Barcelona: More than a city

My last big European trip was to Barcelona in northern Spain (in a region known as Catalonia/Cataluña). Although most of the major cities in Spain are within a few hours of Sevilla by train, Barcelona would have been a 6 hour train ride, so I flew there instead. The language of the largely independent region has traditionally been Catalán, an odd dialect that sounds like a mixture of French and Spanish. Luckily for me, most of the people I met in Barcelona spoke Spanish or English. Apparently, Catalán is falling out of use with most of the population.

Barcelona is a unique city with gorgeous art, architecture, and a culture all its own. It didn’t even feel like I was still in Spain.

Barcelona was larger than I expected (it is the second most populated city in Spain, after all), with a metro system large enough to rival the one in Paris. I got lost countless times, particularly on the way back to my Airbnb. Luckily, though, a cab from five minutes away only cost me 5 or 6 euros if I was desperate. The city itself, however, was much more laid-back and friendly than Paris.

In Barcelona I had “paella de mariscos,” or seafood paella. Normally, though, I prefer just plain “paella de verduras,” or veggie paella.

I spent my first hour in Barcelona wandering La Rambla, a popular pedestrian street filled with tourist shops and restaurants. I made sure to stop for some paella (rice seasoned with saffron and mixed with veggies and seafood). Though it was a bit expensive and took a while to make, the delicious seafood was worth it (Barcelona is a seaside city). On the way, I spotted a couple buildings with organic, unique architecture that had clearly been designed by Antoni Gaudí, the famous Catalán Modernist architect.

Next, I had some time to kill before the rest of my friends arrived in Barcelona the next day. Instead of heading to the major tourist attractions, I wandered over to the Barri Gòtic (or “Gothic Quarter” in Catalán), where I stumbled across a church called Santa María del Pi, a 14th-century Gothic church whose name apparently translates to “St. Mary of the Pine Tree,” whatever that means. It was a small but beautiful church, with vivid stained glass windows and a collection of tesoro (treasure) in a back room.

Exhausted from my travels, I grabbed some hazelnut gelato (yum) and headed back to my Airbnb, which was owned by a friendly Spanish couple from Madrid. Eager for another taste of Catalán seafood, I ate at a sushi restaurant called Kibuka nearby and then passed out for the night.

The next morning, after a failed attempt to find the brunch place where my friends were eating, I met them at their hostel, Sant Jordi Hostel Gracia, near my Airbnb. We hopped on the metro and headed to the beach, getting off at Barceloneta and walking the rest of the way. It was blazing hot, so we sheltered from the sun at a cool beachside restaurant called the Surf House, which some other study abroad students had recommended to us. They not only had delicious strawberry and kiwi mojitos–they also served burritos and fish tacos! Coming from TCU, we were in Tex-Mex heaven.

After a blissful, relaxing hour on the beach, where we drank cheap beer and cider and observed several topless women and a cheerful vendor balancing a box of donuts on his head, we got back on the metro and changed for dinner. Unsurprisingly, my friends wanted to go out for sushi, and I wasn’t about to refuse. I just ordered noodles instead of fish. At the restaurant, I tried my first sake shot, which was pretty disgusting. And then it was time for clubbing.

I’d never been to a discoteca in Spain before, so I figured I had to try it. We began the night at a bar called The Room, which we were 99% sure was actually a gay bar. Nearby was a club called Opium, which charged a whopping 20 cover fee. Luckily, girls got in for free with a coupon, but the boys were forced to pay the cover. We bought them drinks out of guilt.

The discoteca was dark, crowded, and loud, like most clubs. About five minutes after arriving, we were approached and offered a spot in the VIP section, complete with a bottle of free champagne. We accepted, only to discover that only the girls were allowed in VIP without paying for bottle service. The boys were left out yet again, much to the dismay of one of the boys’ girlfriends. The champagne came with a bunch of sparklers, which I’d never seen before. After dancing the night away until four in the morning, I was ready to go home. I hopped in a cab (it was too late for the metro to be running) and headed home.

The next day, Saturday, was my last day in Barcelona. Having bought our tickets to La Sagrada Familia the day before, we were able to skip most of the long line to get into the huge Modernist basilica. The church has been under construction since it began in 1882, and it relies entirely on donations. The planned completion date is 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death.

The result of the church’s constant additions is an odd, almost patchwork style, although it is still breathtaking in its design. Eight giant conical spires crown the church, riddled with rectangular openings that are probably perfect for bird nests. The spires symbolize the four Evangelists on both sides, and another, representing Jesus Christ, is planned to rise above them. Gaudí’s final design calls for a total of eighteen spires. The church’s two sides, the Nativity façade and the Passion façade, are decorated with stonework that depicts different stages of Jesus’ life.

As soon as I stepped into La Sagrada Familia, I understood why Gaudí is sometimes called “l’arquitecte de Déu,” or “God’s architect.” While the exterior is impressive, it can’t compare to the beauty of the basilica’s interior. Walking down the nave of the church is like walking through a multi-colored forest or kaleidoscope.

Gaudí intended the church to play with light, color, and sound. Apparently, the church’s many curved surfaces create a wonderful acoustic effect, making it basically a giant organ. The pillars, all made of different types of stone according to the weight they have to bear, rise up to the ceiling like massive tree trunks, spreading to support the vaulted ceiling. The stained glass windows are like no church windows I’ve seen before, made of abstract colored shapes rather than depicting religious figures. The windows were probably one of my favorite parts of the church’s marvelous design.

