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Tapas, Cervezas, Iglesias..Oh My!

Tapas, Cervezas, Iglesias..Oh My!

     Hola! My name is Jennifer and I am a junior double major in Spanish and Speech-Language Pathology. I am currently in España, more specifically Northern Spain in Valladolid. This beautiful city was once before the capital of Spain, one of the oldest cities where pure Castellano is spoken and filled with breathtaking architecture at every corner. I arrived in Madrid a little over two weeks ago and let me tell you that these past few weeks  have felt more like a month.

               Once arriving in Spain, we got to meet the other students in our program from other parts of the U.S. My program consists of me and two other LVC students, two students from Elizabethtown College, two from University of Wisconsin and one from Michigan. From the moment we all met, we have felt like a family and that is an amazing  feeling knowing that you are able to rely on people who are going through the same experience you are. After getting to know each other, we all hopped on a bus and heading to our new home, Valladolid. Once there, we were introduced to our host families and got settled in. Being able to live with someone who speaks the language and knows the culture and history of the city is something that really helps us integrate ourselves into our new lives. The first day we went and explored the city in a true Spanish way. Hitting the streets like locals getting tapas, cervezas (yes, the legal drinking age is 18 here) and talking to locals. Luckily for us, after the first week here, there is a festival that goes on during  this time which allowed us to immersive ourselves even more. 

Walking around the city is the best way to learn more about the culture and richness of my new home. One day I stumbled across this beautiful church with hand carved statues and amazing architecture. The churches in Valladolid are one of the many reasons that this city is visited. 

Even more, on my way to the center of the city, I pass many beautiful churches which emphasizes Spaniards love for their religion as well as their architecture. All in all, my first two weeks here in Spain have been amazing and would not change a single thing. Being able to explore this city as well as hoping onto a train or plane and see others parts of the world is such a thrill. For now, hasta luego amigos y hablamos pronto!

Hot Springs (Take 2) and Santiago de Compostela

Hot Springs (Take 2) and Santiago de Compostela

June 11th:  Today we had a free day to ourselves, so my friends and I decided to go to the hot springs because we loved it so much the first time.  But this time we went to a public hot spring, which personally I enjoyed better.

Public Hot Springs!
Public Hot Springs!

We got to lay right by the river and we could listen to the rushing water of Rio Mino.

Hot Springs Pool
Hot Springs Pool

This hot spring had five pools: three of which were steaming and occasionally bubbling, one was also that temperature, but it had river water flowing into it to make it bearable and the last one was filled with river water to cool down.  And the great view was a plus!

June 12th: Today we had a group tripped planned for Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia.  We had a tour through the city, led by a tour guide, and none of us were dressed for the weather of Santiago; there it is chilly and had a misty rain, and the majority of us were in shorts and t-shirts.  The tour guide took us throughout the city and talked about important things and various local legends traditions, and religious history which heavily surrounds this city.  How students of the University of Compostela "chose their major"Santiago translates to “Saint James” and Compostela translates to “field/sky of stars”.  The massive cathedral there is actually the place where Saint James the Apostle’s tomb resides.

St. James Cathedral
St. James Cathedral





While the tour guide was talking to us about the cathedral, a group of people cheering, clapping, and singing entered the plaza; they were pilgrims who had just finished “the way of Saint James”.  These people had walked quite a distance (we didn’t ask specifically, but people usually walk a minimum of 100 kilometers).  The way is a spiritual experience where anyone can walk (or bike) along certain paths to get to Santiago de Compostela, one of the paths goes through Ourense.  There are many reasons why people choose to walk the way, and if they don’t have a reason when they start, they have one by the end, according to my tour guide.  After the tour, we had about 45 minutes of free time to wander the city before dinner.  During this time, I walked through a holy door (a door that is usually closed unless it is a holy year, but this year the Pope declared that all holy doors be opened).

