Monday, April 30, 2012


How do I describe one of the most amazing ten days of my life? That’s probably why I’ve put this blog off for a while—what I have to write about is just so overwhelmingly detailed and amazing that there’s no possible way to describe it all and do the moments any justice…but I’ll definitely hold on to these memories for the rest of my life.

Sunday April 1st I left on a coach bus with 70 other exchange students for Spain. We long-hauled 21 hours of transit to arrive in Salamanca Spain, where we took tours of the gorgeous old city and got adjusted to not understanding anything—again. Our next city was Avila, followed by Toledo, Madrid, Barcelona and this city by the Mediterranean Sea…I forget the name because it was literally a phrase in Spanish.

Alright, in replacement of my normal blog-post formula, I’m going to write this in list form. These are all the memories I want to hold on forever to and share with you all.

-21 Hours on the Bus
            You really haven’t lived until you’ve been shut up with people for that long—and you really don’t know if you actually like a person until you’re smelling their nasty 20 hour old bus BO and you’re cranky. But seriously, I love my other exchange students like a wonderful, wacky, incredibly dysfunctional family. I sat in the very back of the bus with my closest friends, where we had an all-around party atmosphere, with songs and stories and lots of jokes (at the expense of each other). The fact that even 19 hours in we all had sore stomachs and mouths from laughing so hard really says something. And then when it was time for sleep everyone dissolved into a “cuddle puddle” of legs, arms, drool, shoulders, and uncomfortable neck positions. There are far to many pictures of sleeping people. 
Me, back right corner. 

- The First Spanish Rest Stop
            Getting out to stretch our legs in Spain for the first time was definitely memorable. We stopped at a sketchy diner for lunch at a truck stop. I accidentally ordered a typical Spanish sandwhich of some sort of odd potato patty with unions. It was cold and floppy and gross, which for some reason turned into a source of amusement. We also got our first breath of good Spanish air and scenery—which looks a lot like I imagine Arizona to look in spring. Not that I’ve ever been, just kind of flat with a lot of warm browns.

-My Frisbee
            This is a probably good time to mention that one of the most well-used object I brought on the trip was my awesome yellow Frisbee. The first time we took it out was at the first rest stop. Just passing it in a circle is a lot of fun—just a chance to move around a little.  We literally played Frisbee in every city we visited. Any moment of free time was immediately followed up by someone glancing over to me and mimicking throwing a Frisbee, which was my sign to get it out of my bag and throw it sneakily at the person until everyone else joined in, and we made a spectacle of ourselves in whatever grand place we happened to be in.

- The Grand Place of Salamanca
            It was our first real view of something typically Spanish and very old (our hotel was in the less historical/cool part of Salamanca). