conversation with the man working at reception. At first, it was really nice talking to him, getting suggestions about the city and learning a bit about French culture. However, about an hour into the conversation, things started to get weird. Although generous and meaning no harm, (well, at least I think so) he offered us a “rare”  Egyptian alcoholic beverage. We politely turned him down unsure of what was really in the drinks. Then, somehow,  mysteriously female porn came on the TV in the lounge (of course the reception guy had no idea how…) and we all knew it was time to go to bed. We quickly escaped, got showers in our moldy bathroom and tried to remain optimistic for our first full day in Paris the following day.

Friday was a new day! We slept in, organized our maps, and headed on the metro to our first sightseeing stop, Père Lachaise Cemetary. The largest of Paris’s cemeteries, here lay many famous philosophers, writers, and artists. We checked out the map and searched for all the tombs we hoped to see: Comte, Pissarro, Gay Lussac, and Seurat. We began walking, excited to find a grave we recognized until we realized how difficult of a task this really was. Not realizing the cemetery was 110 acres, we blindly searched for these tombs.

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After about an hour of wandering (which isn’t so bad) we finally found the burial spot of Oscar Wilde. Feeling accomplished after finding one recognizable name, we decided to cut our losses and hop back on the metro to République, a famous square.

 

After the Paris Terrorist Attacks, République held the largest demonstration of people in modern French history with over 1.6 million people in attendance. Here, people came together to express solidarity and rally against the attacks.

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After quietly admiring the statue, the memorials, and the artwork, we wandered around République and the surrounding streets to find a good place for lunch. We wandered into a quaint French café and relaxed over a good lunch as we planned where we would go next. We hopped back on the Metro (I think we spent half of the entire day just on there) to Montmartre, a famous neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris City center. We began at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, an iconic and beautiful church on top of a large hill.

IMG_5863We ascended until we finally reached the top and got a great view of the city skyline. We took enough pictures and followed the crowd inside to admire the massive basilica. We fought the crowds and finally made our way back down the steps as we headed to Moulin Rouge, the most famous cabaret in the world (also home to the can-can dance). We wandered around until we spotted the infamous giant red windmill and the long street of sex shops. Feeling adventurous we bravely made our way down the street, glancing curiously in shops here and there. Then, of course, we got nervous when a few guys standing outside on the shops, tried to pick us up. We quickly crossed the street only to find another guy making odd noises at us. It was settled, it was time to head elsewhere.

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Back on the metro to the Arc de Triomph- the highlight of our day! Realizing we would rather climb the Arc than the Eiffel, we got in line until finally it was our turn to head to the top! Here, we got another bird’s eye view of the city and our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower!

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Next, we walked down Champs-Élysses, the most famous shopping street in Paris before hopping back on the metro (yes, once again) to the Luxembourg garden, a nice park where we took a rest before heading for dinner. We found pizza for dinner, conveniently located next to a highly rated crêperie. Of course, we got delicious dessert crêpes (banana and Nutella) and made our way back to the hotel for the night.

Exhausted from our first day in Paris, we woke up late once again and began our day with lunch: an ice cream cone from a small place called Berthillon. We savored our delicious cones as we walked to Notre Dame, the most famous church in Paris and also one of the best examples of the French Gothic architectural style. We got into line and waited our turn to enter the home of Quasi Moto (somehow Rachel didn’t realize this church was the setting for Walt Disney’s movie, The HunchBack of Notre Dame).

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Much more beautiful than the cartoon, we spent awhile admiring this impressive church. Next, we continued to walk along the Seine until we were approaching the Louvre.

We came around the corner off one of the many bridges crossing the wide river, when we spotted a few women holding clipboards and asking for donations. While Rachel and I avoided the ladies, Alisha walked right through them with one woman naturally coming right up to her side, asking for a donation. As Rachel and I looked back to see if Alisha was coming or not we saw a second woman approach her on the other side. Then, suddenly, for no obvious reason to us, they backed off. Alisha continued walking to where Rachel and I stood, waiting for her. Instantly, Alisha said frantically searching her purse, “I don’t have my phone. They took my phone.” In a bit of a panic I asked her if she was sure they could’ve taken it. She said yes and hurried back to confront one of the women. I watched from a few yards away as the woman laughed in Alisha’s face but then finally revealed under her clipboard Alisha’s phone. We were lucky Alisha realized and lucky the woman was willing to give it back to her. We heard that pickpockets were bad in Paris, but, of course, we didn’t think it would happen to us, especially with how careful we always are with our purses, money, and phones.

Once we had all calmed down a bit, we made our way to the Louvre, took some cliché tourist pictures and got in line where we waited about 45 minutes to enter. It was our own fault we didn’t purchase tickets ahead of time, but we were unsure of our plans and didn’t know if we wanted to enter or not. We spent over 3 hours in the Louvre (glad we had decided to enter), wandering and admiring so many famous artworks, like the Mona Lisa, La Liberté, and the Venus de Milo. We walked through  the Egyptian art section studying a mummy and the rooms full of sarcophaguses. We saw Napoleon’s apartments and some amazing marble sculptures. Only seeing a small portion of the Louvre, we were starving and unfortunately it was closing time.

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We found a normal looking restaurant nearby where we decided to get dinner. We couldn’t believe how expensive this place was, 5 euros for a bottle of Coke! We let feeling guilty for spending so much on such an average meal. However, after looking around, we realized all the restaurants around were that expensive. Even McDonald’s was expensive, over 3 euros for a McFlurry!