Walking through Holy Door (featuring cathedral security guide)
Walking through Holy Door (featuring cathedral security guide)

I also got to walk around the inside of the very large cathedral there; however, we were not allowed to take pictures on the inside of the cathedral, but trust me, it was very large and very beautiful.  We all then reconvened for a group dinner and a bus ride back to Ourense.  First time trying flan!






After we got back to Ourense, everyone went to bed to prepare for another week of shadowing – I’ll be in pediatrics this week!

A Day At the Hot Springs and Shadowing Isn’t All Fancy Surgeries

A Day At the Hot Springs and Shadowing Isn’t All Fancy Surgeries

June 8th: Today we got a day off from the hospital to have a tour around Oursense and go to a private spa with hot springs!  The tour was given by a tour guide and we were shown many main points in the city both today and historically.  We walked around town and were shown different popular shopping areas, one of which was the marketplace.  The marketplace consisted of one larger central building surrounded by many smaller, individual stands selling various items.  One thing I thought was weird is that the fish was stored on ice and was out in the open as opposed to being behind clear glass or plastic case.  After that, we went to Las Burgas, hot springs that are in the city of Ourense – they are VERY hot.  Displaying IMG_3539.JPGLas Burgas!They also have mineral properties that can resolve certain skin conditions.  While we were there and the tour guide was talking, people would come and fill up containers of water to take home and quickly run their hand through the water and rub it on their skin.  After that we went to the main cathedral in Ourense (Catedral de Ourense).  I’ve never seen a more beautiful church ever!  catedral de ourenseThe tour guide said it was also used as a fortress because Ourense is so close to the border of Portugal.  catedral de ourense 3After a group lunch, we took the “spa” train to a private spa with hot springs!  Train to the Hot Springs!As a rule, we could not take pictures of the spa because it was private, but the surrounding area was beautiful!  View Next To Private SpringsThe hot springs also contained the same mineral properties that the tour guide talked about in Ourense (the surrounding area of Ourense also has a very large number of natural hot springs).  We were allotted two relaxing hours in the spa; after which we reluctantly left the spa, but we all had very smooth skin!

Atlantis Project crew on Train to the Hot Springs!
Atlantis Project crew on Train to the Hot Springs!

After returning from the spa, one of the things I had for dinner is what I would consider the Spanish equivalent to mozzarella sticks; they were called “triangulos quesos” and were served with a very sweet tomato and pesto sauce.  Yum!Triangulos de Queso



June 9th: Today at the hospital was the first day that I did not follow the doctor I’m shadowing this week into the OR; instead, she was seeing patients today – and she had approximately 56 on her list!  The way this was set up was very different from the U.S.; all the patients (a lot of them) waited in a large waiting area and waited to be “buzzed” into the doctor’s office based on their number (it reminded me somewhat of being called at the deli line).  The patient enter the doctor’s office, a room with a desk, computer, chair for the doctor, chairs for the patient and guest, and an examination table.  The doctor sat on one side of the desk typing notes while talking to the patient who sat on the other side of the desk.  More often than not, the patient would then be examined for whichever urological ailment they were in the office for.  The major thing that was very different from the United States is the time that the doctor spent with each patient: sometimes it was as little as about five minutes with almost none lasting longer than about twenty minutes!  This goes back to the differences between Spanish and American health care systems; health care is “free” because it’s included in people’s taxes.  Which leads me to the feeling that more people go to the doctor more often which leads to many patients to be seen.  I believe there may have been one other doctor tackling the list of the 56 patients for the day, but I’m not exactly sure.  All I know is that I saw a lot of different patients in the span of time I was there.  The number of patients I saw today was much larger than the number of patients the internal medicine doctors I shadow back home see in a day.  My doctor was extremely busy today and therefore couldn’t translate what was going on after she saw each patient, but from what I got out of the conversations (which were very fast – too fast and complicated for my years of high school and one year of college Spanish to comprehend everything), the majority of the patients did not have an issue, it was either more of a check-in or because an issue they thought they had.  Of course, there were a few that I saw that did have a problem.  During an endoscopic check for bladder cancer in one man, the doctor did find cancer and it was actually that patient’s second time having bladder cancer.