I’ve visited dozens of churches all across Europe, from the Sacre Coeur in Paris to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. But none of those churches can compare to the sheer beauty and grace of La Sagrada Familia. Not only was it my favorite Barcelona tourist attraction–it was my favorite European church, period.

After La Sagrada Familia, my friends and I headed to the beach again. But as soon as we ordered our food at Surf House (the food is just that good), they realized that their Barcelona FC tickets, which they thought were for Sunday, were actually for the game on Saturday at 6 pm–which was about 15 minutes from this realization! They bolted down their food and sprinted to catch a cab, and luckily managed to catch the second half of the game, which everyone knows is the most important half anyway.

After relaxing and reading on the beach, I took the metro and then a cab to Parc Güell (pronounced with a hard G), a popular tourist destination where Gaudí’s old house is located. I had bought a package deal of tickets to La Sagrada Familia and the Casa Museu Gaudí, so I spent a while in the museum before strolling around the park. Although the small museum was a disappointment, since it only contained some furniture and a few plaques, the park was certainly worth a visit. Transportation to and from it was certainly a pain, though–the metro doesn’t run that far, and the only way up or down the hill is either a bus or cab.

Satisfied that I had seen most of Barcelona by then, I returned to my Airbnb and took a nap before eating dinner at a quaint Peruvian restaurant nearby. I got to try a strawberry “pisco sour,” a Peruvian cocktail, and had some delicious tamales.

My time in Barcelona was brief, but I’m definitely glad I went. Barcelona is so different from anywhere else in Spain, but has the advantage of a mostly Spanish-speaking population. The art and architecture were absolutely gorgeous, the beaches were heaven, and the people were extremely friendly. In fact, after Sevilla, Barcelona is probably my second favorite Spanish city.

Ireland & Scotland: A wee journey

Two weeks after the Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) holiday, students living in Sevilla also get a whole week off for Feria de Abril, or the annual spring festival. After spending just one day riding Ferris Wheels and snacking on the traditional pescaditos (pieces of fried fish, basically), I was off to Dublin, Ireland, and Edinburgh, Scotland. After visiting England and Wales, I had to finish my tour of the entire UK, of course!

I’ve never seen a greener landscape in my life!

I arrived in Dublin on Thursday night, so most tourist attractions were already closed. The lovely gay couple I stayed with had two adorable cats, Betty and Joan, who actually deigned to let me pet them. That’s a huge deal, since cats usually hate me. My hosts suggested I visit a pub called The Cobblestone, which is known for its traditional Irish music. After a long and confusing trek through the poorly lit Dublin streets, I finally made it to the pub.

Settling down with a pint of cider with black currant (a much sweeter alternative), I listened to a group of fiddlers, a flautist, and a drummer stomping out lively tunes. The pub was packed–standing room only. My favorite part was when an older gentleman stood up, called for silence, and belted out a song called “Northwest Passage” that turned out to be Canadian, oddly enough. I loved how engaged the audience was in the music, stomping their feet and sometimes clapping along with the beat.

The next morning, I woke up bright and early to catch a bus to the Galway, which is about three hours away from Dublin, on the other side of Ireland. From there, I caught a tour bus to the Cliffs of Moher, my true destination. Unfortunately, I didn’t check the itinerary, or I would have realized that the Cliffs were an all-day affair–and I only had one full day in Ireland. So I didn’t visit Dublin Castle, the Guinness factory, or any other tourist destinations. Just the Cliffs. Luckily, the Cliffs were so beautiful that I didn’t feel like I missed out on much. We stopped at some other locations along the way, from an ancient dolmen (passage grave) to a nearby castle.

For those who don’t know, the Cliffs of Moher are cliffs rising nearly 400 ft from the Irish sea, and were the filming location for both the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride and the seaside cliffs where Dumbledore goes to retrieve Regulus Black’s locket/horcrux in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

“SEE! The Cliffs of Insanity!” *dun dun DUNNN*

The Cliffs of Moher were breathtakingly beautiful, even though the weather was cloudy and drizzly. Seagulls and other birds crowed loudly and circled a large rock off the coast, while the breeze smelled unmistakably of salt and brine.

A low stone wall encircles most of the Cliffs, preventing tourists from plummeting to their deaths after an ill-advised attempt at a selfie, but past O’Brien’s Tower (known as “Horny Corny’s Last Erection” by the locals–what a story our tour guide told us about Cornelius O’Brien, father of Irish tourism) there’s a section of cliffs owned by a farmer where you can get right up to the edge. Despite my fear of heights, I gathered my courage and followed everyone else, getting my boots incredibly muddy in the process. Looking down at the waves crashing on the rocky shore hundreds of feet below made me feel a little queasy, but the view from the other side of the cliffs was worth it.

Sadly, I returned to Dublin late at night and had to get up early the next morning for my flight to Edinburgh. My short time in Dublin, land of Artemis Fowl and James Joyce, had come to an end. I definitely want to come back someday and visit all the other tourist attractions I missed this time.

Apparently, the Scott Monument is the largest monument to a writer in the world. It looked pretty sinister to me.

I arrived in Edinburgh at a much more reasonable hour, so I got to tour the city even before I checked into my Airbnb. The bus from the airport dropped me off right next to the Scott Monument, a towering Victorian Gothic monument to the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. Then I visited the Scottish National Gallery and saw some Van Goghs, Titians, and Monets.

After meeting my Scottish host, a lovely artist and mom who gave me helpful directions and maps, I headed to the Royal Botanic Gardens nearby to look around a bit. The Fort Worth Botanic Gardens are nice, but they’ve got nothing on the ones in Edinburgh. The UK is just so wonderfully green.

I rushed over to the Royal Mile because I didn’t want Edinburgh Castle or the Palace of Holyrood to close before I got there. I climbed all the way to the top of Edinburgh Castle, which has a wonderful panoramic view of the entire city. There’s a memorial to all the Scots who died in World War I in the center of the castle. It was crazy to see hundreds of names, all of the men who gave their lives for their country (I’ve never been to the memorials in Washington, D.C.)DCIM100GOPRO

After a peek at the Scottish Crown Jewels (which paled in comparison to England’s), I set off on the Royal Mile once again. By the time I got to Holyrood Palace (Queen Elizabeth II’s residence when she’s visiting Scotland), though, it was closed. I was consoled by the huge extinct volcano called Arthur’s Seat, which rose high above the city. I wasn’t about to climb it on foot, though. My feet were dead from running around the city all day.

My last stop in Edinburgh was Elephant House Café, the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling famously wrote the majority of the Harry Potter series, sometimes jotting down ideas on napkins. I was surprised to find that Elephant House is actually a Japanese café, or it’s at least owned by Japanese people. I had some chili con carne (they gave me nachos instead, but whatever) and a giant mug of hot chocolate with pink marshmallows called the “Mallow Delight,” and it was heaven. The tea room (where J.K. used to sit) has a view of Edinburgh Castle, but I didn’t get a table in the back.

Obligatory Elephant House bathroom graffiti selfie. (Someone wrote “put a check mark here if you’d snog Hermione” and there were like 10 check marks. It’s a women’s restroom.)

After a long and satisfying day in Edinburgh, I returned to my Airbnb, where I finished a book I found in a Scottish book shop for a pound and a half (!!!) and passed out at 11 pm. I was exhausted after a weekend of travel. My host let me cook my own eggs in the morning, which was a real treat for someone living in Spain, where they don’t eat protein for breakfast.

I was sad to say goodbye to Scotland after a weekend filled with history, friendly locals, and gorgeous landscapes. Out of all the places I’ve visited in Europe, Edinburgh has got to be one of my favorites. Dublin is a close second, only because I didn’t get to see much of the city itself. I hope I get to return someday, maybe when I can afford a nice cozy Aran sweater.


London, the Welsh, and the Wardrobe

Ever since I was little, I’ve dreamed of finally seeing Great Britain in person. Those hours spent with my face buried in Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, and The Chronicles of Narnia sent my imagination across the Atlantic to catch the Hogwarts Express at King’s Cross and explore Oxford’s dusty libraries. To my delight, my visit this past week was just as wonderful as I’ve always dreamed.

Can you say “gorgeous”?

I stayed with my friend Ariana, who’s studying English at Oxford for the year and served as my tour guide around England. A member of St. Catherine’s College, or Catz, she let me sleep on her floor and introduced me to the wonders of Indian and halal takeout. I saved money on a hotel and got to catch up with a friend I’ve known since middle school, so I’d call it a win-win.

First, of course, we explored Oxford University and the city itself, with its imposing Gothic architecture and countless libraries. (There are 38 colleges at Oxford, and each has its own library and dormitory.) We toured Christ Church Cathedral, whose familiar courtyard was used in the Harry Potter films, and St. Mary’s, which had an equally gorgeous and ornate interior.

Look familiar?

As we walked the cobblestone streets of Oxford, I kept reminding myself that so many great authors studied and wrote there. From J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll to Philip Pullman, authors have written and set their novels in this relatively small city 2 hours from London. That, combined with the general air of intense academia, intimidated me at first.

But then I got to meet some of Ariana’s classmates for drinks, and somehow Oxford became a little less scary. Sure, these college students are the kind who would get perfect SAT scores had they been American, but they still laughed and joked the same as any other college kid. (We had a movie night watching Brokeback Mountain, which was pretty entertaining since some had trouble deciphering the film’s heavy country accents.)

A few of my favorite spots and shops in Oxford: The Covered Market (a bunch of tourist-y shops near downtown), The King’s Arms (a favorite pub for Oxford students), Giraffe (just a really good restaurant), Phoenix Picture House (an arthouse movie theater where we saw Princess Kaguya), and The Eagle and the Child (I didn’t get to visit, but it was a favorite pub of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s).

I’ve never seen a more genuine British pub in my life. They’ve got two drink choices: Beer and cider. Tip: Ask for your cider “black,” which means black currant-infused. It was THE BEST.

Next came London. Unfortunately, we had to take a train or bus from Oxford to the city, but luckily British public transportation is miles–or kilometers–better than in the U.S. I forgot my camera, so Ariana took all the photos, and she’s in Belgium. So, photos later!

Have some photos of Oxford instead:

DCIM100GOPROAnyway, Big Ben was pretty cool but hard to get close to. I caught a glimpse of the London Eye but never went up it–I still haven’t been on a Ferris Wheel, actually. Must be the fear of heights. Someday…

Then, after a bunch of confusion with the London Tube, I got to meet up with my friend and future roommate, Kelsey. An English major and knitting addict, Kelsey attends TCU’s program at the University of Roehampton. She took us to 221B Baker Street and Chipotle–who knew London had both? It was nice to finally taste some Tex-Mex again, since Spanish “Tex-Mex” just isn’t the same. We rode a Lorry (one of those two-decker red buses) and I got a whole new view of London from the top.

DCIM100GOPROThe next day, Ariana and I toured the Tower of London, which was much smaller and less gory than I expected. We saw the Crown Jewels, aka a bajillion diamonds and other precious jewels that just happen to be in the shape of crowns and scepters. It only rained a little, and the cold wasn’t unbearable. Next was King’s Cross station and the much-anticipated Platform 9 3/4 photos. (Again, coming soon!) I can finally say that I’ve boarded the Hogwarts Express. It’s crazy that J.K. Rowling basically transformed part of her daily commute into a tourist destination with one children’s book series!

It’s winter, so the gardens didn’t look quite so impressive. The entire palace was still stunning, though.

On my last full day in Oxford, Ariana took me to Blenheim Palace (pronounced “Blehn-uhm”), the seat of the dukes of Marlborough–its most famous resident, though, was Winston Churchill. I never knew Churchill was part of the gentry, did you? The inside was absolutely gorgeous–plenty of gilt–and reminded me a lot of Versailles. For some odd reason, the palace was holding exhibit of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei‘s work, which ended up in tourists walking in on a bunch of fake crabs littering the floor of one of the lavish bedrooms. It was definitely an interesting addition to an 18th-century palace.

DCIM100GOPROBecause my distant ancestors were Welsh, and also because train tickets to Wales were way cheaper than to Scotland, our next stop was Cardiff. There were significantly less sheep in Wales than I expected, which I guess makes sense for the capital city. But the landscape was definitely among the greenest I’ve ever seen. Living in Texas and southern Spain, you almost forget that nature can hold that much green!

Can’t leave the UK without any plaid!

We only had a couple hours in Cardiff, but it was still one of the favorite cities I’ve visited. It almost reminds me of an Austin to London’s New York–smaller, still a vibrant city, but way more relaxed and cool. Ariana and I stopped by a neat little thrift shop called Blue Honey and I bought a red plaid scarf (pictured to the right) and an antique turquoise ring that turned my finger green. It’s still cute, though.

The Doctor Who Experience would have been fun, but unfortunately it was too far out of our way. We visited the art section of the National Museum, but after the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay everything was pretty underwhelming. (Listen to me, I sound like the snobbiest tourist ever.)

I mean, can you blame me? Looks pretty impenetrable, right?

Much more exciting was Cardiff Castle, a Norman stronghold built on the remains of a Roman fort. I’ve seen surprisingly few castles during my time in Europe, and this castle helped remedy that. Oddly enough, in both Cardiff Castle and the Tower of London, one of my first thoughts was: “What a great place to hold out during a zombie attack!” Must be the Newsflesh series I’m currently reading.

My visit to the UK was a great way to mark the halfway point of the semester. It made me want to travel outside of Spain more, and really see the world before I have to go back home. There’s no place like home, sure, but there’s also no place like Europe.

Never a place: Global citizenship in the modern world

TCU’s mission statement is “to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community.”

My classes at TCU, which focus on providing a diverse cultural education, and my three months abroad in Spain have taught me what it means to be a global citizen. I have learned that a global citizen takes other cultural perspectives into account. Living as a citizen of the world means striving to be both knowledgeable and open-minded about other cultural customs and ways of life. It’s silly to expect everyone on earth to abide by American norms, just as it would be to expect everyone to take a siesta and eat at 9:00 pm every night.

The week before Easter, Semana Santa (or “Holy Week”), is a time of lavish celebrations and solemn parades throughout Sevilla. Semana Santa is one of the awesome cultural experiences that only study abroad can offer.

According to a World Values Survey, an average of 72% of people polled considered themselves “global citizens” (Kull 27). Our world is moving toward a global society, and hopefully more and more people will realize that petty conflicts and meaningless divisions between ethnicities, religions, and other cultural markers will get us nowhere. To live in harmony, our global community must learn to listen to each other and get along, despite (and perhaps because of) our cultural differences.

Global citizens identify with a “global community” more than they do with a particular nation. Living and traveling in Europe has opened my eyes to the interconnected nature of our world today. Maybe because the European Union is so small and easy to traverse, it’s easy to see how national identity can be overridden by membership in the global community. When a German plane crashed in the Alps recently, Spaniards mourned the passengers just as Germans did. Living and studying side by side with people of all nationalities makes you realize just how small our world has become. Cultural intelligence requires knowledge of other cultures, the practice of mindfulness (being aware of our own assumptions, noticing others’ assumptions and behavior, and perceiving a situation from multiple perspectives), and acquiring cross-cultural skills (Thomas & Inkson 176). I believe I have begun to acquire cultural intelligence through all of these means.

I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to study in Sevilla, not just because of the delicious food and the easy access to Paris, London, and Barcelona. The true value of my study abroad experience lies in learning to see the world through new eyes–not the eyes of a sheltered American student, but the eyes of a well-traveled citizen of the world.

Before I studied abroad, I never would have dreamed of hopping on a plane all by myself to see one of my closest friends, just because I had a week off of school. Studying in Europe has made me appreciate how easy travel is.

I may still be young, but my experiences navigating the Paris underground, drinking at a pub with Oxford students, and tutoring my Spanish host brother in English have prepared me for a lifetime of cultural understanding. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to travel so extensively in my life, but if I do (and even if I stay in the melting pot of the U.S.) I’ll be prepared to set aside my prejudices and expectations in favor of a more open-minded approach.

Whether it’s Morocco or Japan, other cultures should be something new and fantastic to be admired and, sometimes, adopted. I’ve always been a fan of learning–a global education is just another way to improve one’s knowledge.

[Note: The title of this blog post–and this blog–comes from a quote by Henry Miller: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”]

Orange Blossoms and Minarets in al-Andalus

Since their arrival in 711 CE and long after their expulsion in 1614, Muslims (and people of Arabic descent) have influenced the Iberian Peninsula culturally, socially, and economically. Under Muslim rule, the peninsula (formerly known as Hispania under Roman rule) became known as al-Andalus. Coincidentally, the southern autonomous community that contains Sevilla is now called Andalucía, because it was the center of medieval Moorish power. The influence of Moorish culture on Spain can be seen (and heard) everywhere. A whopping 8% of the Spanish language derives from Arabic, the second largest lexical influence after Latin. Arabic words as varied as  hasta (until), asesino (assassin), almohada (pillow), azúcar (sugar), and adobe (sun-dried brick), all found their way into the Spanish language after nine centuries of Muslim occupation. Certain cities and regions of Spain were affected more strongly than others, particularly the south. Sevilla (a name that originated from the Arabic Ishbiliya), a city near the Muslim capital of Córdoba, became a center of trade and Muslim influence. The Moors brought the distinctive bitter orange trees to the city, and the word azahar (orange blossom) comes from Arabic. Even today, the air of Sevilla smells like oranges.

The “bitter orange,” or “Seville orange,” can be found throughout the city. These orange trees in front of La Giralda cathedral are connected by miniature aqueducts for irrigation. (Warning: the name is no joke–apparently the oranges, sour like lemons, are too bitter to eat. Instead, they are used for marmalade.)

The Moors also inspired the medieval mudéjar style of architecture, which can be seen in the Real Alcázar of Sevilla, originally a fortified royal palace built by the Almohad dynasty. (Click through to read my post about my visit to the Alcázar, with pictures.) The Alcázar is one of the best preserved Moorish forts in Spain, and it is beautifully maintained. The palace contains shards of Moorish ceramic tiles and pottery, as well as tapestries and intricately carved ceilings of Arabic calligraphy. Outside, peacocks can be found wandering among the orange and cypress trees in the palace’s lavish gardens.

La Catedral de Sevilla is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. La Giralda is a daunting 34-floor climb (but with ramps instead of stairs).

La Giralda is another important symbol of Muslim rule in Sevilla. Originally built as a minaret for a mosque by the Muslim Almohad dynasty, a Renaissance bell tower top was added by the Christians during the Reconquista. La Giralda is a proud Sevillan symbol of both Moorish and Christian heritage to this day. The cathedral and its bell tower harken back to a time when Muslims, Christians, and Jews all coexisted in relative peace in al-Andalus. Today, long after the Catholic monarchs expelled the Muslims from Spain, only about a million Spaniards are Muslim. That’s about 2.3% of the population, compared to the nearly 88% Catholic majority. Of the Spaniards who immigrated here, 71% are from Morocco. According to my host mom, most of these immigrants reside in southern Spain because they provide cheap labor for the invernaderos (greenhouses) and construction industry. Muslim immigrants are also concentrated in Ceuta and Melilla (autonomous cities within Morocco, but legally part of Spain), and in Almería.

Abd Al-Rahman III and his Court in Medina Azahara by Dionisio Baixeras Verdaguer

For the most part, because Muslim immigrants make up such a small portion of the Spanish population, they exist in relative peace. However, my host mom told me that she does not like Arabic culture “because of the way it degrades women.” She said that Islamic culture scares her much more than Chinese culture or any other immigrant culture, because of the extremism that can come from Islam. She called the way Islam divides men and women “dangerous,” expressing a common sentiment among Western non-Muslims, especially Americans. While I disagree with Raquel’s opinion, since I know that Muslim women (at least those in countries where they have legal rights) are free to choose whether to don the hijab (headscarf) and follow the tenets of Islam. Just as with any other religion, Islam is a choice, and some would view the strict dress code for women (and men) as a sign of respect–putting women on a pedestal. Some would also call the revealing clothes many American women choose to wear “degrading.” Whether a culture is “degrading” or “wrong” all lies in the eye of the beholder.

The Great Mosque at Córdoba is an example of Muslim architecture, particularly the Moorish “horseshoe arch” seen here.

To me, the influence of Arabic culture and all the wonderful inventions, knowledge, and art it brought to Spain far outweigh the discomfort some Spaniards may feel when confronted with believers in Allah. After all, isn’t the Catholic god the same “God”?

Una España Verde

I’ve always been terrible at conserving natural resources, for all that I loved my AP Environmental Science class in high school. I’m afraid of the dark, so I always have the lights on, and I love taking long, hot showers.

Transitioning to the much more resource-conscious lifestyle of Spain (and Europe in general) has been interesting, but not as difficult as I first thought. To take a five-minute shower, you just have to cut out things like shaving and save them for one day when you can turn the water on and off (brrr!). Showering has also gotten easier as the weather has warmed, since the tile bathroom can be freezing if the water’s not on. Apparently, Sevilla levies fines on people who use too much water. I’ve learned to turn off lights as much as possible, and my nocturnal eyesight has improved.

I wish Fort Worth had such great public transportation!

Spaniards have a much more energy-efficient transportation infrastructure than in the U.S. Instead of driving everywhere and clogging streets and the air with traffic and pollution, Spaniards take the metro/bus/tram to work. The cars that do exist here are smaller than American trucks and SUVs (although there are fewer Fiats than I expected). According to my host dad, who owns a car, driving usually isn’t worth it because of the lack of parking in Sevilla. I can relate, coming from the land of parking tickets at TCU. Aside from public transportation and cycling, many people just walk most places here. Because it’s a city and everything is closer together, you can walk to most places within the city limits (except UPO).