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Moving on, we made our way to the Eiffel Tower. As we walked, it started to rain, we just couldn’t win. Regardless, we were determined to see the Eiffel Tower and the beautiful light show. Ok, I will admit, seeing this did make our day a bit better. After walking around the Eiffel and souvenir shopping we made our way back to our hotel, since it was getting late and we had to get up early for our morning flight.

 

We got up early, giving ourselves ample time to reach the airport. We planned to take the tram to the airport, the cheapest method. We reached the tram station. It wasn’t running today. Ok, plan B: metro and bus. We walked down into the metro stop and studied the map. Thankfully, a kind man approached us and explained the best way to get to the airport, was it possible that our luck was finally changing?

Well, the minute we walked into the airport we knew that couldn’t be true. Our flight was delayed an indeterminate amount time, so all we could do is wait at our gate for our signal to board. After over an hour delay we finally boarded, nervous because we knew we would really be in a time crunch to catch our train from Madrid back to Valladolid. Naturally, we got held up in the airport and ended up missing our train by 15 minutes. We headed to the service desk and were politely told we would have to buy new tickets since our delay had nothing to due with the train company. 30 euros later, we were finally on a train back to Valladolid, quite happy to be heading home after such bad luck all weekend.

Although we faced some obstacles in Paris, ultimately it has made me a smarter traveller, even if it did cost me a lot of money to learn this. I can say while I won’t be heading back to Paris anytime soon, it is a place worth visiting at least once in a lifetime!

Au revoir!

McKenna

 

Bopping Around Barcelona

Eager for a long weekend trip, two weeks ago Abby, Alisha, and I headed to the eastern coast of Spain to visit Spain’s economic powerhouse and second largest city: Barcelona. We arrived late Thursday afternoon, checked into our hostel, and immediately headed to Montjuïc, unwilling to waste any sunshine. Montjuïc is Barcelona’s largest public park with numerous scenic hiking trails and lookouts over the vast city.

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There is an impressive 16th century castle at the peak of Montjuïc, and more famously the olympic stadium from the 1992 Summer Olympics lies in the confines of this expansive park. As it turns out, the Olympic Games held here completely redefined the city of Barcelona.

IMG_5276The 1992 Summer Games transformed this once industrial city into a tourist hotspot, revving up the economy and making it the richest region in Spain today. Egyptian sand was pumped onto the coastlines and palm trees were shipped from California to attract tourists and create some of the most famous beaches in Spain.

After all our walking, we made our way to an Italian restaurant for dinner where we treated ourselves to a bottle of wine and some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten (please note: I haven’t been to Italy yet). Exhausted from our hiking and travel, we headed to bed.

To begin our sightseeing Friday, we booked another Sandeman free walking tour. In two and a half hours we made our way through the city and learned about the interesting figures that helped shape the city into what it is today. Of course, we learned about Barcelona’s persistent resistance during the Spanish Civil War and through the decades of Franquismo. During Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 to 1975, citizens of Barcelona, and all of Cataluña (the province Barcelona is located in), were prohibited to speak their regional language. Censorship was a part of daily life across all forms of media and women lost many of the rights they held previously. Despite such cultural and political repression nationwide, Barcelona has blossomed into a culturally rich destination.

After our tour, we headed straight for the beach. Although a beautifully sunny day, the Mediterranean breeze was chilly, so we opted out of sun bathing and decided a walk along the beach would be better. Emptying our shoes of sand, we then headed to Parc de la Ciutadella, another of the city’s famous parks, known for its beautiful fountain. On such a nice day the park was packed, so we saw the sights and next headed to see Barcelona’s Arc de Triomph and grab lunch.

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After a relaxing lunch, we walked to Plaza de Cataluyna, one of the most famous squares in the city. We walked around and looked in the shops until it was time to head to the Barcelona Cathedral, which is free to enter after 5:45 pm.

IMG_5394We admired the Gothic architecture and saw the tomb of Saint Eulalia, a patron saint of the city and a martyr. It is said that when the Romans came to Barcelona centuries ago, they put Eulalia in a public square naked in order to punish her. Miraculously, snow fell despite the warm climate and covered her body. Angry that their first punishment failed, the Romans placed her in a barrel with knives in it and sent her rolling down a hill. They repeated this punishment over and over again, and each time she emerged unscratched.

After the cathedral, we headed to another beautiful church called Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar and stumbled upon the Born Cultural Center, which houses archeological remains of the first market that stood there during the 1700’s. Exhausted and getting hungry, we made our way back to our hostel to find a dinner place and hit the sack before another action-packed day in Barcelona.

We began our Saturday ready to get rowdy with Gaudí, considering we planned an entire day just to see this famous artist’s works around the city. We hopped on the Metro to begin our day at the infamous minor basilica, La Sagrada Familia. Designed by Antoni Gaudí in 1882, this massive and amazing edifice is still under construction today. Although not expected to be completed until 2026, La Sagrada Familia is nonetheless a breathtaking structure both inside and out. I can honestly say it is the most beautiful and peaceful place I have ever encountered.