While I did not get the “thrill” of being in the OR today, I learned many valuable things today, most importantly the differences between Spain and America’s health care systems and what that translates to for everyday patient care.  It also put some things in prospective: I tend to get annoyed when the doctor is late for my appointment or I have to wait, but the people in Spain wait a long time to see the doctor for just a short amount of time, nothing compared to some of my very long and thorough doctor visits when I’m sick.  Also, today was important because it highlighted that medicine isn’t all exciting surgery; sometimes you need to meet with nonsurgical patients, even if the length of the list is intimidating and you’d rather be in a surgery.

Later that evening, we had a group dinner with all the fellows and the site coordinator to talk about our day.  Also, it was one of the student’s birthday!  So of course, we all had a celebratory glass of sangria!

June 10th: Back to the OR!  Today I got to see three procedures!  The first was an endoscopic procedure to get a sample from the kidney (through the urethra, bladder, ureter, to the kidney) to check for kidney cancer.  The second was to break up a kidney stone; it was really amazing to watch the laser break up the kidney stone so it could be pulled out of the patient, I actually got to see the kidney stone – strange to think that such a little thing can cause so much pain!  The next patient also had a kidney stone; however, the ureter was very narrow in this patient and the doctors had to put in a catheter-like tube to enlarge the ureter so they could go back in and remove the stone at a later date.  This was my last day in Urology, even though my doctor said I could come back anytime I want; while I did enjoy urology and all the surgeries I got to see, I should give the other specialties I’ve been assigned to a chance too!  After leaving the hospital late in the afternoon, I treated myself to churros and chocolate (probably my favorite thing that I’ve eaten so far) and a late siesta which was much needed after this busy week.

Churros and Chocolate!
Churros and Chocolate!
11 Seasons of Shonda Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy Didn’t Prepare Me for My First Two Days of Shadowing

11 Seasons of Shonda Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy Didn’t Prepare Me for My First Two Days of Shadowing

June 6th: After a quick breakfast at the café next to the hotel (which was provided by the Atlantis Project Program), our Site Coordinators took us to the bus stop that we took to the hospital.  We were given bus passes to take us to and from the hospital, and we were shown which bus to take and where to get off.  The bus ride was short, and after a group photo of the group in our lab coats in from of the hospital, we entered and met the chief of education of the hospital in Ourense who made it possible for us to shadow doctors.  After a quick orientation, we were off for our first day of shadowing.  Another fellow and myself were the first to be dropped off in Urology, and we were quickly taken to get changed into scrubs because we were about to see a surgery!  I was beyond excited because I’ve never had the opportunity to see a real surgery before, and I even got to stand right there in the operating room, only a couple feet from the patient!

Excited to be in scrubs and about to witness my first surgery!
Excited to be in scrubs and about to witness my first surgery!

This patient had an advanced type of bladder cancer, so the surgery was to remove the bladder and prostate, reroute the ureter (carries urine from kidney to bladder) to the ileum (portion of small intestine), and attach an ostomy bag (external bag that collects urine-basically acts as a new bladder).  It was amazing to see how the two surgeons worked together so well as a team, at times with their heads resting against each other’s during the surgery.  I will admit at one point the surgery did freak me out a little; about an hour in while the surgeons were going through the connective tissue to get to the bladder, I all of a sudden realized that the body on the table was a real, live person and I’m a real, live person and that could be happening to me.  That idea did not sit well for me, and I excused myself for a couple minutes to sit down and have some water (it was not uncommon for people to walk in and out of the OR), but then I returned, eager as ever to see what the surgeons were doing.