Since 2007, Sevilla has “instituted a community bike-sharing scheme, a surface tram, an underground metro, two high-speed train links, a pilot electric car programme and . . . the first commercial solar power plant in Europe.” The bike-sharing program, Sevici, is useful because of the various bike locations throughout the city and because of the city’s 120 km of bike lanes. Sevilla takes its bikers’ safety–and the environment–seriously.

Sevilla is also just surprisingly clean. The metro is spotless, and apart from the numerous cigarette butts, the streets outshine big cities like New York and Paris. The air always smells like fresh oranges, and the skies are almost always clear. I often see shopkeepers mopping the street outside their shops, which is something that never seems to happen in the U.S. Clearly, sevillanos take pride in keeping their city clean and beautiful.

The lack of cars on many Sevillan streets makes for a much more picturesque view.

My host family thinks recycling and saving natural resources is an important part of Spanish life. They seem unable to imagine the wastefulness of most American households–for one, they don’t even own clothes dryers here. They dry all their clothes by hand outside and hope it doesn’t rain. Raquel especially can’t imagine having to drive everywhere; one of her favorite parts of living near downtown Sevilla is the convenience of being able to walk almost everywhere. I agree, because even though I’ve never lived in a big city with public transportation before, it’s really nice not to worry about parking and traffic. Walking is so much easier.

When I first came to Spain, I thought adjusting to the sustainable lifestyle here would be a challenge. I was surprised to find how natural it has been to fall into step with my host family’s resource conservation, though. I know that even when I return to the U.S., I’ll do my best to keep saving resources and money by taking shorter showers, turning off the lights, and trying to use public transportation or walk more.

Tuition is too damn high: American vs. European universities

I’ll admit that when I first chose TCU, I wasn’t looking for the cheapest option. In 2012, the total cost of attendance was around $48,000 a year (it’s now jumped to $59,370, but that’s a whole other story).

Interest is coming.

I knew that I wanted a great education at a small liberal arts school, and of course most of my options turned out to be private schools. I did land a sizable academic scholarship that helped pay for some of my school, but if I didn’t have a generous grandma with a passion for education, I would be going to community college instead–or at least be elbow-deep in crippling student debt. (Not-so-fun fact: American federal student loan debt now adds up to about $1 trillion!) American college ain’t cheap, and tuition is only growing, at 500% of what it was in 1985.

Naturally, when I discovered that in Europe, most countries subsidize university education, I was stunned. Spaniards only have to pay between €600 and €1,800 per year (at a public university, but still). In Germany, a university education is now completely free. Some students at UPO have been handing out flyers for their upcoming protest of “the privatization of public universities” (aka, a tuition jump of about €100). One of my roommates told me she almost started laughing when she heard them ranting. If only they knew we attend a school that costs about 65 times as much.

They should be glad they’re graduating without massive student debt.

Luckily, the high price of American tuition does ensure a better quality education, at least from what I’ve seen. Of course, I’m not taking any classes with Spaniards, but from what I can tell the professors at TCU are more qualified than the ones I’ve had at UPO, even if they’re not bilingual. They also just seem to be better teachers, which is one of the reasons I decided to attend TCU in the first place. Like most students, I do much better in school when I’m encouraged by a great teacher.

I guess high tuition is only to be expected from a school that had millions of dollars set aside for flower upkeep…

When I asked my host dad, Alberto, for his opinion on the price of university education in Spain, his immediate response was “demasiado caro” (too expensive). For him, about €800 a year was too expensive. When I laughed, he realized pretty quickly that it was more of a pained laugh than an amused one. “¿Y en los Estados Unidos? Es mucho más caro, no?” he asked.

, Alberto. . He looked floored when I explained that a year of school at TCU now costs almost $60,000. He did point out that for most Spaniards, a middle-class worker makes only about €40,000 a year. (And the euro is exactly $1.09 right now, so that’s basically equivalent.) Housing is also way cheaper in Spain (about €800 a month for a three-bedroom house in a good location in Sevilla). So maybe they make up for their cheap university cost with smaller salaries and a cheaper standard of living?

Either way, I can’t help but be jealous of my host mom, Raquel, who’s currently getting her master’s in Pychology at a private Spanish university for free with a scholarship. I have a 3.9 GPA at TCU and I’m not getting anything for free.

Still, as I always remind myself when I hear my friends from other schools talk about their tuition being under $10,000 a year, I wouldn’t trade my TCU education for the world. (Or €800.)

Go Frogs!

How to be sick while abroad

Catching a cold is never fun, but it’s even less fun when you’re studying abroad in another country. The medicines are all named different things, you may or may not speak the language, you don’t have insurance… In the U.S., all those things could add up to a real healthcare nightmare. But at least in Spain, I’ve been able to treat my cold with surprising ease.

So I put together some tips for treating your cold while abroad:

  • First off, if you have a cold that just won’t go away, go straight to the doctor.
Most programs will have a doctor they trust and the director can probably give you directions.
  • Be prepared to answer the doctor’s questions in the language of the country you’re staying in.
Look up simple vocab words like “cough,” “congestion,” and “pain,” depending on your ailment.

  • Don’t expect to wait long.

The combined waiting time for my two visits was only five minutes total! It seems like doctors’ offices are a lot more efficient in Spain, for whatever reason.
  • Pay for your visit.