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Adorned with vibrant stained glass windows, the white stone is transformed into a rainbow.  The architecture is nearly  indescribable, the perfect combination of structure and fluidity (please note: I know practically nothing about architecture). The detail put into this single architectural masterpiece is astounding; every where I looked I was able to something new, something I hadn’t noticed before. Gaudí was no doubt a genius, and although we didn’t want to leave such a beautiful place, we knew we needed to get moving in order to see the rest of his works spread out across the city.

Continuing our day dedicated to Gaudí, we next walked to La Pedrera and Casa Battló, relatively close to La Sagrada Familia considering the massive size of Barcelona.

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Unable to enter either building due to our strict time schedule, we headed to Parc Güell located on the outskirts of the city atop a huge hill (maybe even a mountain). Constructed between 1900 and 1914, Parc Güell is a massive garden complex which was once home to Gaudí. We climbed stairs upon stairs (thank goodness there were some outdoor escalators too) until finally we reached the summit. Admiring the views of the city, we explored the park until we finally found what we had come to see: the incredible stone columns, the colorful mosaic art, and the houses all constructed by Gaudí.

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Unfortunately, we arrived about two and a half hours before we could enter to explore the section that contained the impressive lookout and mosaic art (tickets we sold out). So, we took cover from the rain wherever we could and impatiently walked around the park as we waited. We finally entered in a massive wave of sightseers. It was worth the wait! Stricken with hunger and exhaustion, we made our way back to our hostel to find dinner and call it a night, since we had to get up early Sunday morning to catch our flight back to Valladolid. Barcelona was truly a unique and beautiful city. With its impressive architecture, sunny beaches, and unique history and culture, I understand why so many venture to Barcelona each year: just to capture a glimpse of what living in Spain is all about.

Adéu,

McKenna

Las Fallas: A Celebration Like None Other

On March 19th, the city of Valencia burns.

The fires overshadow the buildings with flames felt from blocks away, roaring monstrosities that light the city streets and burn a purifying blaze, destroying the negative memories of the past in the form of carefully constructed artistic monuments, called fallas, and their ninots. The satirical ninot figures and their staging takes an entire neighborhood’s funds and several artisans a year to build and are gone in mere minutes, destroyed by the fireworks lit around their base. Liberated, the city celebrates their massacre, dancing in the ruins and drinking to their destruction. As further pyrotechnics illuminate the sky, smaller versions of the fireworks spark in the streets, flying from every hand in all directions, regardless of the passing crowds and parked cars. In the manic spirit of the festival, they bounce off the sides of buildings within the confines of the narrow streets.
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Before the city burns, it must explode.

Five days before the burning, each day dawns at 8 a.m. with an outbreak of traditional music from parading bands and explosions thrown by the following crowd. The sounds of La Despertá do not stop until the grey hours of the morning, and begin again with each new day. The closer the explosions, the sharper their crisp pops—the farther, the deeper the rumbling booms that echo off the buildings, reverberating in overwhelming waves beyond the initial point of impact into the neighboring barrios of the city. Regardless of proximity to the city center it is unescapable: this unpredictable series of sounds, with mere seconds of rest followed by minutes of uproarious noise. That brief pause is just enough time to wait for peace with baited breath before cringing at the next rapport, a stinging assault that vanquishes any hope of returning to sleep. Falling asleep after exhausting days of walking the city and dodging the explosions underfoot is easy, but staying asleep once the morning begins is almost impossible.

For Valencians, this is a beautifully cacophonous symphony of staccato tones and rolling bass notes, a perfect orchestral arrangement designed by the collective minds of the millions of participating citizens. Every faller chooses his own melody, joyously providing time and talent to christen the day’s celebration, with each note a launched noisemaker or propelled firecracker. Their instruments are the festival’s constant companion throughout the week, a rotation of musicians that never stop and never tire.

La Mascletá is their crowning performance, conducted by the city’s pyrotechnical masters in a four day battle for the honor of hosting the fifth and final municipal exposition in the city center. Hours before the millions begin to gather, forming an immobile mass that dwarfs Times Square on New Year’s Eve by over a million. Revelers, pressed elbow to elbow, occupy the minutes leading up to the afternoon event with cheap beer and good friends in an atmosphere of eager anticipation. The crowd stretches for blocks, but even those at the farthest points easily hear and see the effects of the detonation enclosed in the center of the masses.

Strung between the gated fences that form the central cage hang thousands of firecrackers whose ignition cloaks the crowd in smoke and a deafening roar of noise, shaking the body to the soul. The assault comes in waves; the pure force of the final rapport transcending the realm of sound to become a physical being, assailing the spectators from all directions. Everything is sound—staggering, paralyzing sound.

The vibrations fade into muted cheering, inaudible at full volume through the veneer of sound that coats the ears. The city is shrouded in a haze; gleaming buildings once unmistakable in the brilliant midday sun have vanished under the smothering, post-production pollution. The last few flakes of ash fall gently on motionless bystanders, still unable to move. Regardless of their restlessness, it is only after the eventual dissipation of the observers at the undulating edges of the beast that the center can begin to shift. The merriment moves to the city’s outdoor terraces and they quickly fill—at just before three in the afternoon, it is the perfect time to relax for a lunch of the Mediterranean region’s famous paella and sangria before the night’s festivities.
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Once Las Fallas is over, the city has celebrated with heart and soul.

The attitude of revelry pervades all aspects of each day; however, it holds a varying significance for the distinctive groups of participants. For visitors, these days are an explosion of visual and auditory stimulation unlike any other. Each new day is yet another opportunity to bask in the joy of living and in life.