The surgeons were very nice and at times let us take a closer look and pointed out specific anatomical structures.  This surgery took about three and a half hours, after which the surgeons got about a forty-five minute break while the OR was being cleaned and prepped for the next surgery.  Unfortunately, I could not stay to watch the second surgery because all the fellows needed to meet at the front of the hospital by two o’clock so the Site Coordinators could show us the bus stop to get back to the hotel.  That evening we had a group dinner at a restaurant where I tried croquetas (which is kinda like a fried mushroom and potato appetizer) and all the fellows talked about their day in the hospital.  All in all, great first day of shadowing.  It really amazes me everything that goes into a surgery and what the surgeons can do to physically take out something that would have killed that patient in the near future.  Also, I really enjoyed wearing the scrubs and it’s something I hope to be doing a lot more in the future!

June 7th: As if I didn’t get lucky enough seeing a surgery yesterday, I got to see two today!  The first one was a prostatectomy which started out laparoscopically; however, after about an hour and a half the surgeons switched to an open surgery due to the specific situation with this patient.  One thing I thought was beyond amazing is how the surgeons used these tools as extensions of their hand to try to correct a problem while only making several small incisions.  I also really enjoyed watching what they were doing right on the screen because it was much easier to see than having to stand a couple feet away from the patient.  The reason that the surgeons had to switch to an open surgery was because this patient had an abnormal anatomy which made the prostate difficult to distinguish, and there was not a lot of space in that area, and the surgeons did not want to risk cutting the rectum which would have caused a larger issue.  I really admired how the doctors adapted and dealt with a situation of anatomy that really isn’t “textbook”.  While the OR was being cleaned and prepped, I got to talk to the doctor I was shadowing for a few minutes.  I found out that she had just finished her five year residency about a year ago.  In Spain, medical school is different; that is, students enter a six year medical school after high school, and then continue on to residencies that differ based on specialty.  So, the third year medical student who was also with the doctor I was shadowing was actually about the same age I was which I thought was strange.  I found out that the doctor I shadow also meets with non-surgical urology patients, but she prefers days filled with surgeries.  After that, I got to witness an endoscopic procedure to remove bladder cancer.  I had never really read about this procedure, but my goodness props to the patient (who was awake, but given an epidural, for the procedure).  An endoscope was inserted through the patient’s urethra and the surgeon removes the tumor and it is flushed out with a large amount of fluid which drains from the urethra into a bag that is suctioned into containers.  I’ve never seen anything like it before and was very happy that I stuck around later than I needed to so I could see this surgery.  After I left the hospital and got back to the square where my hotel was, it was already about 3:30 in the afternoon, so most shops were closed (siesta time), but luckily I found a small pizza place so I could have something to eat and not have to wait for dinner.  For dinner I went to this restaurant that sold pinchos which are like small sandwiches and had the most delicious little sandwich- “pincho de lobo con azúra” (is what I think it was called) the lomo part was a type of meat which a girl from Mexico in my group said is from a certain part of the cow (of which I do not remember) and azúra is a type of cheese (which I very much enjoyed).  Would definitely recommend!  After dinner I enjoyed a post-dinner sangria with some of the girls at a nice little place.  One thing I like about ordering drinks here is that the servers keep bringing you little snacks like chips, gummies, olives, etc. and it’s for free!  After that my friend and I took a walk around Ourense and over a bride to another the other side of the city.bridge and river

From a Big Fish in a Pond to a Small Fish in an Ocean

From a Big Fish in a Pond to a Small Fish in an Ocean

Friday June 3rd:  I arrived at the Madrid airport in the morning with two other Atlantis Project fellows that I (thankfully) met before getting on the plane in Philadelphia.  After grabbing my luggage and getting through customs, which went so much smoother than I thought it would, I was greeted by an Atlantis Project Coordinator who was gathering students that were arriving at the Madrid airport around that time.

Walking through Madrid Airport!
Walking through Madrid Airport!