My first visit cost 45, but amazingly enough when I went back for a second one (only three days later, since my symptoms hadn’t improved) they let me go without paying a cent! That’s right, I landed a free doctor’s visit and it was GREAT.

  • Fill your prescription(s) at any pharmacy.

Unlike in the U.S., the doctor doesn’t ask which pharmacy you use; you can walk into the closest one on your street and fill the prescription. And don’t worry if the handwriting seems illegible–the pharmacists are used to doctor handwriting. Here’s another great thing about socialized medicine: both times I visited the pharmacy and purchased several prescriptions, my total never rose above 10! (Of course, this depends on the type of medicine you need.)
Look for the blinking green cross-shaped sign; you can’t miss ’em.
  • Take school off if you need to.

Be sure to get a doctor’s note, though, because professors can be strict about excused absences. Going to school when you’re miserably sick won’t help anyone, least of all you. Get the notes from someone else and relax!

How to get lost in Paris

Despite my difficulties navigating the gigantic urban sprawl that is Paris a couple weeks ago, I’m glad I visited. Growing up in North Texas and even studying abroad in Sevilla, I haven’t been to a big city since I was eight and living in Chicago.

Both the size and grandeur of Paris amazed and delighted me. I felt transported back in time as I walked the streets and passed the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sacre Coeur. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to live there and see such sights every day on the commute to work.

(Pro tip: Buy a metro pass as soon as you get to Paris. Buying tickets every time you want to take the metro is a huge pain, and it’s cheaper to buy three or five days’ worth.)


My friend Kathleen and I stayed in a quaint little hotel called Hotel de la Mare, where the cheerful owner brought us a basket of croissants every morning for breakfast. Even though the hotel was about a 15-minute walk uphill from the nearest metro stop (Ménilmontant), it was both affordable and comfortable.

Our first stop on our tour of Paris was the Sacre Coeur, a white domed cathedral on the top of a hill overlooking the Montmartre neighborhood. From the top, we had a view of the Paris skyline. A man was selling roasted, glazed nuts at the top, and they were delicious. I also found a purple beret at a souvenir shop nearby, for only 4. Go Frogs!

(P.S. Nutella crepes are delicious.)

Our next stop, the Eiffel Tower, was much bigger than I expected. It looks small from far away, but up close the giant iron structure looms over the Seine. I’ll upload photos once my friend uploads them from her camera, since my GoPro died as soon as we got there. Since we’re both afraid of heights and the line for going to the top was insane, we opted out. (Pro tip: buy tickets in advance.)

Nearby, we found a bridge with several locks attached. Thinking it was the famous “Bridge of Sighs,” we bought locks for 3 each and locked them onto the bridge. I wrote my name and my boyfriend’s on mine, and Kathleen wrote “Me, myself, and I,” which cracked us both up. Apparently, though, many bridges on the Seine have locks attached to them, and only one is the original Bridge of Sighs.

Locks of love!

Luckily, we soon located the real bridge, Pont Alexandre III, across from the Louvre. Since we had kept the keys, we were able to detach our locks and move them to the correct bridge. (There was almost no room, though, since someone had boarded up the sides of the bridge because it was so full of locks.) We heard a rumor that some poor guy has to go in and cut off all the locks every once a while, because their weight causes too much strain on the bridge. It’s insane.

I don’t have any of my own photos from Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe, partly because Kathleen and I couldn’t figure out how to cross the gigantic roundabout street to get to the enormous monument. Like the Eiffel Tower, it was also way bigger than I imagined.

Note the impossibly wide street that encircles the whole monument. We walked all the way around it in an attempt to find a crosswalk. (Hint: There were none.)

Finally, we realized that all that walking had been for nothing. The entrance is close to the nearest metro stop (Charles de Gaulle), and you have to descend some stairs that look awfully like another metro station. Then you walk down a long hallway to find the ticket area. Unfortunately, it was the weekend so we couldn’t even see the end of the line. We decided seeing the Arc up close wasn’t worth the wait.

Then, because Kathleen and I are both art lovers, we had to visit the Louvre. Due to the museum’s size (with 70,000 artworks spread across more than 650,000 square feet of gallery space), we probably only saw a third of the artworks. However, we did see the Mona Lisa, “Liberty Leading the People” by Delacroix, and the Nike of Samothrace (one of my favorite sculptures). I apologize for the blurriness of my Mona Lisa selfie, since there were about fifty people swarming the painting and it was difficult to get close.

After the Louvre, we stumbled upon a nearby cathedral called Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the neighborhood where Kathleen’s mom lived when she studied abroad in Paris in college. The church was a bit dark, but the inside was nevertheless beautiful. It’s supposed to house the tomb of the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, but we didn’t end up seeing it anywhere.

Then came Notre Dame. I was excited to see the cathedral that first entered my imagination after Disney’s adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but unfortunately we spotted neither Esmeralda nor Quasimodo. Kathleen and I took pictures with her purple TCU flag (again, photos to come), even though the wind made it necessary for two kindhearted ladies to help us out by offering to hold the corners. I was a little disappointed that the inside was about the same as any other cathedral I’ve visited, but the outside was gorgeous.

Even though it took us two tries (it closes early), next we toured the Musée d’Orsay, which is a converted train station that houses a lot of Impressionist paintings. The building itself was awesome–the giant clock was my favorite part–and I loved getting to see some Van Goghs and Monets. And like all the museums we visited in Paris, it was completely free!