For many native Valencians, the days serve as a reaffirmation of the province’s culture. Throughout the celebration, impromptu processions parade the streets, comprised of each district’s falleras and falleros in traditional dress as well as volunteer instrumentalists blaring long-established marches on historic instruments. On the designated days all make the journey to the Plaza de la Virgin and place an offering bouquet of flowers to Our Lady of the Forsaken, the Patron Saint of Valencia.

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Having fulfilled the requirements of their positions, the members of the suburban fallas committees breathe a sigh of relief and proceed to cheer and snap pictures of their loved ones, friends, and acquaintances from the sidewalks as they journey to the Plaza. Committee members are the unsung heroes of the event, responsible for the preparation of their constituency for the annual event. All organizational decisions come from this body, which in turn reports to the democratically-selected, citywide fallas council. For months its members work to perform a vast number of tasks, including choosing the artists for their community and pardoning the most popular ninot, which is determined with a popular vote by the public.

As hordes of individuals stream by eager to begin the night’s celebration, Valencia’s families come together and block off the streets and alleyways to erect massive tents and organize the necessary number of tables and chairs for the local parties. Children dart in and out of open doorways, cheering and chasing one another with their seemingly-endless supply of poppers, as adults converse over cervezas and steaming pans of paella big enough to feed twenty. Music blends with laughter as they prepare to gather around the nearby fallas and join together to watch the city burn.

M. Gorman

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Feeling the Fire at Las Fallas

Mid-March marks the annual festival of Las Fallas in Valencia, so on March 17th, Rachel, Olivia, Alisha, Marie and I hopped on the train to check out one of the most impressive festivals in Spain. Dating back to the 16th century, this festival started with the wooden posts used for lighting the city, called parots. As spring approached, the parots were no longer needed since the days were longer, and workers and shopkeepers piled their wooden scraps around the parots, creating different figures. To clear the streets, these piles were then burned ceremoniously around the city, giving birth to one spectacular festival. Today, the fallas are anything but piles of scrap wood to be burnt. Instead, they are meticulously constructed satirical sculptures made of wood and plaster found in every neighborhood around the city.

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Each neighborhood, no matter how small, sponsors a commission to fundraise, design, and construct a falla each year. Hundreds of these amazing structures can be seen across the city. Each falla is judged and eventually a winner is selected which will be the last to burn on the final night of the festival, called La Cremá. From the winning falla, one character, called a ninot, is selected, saved from the burning, and placed in the fallero museum.

Valencia, located on the Mediterranean Sea on the east coast of Spain, is normally a city of 1 million people; however, during the week of Las Fallas, the city grows to 3 times its size housing over 3 million people! Needless to say this festival was crazy. Although a festival entirely its own, I would best describe it as a mix of the New Year’s Eve and the 4th of July. In addition to the artistic fallas, this festival boasts its fireworks and firecracker displays. Every afternoon at 2 pm, La Mascletá commences. It is a 10-15 minute firecracker explosion in the center of the city.

IMG_5069To get a taste for what las Fallas was all about, we grabbed a few liters of Bulmer’s (our favorite Irish cider) and packed into the crowd to hear the insanity of La Mascletá on Friday afternoon. No matter where you are in the city, you can’t miss La Mascletá it is that loud! The firecrackers don’t stop here, though. Around six or seven each morning rounds of firecrackers are set off around the city as a wake up call to begin the celebration. Additionally, it seems every child has a small wooden box of crackers under their arm, just waiting to be thrown.

On top of the firecrackers, are (of course) fireworks! Each night a fireworks show takes place somewhere in the city leading up to the largest firework show on Friday evening called La Nit de Foc. We wandered around the city, finding a comfortable spot on one of the bridges to view the show, beginning at 2 am.

While certainly a fiesta like no other, Las Fallas also has more symbolic and serious aspects to it. Each day, a series of parades wind their way through the city. The people in these parades proudly wear traditional Valencian garb. The women and girls, called falleras, wear elaborate silk patterned gowns and sport even more elaborate hairstyles with a labyrinth of tight braids and decorative pins. The men and boys accompanying them wear knickers and coordinating shirts and handkerchiefs under their jackets. Carrying flowers for their offering, and followed by a  musical band, these parades make their way to La Ofrenda. La Ofrenda is a giant wooden frame of the Virgin Mary which is eventually covered entirely in offered flowers. The plaza where La Ofrenda stands is pleasantly aromatic, with the combination of floral orange trees found across the city and all the flowers on the statue.

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La Cremá is the largest and most famous event of the festival, which concludes the week of celebration in Valencia on Saturday night. On this night, each falla is packed with firecrackers and explosives in order to spark a massive fire to destroy the falla. Although a bit dangerous and quite toasty, the city of Valencia has this down to a science, with firefighters managing each fire carefully. To see this spectacular event, we headed to the heart of the city where we knew some of the largest and most impressive fallas were located. We bought a few snacks and packed into the excited and jittery crowd patiently waiting for la Cremá to commence at midnight. We watched in awe as we saw the first falla go up in flames: a massive bonfire in the middle of the city, nestled between buildings. After about 15 minutes, the fire died down and we attempted to make our way to another falla. Key word: attempted. We were stuck ina  gigantic crowd and it took us nearly half an hour to reach next falla, not even a block away from were we started. We continued crawling through crowds until we had our fill of smoke and sangría and began our journey back to our hostel over a mile away.