From there, we were taken by bus to the hotel that we’d be staying in for orientation weekend.  We had the afternoon to walk around the nearby mall and get food.  Surprisingly, the mall was very similar to an American mall and even had a large number of American stores.  Today reminded me a little of the first day of college; fellows were from all over the United States and Puerto Rico, so very few people knew each other before coming to Madrid and everyone was trying to make friends for the weekend and the rest of their fellowship.  However, one thing very different from making friends during orientation weekend at school is there was a much wider variety of people from a variety of places, as opposed the large central Pennsylvania and surround area population of LVC students.  Most of the fellows come from very large schools that they don’t consider to be “that big” (I couldn’t believe someone thought a student body of 20,000 was average). Luckily, my new friends and I weren’t so horribly jet lagged that we made it through the whole day without sleeping, but going to bed later that night did feel amazing.

Quick picture with some fellows during a walk in the park near our hotel!
Quick picture with some fellows during a walk in the park near our hotel!

Saturday June 4th: Today was orientation day and all the students (approximately 75, I’m not sure of the exact number) sat in a meeting room in the hotel in which we listened to speakers reiterate the purpose of the Atlantis Project (which is to allow students to have shadowing opportunities they might not get in the U.S. – for those of you who don’t know, getting a doctor to shadow can be like pulling teeth if you don’t have a connection with one – and to allow students to see how a different country’s health care system operates), go over important cultural differences to be aware of, talk about some economical differences between the United States’ health care system and Spain’s health care system, and a current medical student gave advice for getting in to medical school.  One thing I found interesting was the difference in health care systems.  Spain’s health care system is a largely public system which is paid for by taxes.  The amount people pay for taxes varies based on income and other related things, and health care is regulated by the central government, sets policies for all areas, and regional government, sets policies for that specific area.  There was then discussion on which health care system is better? United States or Spain?  While the United States has a more expensive health care system, Americans have a lower life expectancy but they do have a higher health condition than Spaniards.  We ended the day with a bus trip to Madrid which we were allowed to go off on our own.  One of my favorite places I went to was Plaza Mayor where a group of us got tapas of tortillas and shrimp with sangria, all very delicious!

Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Sangria (to share)!
Sangria (to share)!

From taking Spanish before, I did forget that tortillas aren’t chips like we call them in English, but a combination of eggs, potatoes, and cheese.  After exploring the city for a while, my friends and I got a taxi ride back to the hotel to go to bed.

Sunday June 5th: Early in the morning, I got on a bus with fourteen other fellows to head to Ourense, Spain, a city above and close to the boarder of Portugal.  The bus ride took about 6 hours, but I did get to see the beautiful landscape of Spain.  Compared to Pennsylvania, it’s much hillier, and as you’re driving you see a lot of hills, grass, and open land and every now and again clusters of buildings.  When we finally arrived, we talked about what things would be like in the hospital and how our orientation would go tomorrow.

Ourense, Spain!
Ourense, Spain!

The day before we got our assignments for which specialties we’d be shadowing.  The first week I’m with urology, the second I’m in pediatrics, and the third I’m with hematology.  I’m very excited to meet the new doctors and see different specialties.  After meeting with our Site Coordinators, we were free to walk the city of Ourense, which is smaller and much less crowded and busy than Madrid.  I had a delicious (and cheap) meal of breaded chicken, rice, and salad, and I’m finally starting to get used to the Spanish eating times of a lunch around 2 and dinner around 8.  One thing I’m not used to is going to bed at the same time, because of eating dinner later and it being light out so much later here.  But, tomorrow is an early day at the hospital with much to learn so a good night sleep is more than necessary!

For Students

For Students


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

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.

IMG_5823  IMG_5833  IMG_5844

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.


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!


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!



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!



Bopping Around Barcelona

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.

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.



Las Fallas: A Celebration Like None Other

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

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.


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!