For our last big landmark, we took a train to Versailles. After waiting in a seemingly endless line that looped around several times, we made it inside. Like the Musée d’Orsay, it was free for students. The impossible grandeur of the former royal château helped me understand some of the righteous anger behind the French Revolution. Walking through Marie Antoinette‘s bedroom was both sad and surreal.

I’m sure the Versailles gardens are more beautiful in the summer, but even in winter they were pretty amazing. Although fair warning: It’s a bad idea to walk through the gardens in an attempt to leave Versailles, because they go on forever and you will get lost and have to ask a French person for directions.

On our last day in Paris, we strolled down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which had some of the most expensive stores I’ve ever seen. Kathleen had a painfully awkward experience with a French shop owner who called her beautiful and asked her why she didn’t have a boyfriend (later revealing that he was married, like that would make it better).

But once we escaped, we drowned our sorrows with coffee and gigantic macaroons. I’d never tried a macaroon before, but the strawberry and chocolate ones I tried were wonderful. I probably couldn’t eat them on a regular basis, though, because they’re a little too sweet even for me. We finally fulfilled the hypothetical advice of that one girl back home: “You’re gonna wanna buy that macaroon.”

And we did.

Then it was back to Spain and lovely, familiar Sevilla. The strange thing about arriving back in my host city is how much like “home” it felt. I don’t feel like I’m living in a strange country anymore; Sevilla now feels as much like home as TCU does. (To be fair, I have been here for about two months now.)

As soon as Kathleen and I heard people speaking Spanish, we sighed in relief. Navigating Paris without knowing more than “bonjour” and “merci” was tough, and it was nice to be back in a country where we could depend on our language skills if we got lost. Plus, Sevilla is just so friendly, it’s way cheaper than Paris (since it’s the NYC of France), and the climate is definitely warmer than in France.

I’d definitely visit Paris again, but not without a guide who’s fluent in French.

Je ne parle pas français

My friend Kathleen and I recently traveled to Paris for a long weekend vacation. While the city was beautiful, it was also much larger than my host city of Sevilla (with 2.2 million inhabitants compared to Sevilla’s roughly 700,000). Walking to most of our destinations was practically impossible. Instead of having only a couple metro lines, the Paris metro has about twelve, which made navigating difficult because we had to switch trains several times per trip.

To top it all off, neither Kathleen nor I know how to speak a word of French. Since we are living in a Spanish city and know how to speak the language, we did not fully realize the difficulties English-speaking tourists encounter in foreign cities. The inability to communicate with anyone honestly bothered me more than getting lost all the time.

For some reason, the hardest monument for us to locate was the Sacre Coeur, a gorgeous cathedral perched atop a hill in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. We stopped to ask at least five different people, who pointed vaguely in the right direction but obviously couldn’t give us genuine directions in French. I’ve never felt so lost and helpless; at least in Spain, when I get lost I can ask for help with confidence in my language skills. The only phrase Kathleen and I knew was “Ou est le Sacre Coeur?

Finally, we stumbled upon a McDonald’s with wi-fi (a valuable commodity in Europe) and sipped two coffees while we studied the map on Kathleen’s phone. Before we left, though, we stopped to ask directions of the employees, just in case Google Maps led us astray. The first man we talked to said, “I don’t live in Paris,” and gestured to his coworker, the young woman who had served us our coffees and spoke English to take our orders.

Pardon, but I don’t speak English,” she told us—in English.

Confused and shocked, we stumbled out the door and onto the Parisian streets again, hoping our Google Map directions were correct. Neither of us had ever encountered such a blatantly rude person in Spain, since most Spaniards in the service industry greet customers with smiles. We had heard the stereotype that the French were snobby and rude, but chosen not to believe it without proof. Now, it seemed that we had some.

Without knowing the mindset of the young Frenchwoman at the McDonald’s, it’s difficult to guess what cultural norms contributed to what we saw as her rudeness. Maybe, being a Parisienne, she was tired of tourists barging into the restaurant asking for directions. Maybe we were the fifth group of tourists that day. Removing all judgment from the encounter, perhaps it went like this from her perspective:

The Americans bought coffee and huddled over their smart phone in the corner. Just when I thought they might leave without burdening us with questions—not even trying to speak French—they approached the counter. My coworker gestured to me and I muttered an insult under my breath. I didn’t feel like straining to understand English today; I had only taken a few classes at university anyway. Everyone always considered me fluent.

Perhaps our assumptions about the responsibilities of service industry workers to be perpetually cheerful and helpful colored our view of the young woman at McDonald’s. Maybe in France, service industry workers are not drilled to greet everyone with a smile and bend over backwards because “the customer is always right.”

When I asked someone familiar with French culture (although they were not French, because I do not study there) whether they thought French people were sometimes rude, they said yes. They warned us to remember that France is not Spain, and that people from northern European countries often have a brusquer attitude. In a way, it’s similar to the assumptions we make about regions in the U.S. Northerners are much more blunt to the point of rudeness, goes the typical wisdom, while southerners tend to be more friendly and welcoming. As with all stereotypes, these characterizations ring somewhat true in in both countries, but they are never absolutely true. For example, the owner of our Air BnB in Paris always greeted us with a “Bonjour” and a smile.

While I loved touring Paris and seeing wonderful museums and monuments, I definitely experienced some major culture shock. I never realized before leaving Spain how difficult dealing with a language barrier can be, since I’ve always lived in countries where I can speak the language. Paris was an eye-opening experience and I would love to return, but next time I’m definitely learning a little French first.