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While our main reason for visiting Valencia was to experience Las Fallas, we also took some time to explore the landmarks of the city and, of course, the beach. We made sure to visit Torres de Serranos, the gothic gates marking the entrance to the city. We also saw Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (the City of Arts and Sciences) a $1.5 billion cultural center which houses a museum, aquarium, an opera house and more and is the most iconic view of Valencia.

IMG_4996 IMG_5150With all the sightseeing, walking, and excitement of Las Fallas, we were ready to escape the hectic city and head back to Valladolid Sunday afternoon. The magic of Las Fallas in Valencia is difficult to capture in a few words or pictures. Las Fallas is a festival best experienced using all the senses, so I must recommend an adventure to Valencia during Las Fallas!

¡Gracias!

McKenna

Valladolid Portraits III

One of Valladolid’s many main streets, Calle Mantería, is a bustling, cobblestoned hub of commerce and discourse where a vast collection of shoe and clothing stores compete with an equally large number of cafés, cafeterías, and pastelerías for the attention of teeming swarms of pedestrians.

The café is slim, with contorted shoulder pressed to its ears under the pressure of the looming giants that surround it on all sides, boasting vast facades of darkened brick and spotless windows. It sits sullen, surrounded by an air of dutiful resignation that comes from immutable age. A sporadic grove of beige umbrellas propagate the stones preceding the entrance, fenced by plexiglass and denoting the sunken doorway. Framed by oaken beams stained a polished forest green, the entrance is shadowed but its internal light radiates a calming warmth, an ataractic atmosphere that entices afternoon shoppers to step inside.

It’s a slender space, with a high ceiling that promotes comfortable intimacy without prompting claustrophobia. The immediate left is the domain of the barista, enclosed by a marble countertop and a pastry display to rival that of the nearby bakeries. Their picturesque appearance alone is enticing; the addition of the smell of fresh dough and sugary glazes makes each torte and pastel irresistible.

Backed by espresso machines and deep wooden shelves lined with ornate tins of tea, the man behind the counter methodically tidies the impeccable space, resilient to the mouthwatering scent of molten chocolate, kept boiling in anticipation for upcoming orders of chocolate con churros. The dish is a mid-afternoon must; sharing, optional.

The typical location for a menu board is occupied by faded photographs, a not uncommon practice for smaller, more traditional locations. Ask for a menú and you’ll receive a confused ¿qué? in response; una carta, a polite smile and a laminated menu. For the timid soul afraid to inquire, café sólo or café con leche provides a guaranteed (albeit miniscule) fallback at any establishment. American visitors seeking a portion size and flavor similar to the States should ask for a café americano, and anyone interested in a bit of something extra to jumpstart their day, a café irlandés.

In the back half of the building, iron-wrought chairs scrape against the oaken floors and knock against marble tabletops as infrequent guests take the time to read the day’s paper or converse in small groups of two or three. The European coffee break is an elongated, social affair where patrons take the time to converse in quiet voices away from technological distractions and work-related activities. A muffled mixture of American and Spanish songs completes the cosmopolitan ambiance, dissipating into the surrounding walls boasting local art and a continuation of photographs from the café’s entrance.

An easy afternoon passes, insulated from the external insanity of the frantic agenda of frenzied passersby. Regular customers come and go, exchanging pleasant conversation at the bar as the barista pauses to engage the occasional familiar visitor. Outside the sun dips below the horizon, lengthening the doorway’s shadows and signifying the approaching dinner hour and the time to begin the trek home.

Copenhagen: the perfect end to spring break

To finish our spring break travels, Rachel and I arrived at our Airbnb in Copenhagen late Thursday evening. Our Airbnb host was so accommodating and helpful, we were excited to start our next day in this unique city with another Sandeman walking tour. We met our tour group along with our energetic tour guide at Rådhuspladsen, or city hall square. Not knowing what to expect for this new city, we were eager to learn more about Copenhagen! About 10 minutes into our tour, we realized that maybe the Danish really were the happiest people on earth, like many studies claim. Our guide was genuinely happy and even proud to be sharing all he knew about Copenhagen. From our meeting place, we toured the historic streets, (well, what was left of them since Copenhagen has a horrible history of fires). Many buildings here actually only date back to the 1700’s. We stopped near Paleis Christianborg where the Danish parliament is seated and from there we moved onto Nyhavn, a famous neighborhood which is also the most photographed part of the city.

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Similar to Amsterdam, Copenhagen boasts its many canals one used for transport of goods in and out of the city. Nyhavn was once the Red Light District of Copenhagen where sailors would come first after being out at sea.

On the right hand side of this canal, interestingly, a lighthouse boat was parked. Of course our guide provoked us, what in the world would a lighthouse boat ever be needed for if lighthouses are used to mark land? With the swift tides and water currents, the sandbars offshore are constantly changing, and therefore this odd boat was once used to mark the best docking place for sailors with the ever-changing sand bars. Also to the right of this picture, stands the house that Hans Christian Andersen lived in. Famed for writing many fairytales such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “Thumbelina,” we learned that Hans Christian Andersen actually lived in the heart of the Red Light District during his lifetime (odd for a writer of children’s books, huh?) At that time, writers didn’t receive much pay, and therefore relied on the goodwill of their landlords for a place to stay. Supposedly, Hans Christian Andersen had a crush on his landlord’s daughter, and therefore never wanted to move from this area. However, it is also rumored that he enjoyed living here for the unique mix of cultures found on the harbor.

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Next, we walked along to the water to see the Opera House and Amalienborg Palace, home to the Danish Royal Family. We saw a flag waving meaning someone in the family was home! Additionally, we ended our tour here just in time to see the changing of the guard! Our tour was ended and Rachel and I headed into Frederik’s Church to warm up from the freezing weather.

 

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From here, we walked to the iconic little Mermaid Statue. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, the statue appears quite sad. And well, of course she is, being stuck in limbo between two worlds, never able to be human but also never able to return to the sea.

 

Next, we headed back towards the city center to walk the longest walking street in the world, called Strøget. Lined with every shop imaginable, we enjoyed window shopping and people watching. We made our way to Rundetaarn, originally an astronomical observatory, this round tower was built in the 16th century. After admiring in the connected church, we headed back out into the cold weather to try one of Copenhagen’s famous hot dogsIMG_4539

 

Known for their organic hot dogs, DØP stands can be found across the city. We each ordered a Ristet hot dog, which was a roasted dog with ketchup, mustard, remoulade, onions and pickles.

 

 

 

Next, we ventured to Rosenberg castle, a Dutch Renaissance Castle, the former residence of the Dutch Royal family, until the 1700’s. We admired the iconic castle from afar through the wrought iron gates before heading to a nearby food market called Torvehallerne. To scratch one more neighborhood off our list, we crossed the bridge to Nørrebro. After some window shopping and walking over 12 miles for the day, we returned to our AirBnb exhausted but excited for day 2 in this unique city!

With an 8 pm flight back to Madrid later that evening, we woke up early Saturday to make the most of our day. We took the bus towards the city center and got off on Christianshavn, a small island separating the eastern lying neighborhoods of Copenhagen from the city center. We found some walking paths and enjoyed being in a less populated part of the city while we waited for the Church of Our Savior to open at 11. The Church of Our Savior was impressive, with an tall spire that dwarfed all other buildings in the area. We opted out of climbing to the top to save time and instead just enjoyed the interior of this neat church. Most notable was the massive wooden organ located at the back of the church.

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Finally, we headed to one of the most interesting places we had seen during our spring break trip: Christiania. This neighborhood is known for its hippie community and widely accepted drug use. They proudly have their own flag, currency, and laws. Well, this isn’t entirely true, they function under the same government and laws as the rest of Denmark, but for some reason this area seems an exception to many of them. We first entered the Green light District, where marijuana is “allowed” or accepted, and sold openly along the alleys. It was early and Christiania was definitely still asleep after a rambunctious Friday night. We continued walking slowly through the community, almost in awe at this completely separate and very unique society.

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Rachel and I continued walking all the way through Christiania. We admired the colorful artwork and inventive ways those living there had repurposed what would certainly be trash to others. Reaching the end of the island, we then headed to the National Museum to escape the oncoming rain and learn a bit about Denmark’s history. With our departure flight approaching, we grabbed a pizza for lunch, picked up our things from our Airbnb, and headed to the airport, which might I add was one of the nicest I have ever seen!

Finally, it was back to Valladolid! However, this proved quite a stressful task for us. Our flight arrived in Madrid around 11:30 pm, giving us approximately 30 minutes to get from Terminal 2, where our plane landed, to Terminal 4 (a 10 minute transfer) where our bus was parked ready to depart promptly at 11:59 pm for our return trip to Valladolid. Rachel and I ran through the airport and grabbed a taxi to terminal 4 where we arrived just in the knick of time to catch our bus! What a relief! After 10 exciting, eye-opening, and amazing days it finally was time to return to the city I have come to consider home this semester.

Hej hej,

McKenna

Unexpected Pleasantries: Hostels

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For a female student traveling alone in Spain’s capital, hostels are the opposite of the vast majority of safety tips and the epitome of one of Billy Joel’s iconic lyrics detailing the conundrum of travel security: they will tell you you can’t sleep alone in a strange place, then they’ll tell you you can’t sleep with somebody else.

While this version is more explicit than this particular situation necessitates, it remains an apt description of the juxtaposition of a hostel stay. Taught from a young age not to talk to strangers, travelers now pay cheap rates for the opportunity to stay in expansive rooms with entire groups of unfamiliar individuals. The rooms are mixed-gender and available to all ages, which further breaks more childhood prohibitions.

These factors, topped by the hostel’s physical location in a foreign city, are enough to make the most intrepid of parents suffer tinges of fear at the thought of their student’s stay. Even experienced travelers can find themselves in a state of uneasy anticipation about the conditions of their temporary dwellings.

Perhaps questionable on paper, a stay in a hostel can add a unique and enjoyable dynamic to any viaje or excursion. Akin to any hotel, the prices vary based on amenities and location—not always on quality.

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Eager to save a dime and try my luck, a month before I had reserved a bed in the cheapest location available that included WiFi and a decent breakfast. From the safety of my computer screen I had felt confident in my twelve euro a night booking; wandering the streets of Madrid, mobile map in clammy hand, I felt less sure with each twist and turn of the narrow streets. The alleyway location and doorway that forced me to duck did little to assuage my trepidations (though it did reinforce my belief that this country was designed with short people in mind).

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Immediately met by welcoming staff and an impeccable lobby, the aching weight of my backpack replaced the apprehension in my gut. Reaching my assigned room on the third floor, the associated view eliminated the aforementioned mental and physical irritations. A brief pause allowed a languid glance over nearby residential rooftops before they became dominated by their corporate and apartment-complex cousins. The hostel’s central courtyard facilitated the view and transformed the inward face of each floor into a continuous, rectangular balcony. Mentally I rescinded some of the harsher curses I had muttered at the constantly-increasing elevation on the thirty-minute trek from subway to hostel.

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The lack of Thursday travelers afforded me my pick of spaces; by Sunday, each bed would be filled. For now the presence of only two other roommates offered peace, quiet, and ample space for all. The Argentinian and I discussed his undergraduate studies and plan to travel Europe before entering medical school; the Egyptian and I the joys of running a new city after spotting my sneakers tied to the outside of my backpack. Together we swapped travel stories and split the cost of dinner—pasta, spinach, and half a kilogram of oranges from the local Gadis.

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Too cold to use the patio and too early for drinks at the bar, the kitchen served as the building’s primary common space and social center. As the extended weekend progressed, I met an increasingly interesting and entertaining cast of characters during my meals at one of the many slatted, wooden tables: the British teacher who could tell you the weekday you were born from your numerical date of birth, the American-Austrian who spoke four languages and worked at the Austrian embassy, the Indian marathon runner who had lived at the hostel for the past six months, the stereotypical American with a penchant for boisterous (albeit well-meaning) ignorance, and numerous other students and vacationers.

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Similar to my first roommates, the American-Austrian student, an Austrian marketing professional and I met over a mutual need for dinner and spent the rest of the second evening frequenting the famous tapas bars in the La Latina district while enjoying one another’s company. Occasional parts of the remaining weekend were spent together: on Saturday, El Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia , and on Sunday El Rastro, Madrid’s infamous flea market. Fast friends, the temporal nature of our relationship meant our conversations came without obligation and with ease, an airy retreat from the long-term implications of real-word conversation.

Though only a temporary home away from my [temporary] home in Valladolid, the space served as a momentary sanctuary from the constant commotion of Madrid’s streets. While they will tell you you can’t sleep alone in a strange place, that’s  lie—you can, for about ten euros extra, though I am certainly glad I didn’t.

M. Gorman

Moving onto Berlin

Arriving in Berlin, Rachel and I had no idea what to expect, but we hit the ground running when we arrived Tuesday morning. We did a quick check in at our hostel, which was much nicer and probably more legitimate than our first, checked our maps, and headed to the city center on the S-Bahn.

We started at the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic and historic entrance to the city, and from there were walked through Tiergarten, Berlin’s largest public park once hunting lands for the royal family.  Near the entrance we found the Reichstag building, the former Parliment building which was nearly completely destroyed in WWII (like much of the city). Continuing through the park we admired the many monuments until finally we reached the most impressive: the Victory Column, built to commemorate a series of Prussian victories with Victoria, the Roman goddess of Victory atop.

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After walking nearly the entire length of Tiergarten (quite a feat, I might add!) we headed to Potsdamer Platz, a modern and iconic plaza in the city. Not far is the Topography of Terror, a museum describing the events of WWII through a detailed timeline beginning in the 1930’s. Interestingly, the museum is built on the grounds were the headquarters to the Gestapo and SS once stood. Additionally, it maintains one of the last 3 remaining segments of the Berlin Wall. Rachel and I spent over 3  hours in the Topography of Terror, absorbing as much as we could. By the time we left, it was nearly dinner time so we headed back to our hostel. It was located in a lively neighborhood of Berlin packed with restaurants and bars called Kreuzberg. We sampled a few German beers with our dinner and headed to bed exhausted from our first day in the new city. After our first full day in Berlin, it was evident this was a city unlike any other. Although a very historic, it is structurally a young city. After WWII a massive portion of the city needed to be restored and this work continues today. During the Cold War buildings (especially in East Germany) lay in ruin for decades. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that many structures began to be rebuilt.

Wednesday we scheduled another Sandeman walking tour, hopeful that our tour guide for Berlin would be better than ours in Amsterdam. We met our tour group at the Brandenburg Gate and were lucky to receive a lively and knowledgable guide who took us on the best tour of our entire spring break trip.

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Early in the tour, we stopped at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the heart of Berlin. Designed by Peter Eisenman, this impressive and thought-provoking grouping of cement slabs of varying sizes is completely open to the interpretation of the viewers. He left no explantation or reasoning behind its construction allowing visitors to interpret it as they feel suitable. Our energetic tour group grew quiet as we walked through the monument as we experienced mixed emotions.

 

Next, our guide led us to a small gravel parking lot. As it turns out, what is now an unassuming, ordinary car park was once the location of Hitler’s bunker where he spent the last 4 months of his life, hiding from the allied forces. While hiding here, Hitler and his wife married and then about a week later committed suicide together in April 1945.

We continued our city tour after a short break to warm up and grab a currywurst. Currywurst is one of the most famous foods served in Berlin, which I can best describe as a type of sausage served in a tomato sauce with yellow curry powder. A must have if you are going to Berlin!

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After our intermission we headed to Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous crossing point of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. As we neared the end of our tour we walked to Humboldt University. Einstein, Schrödinger, and Karl Marx along with many other notable figures have studied here!

IMG_4210After our guided tour, Rachel and I took the rest of the afternoon to explore more of Berlin on our own. We headed to The Berliner Dom, also known as the Berlin Cathedral. We climbed over 400 steps in order to reach the top of the dome and get a panoramic view of the expansive city.IMG_4264

 

 

The ongoing reconstruction of the city can be seen nearly everywhere throughout the city (note the crane in the distance).

 

 

After our long descent, we went to the Pergamon, Berlin’s most visited museum. Housing many fully reconstructed ancient structures, Middle East art, and the museum of Islamic art, we spent 3 hours admiring the vast collection. By the time we finished touring the museum, we were practically zombies, exhausted and starving.

Thursday, our last day in Berlin, Rachel and I headed to the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery is the largest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall today, which has been turned into a memorial for freedom. We strolled along the entire gallery, enjoying the colorful artwork and thinking about this memorial’s significance.

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From here, we went to Alexanderplatz, a large, modern, and bustling square. As one of Berlin’s most popular tourist stops, we were happy to end our adventures in Berlin here. Next, it was off to the airport to catch our flight to Copenhagen!

Tschüss,

McKenna

First stop: Amsterdam

To kick off spring break, Rachel and I headed to Amsterdam last Friday, eager to explore a new city. Unfortunately we lost nearly the entire day just traveling, so when we finally arrived in Amsterdam around 11pm we were exhausted and eager to get to bed in order to start Saturday bright and early. Our first night in a hostel was… let’s say a night to remember. Trying to be economical travelers, we booked a 20 bed mixed room in our hostel, with decent reviews and cheap rates. Although the hostel was exactly as described online when we booked it, I guess we just weren’t really prepared for what staying in a hostel was like. We were each assigned an old (but clean) bunk bed and shown the bathroom and shower stalls, and that was that! It took a bit adjusting to staying in a room with so many people from so many different places but we grew accustomed to it and of course found electrical outlets to charge our phones (a seemingly impossible task throughout our travels so far). Saturday we scheduled a free Sandemann walking tour of the city which showed us the main highlights of Amsterdam while also giving us some history to go along with it. Although our tour guide was not the best, we tried to absorb as much as we could in order to understand more about the history and culture of this beautiful and very unique city.

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We saw Begijnhof, a small and completely secluded community of houses which a group of women established in 1150. Additionally there are 2 churches here, one called The Hidden Church which was 2 houses converted into a chapel for secret Catholic worship during times of oppression.

 

IMG_3766Amsterdam is famous for their crooked and leaning houses although unclear in this photo. Built almost entirely on marshy, wet land everything in the city is sinking! Buildings lean on one another and windows are on a considerable slant. The shutters frequently seen like the ones on this building indicate that it was once a warehouse used for storing products. The shutters closed to keep goods dry during the year. At the very top of this building (and nearly every other in Amsterdam) there are outcroppings with hooks. Because stairways were so narrow, they used the hooks to haul goods to the top floor where they could be kept dry for storage. Before thinking to construct outcroppings, many buildings were built with a considerable forward lean to prevent the goods from scraping the face of the building, you can imagine how crooked this city really is!

Amsterdam proves unlike most countries not only in history, but also for its allowance of the public sale and use of marijuana. While marijuana is actually illegal, it is sold nearly everywhere around the city and no one is concerned with enforcing the laws against it. Coffeeshops sell pot and cafes sell coffee, something we learned quite quickly on our stay. Even more unusual to us, prostitution is legal, and taken quite seriously by the community. As in many port cities in the past, when sailors would arrive in the city they were in search of someone to cure their…loneliness. Somehow, Amsterdam has managed to preserve this custom even today. The Red Light District is the name of the group of streets and alleyways where the heart of this business takes place. Taking pictures is strictly prohibited in this area (you risk having human urine thrown on you by the women working) in order to protect the women, which, might I add, have full benefits and health coverage through the government. Just as famous, Amsterdam has one of the most extensive canal systems in Europe, with four main canals encircling the heart of the city.

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Walking through the city, the canals look nearly identical so understanding the names of the four main canals proved an essential way for orienting ourselves. Two of the most famous museums in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, house many renowned artworks. With only a few days in the city to explore, Rachel and I chose to visit the Van Gogh museum which houses over 2,000 of Van Gogh’s paintings, drawings, and letters making it the largest collection of his works in the world.

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Next we headed to Vondelpark, a beautiful public park not too far from Museumplein (the name given to the area where most museums in the city are located including the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh). After a long first day, our feet were tired and we headed back to our hostel for a good night’s rest. Sunday proved a relaxing day as we strolled around Jordaan, a famous neighborhood where the working class and immigrants once lived. Next we visited the Cheese Museum and also the Tulip Museum, two notable products produced in Holland. We continued to explore and took a canal tour in order to learn more and see the city from a different perspective. We enjoyed basking in the warm sun and resting our feet while on the boat. After, we continued to wander around and visited Bloemenmarkt, a famous food and flea market which was unfortunately closed at the time. Walking almost 12 miles each day, we were exhausted and ended our night early to rest for Monday’s adventures in Zaanse Schans, an outlying community famous for their windmills. Rachel and I spent the entire day enjoying this beautiful community, visiting the wooden clog making museum and touring a working sawmill in one of the windmills!

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We were sad to leave this beautiful, historic, and unusual city Monday evening; however, knowing Berlin was next on our itinerary made leaving just a little bit easier.

Vaarwel!

McKenna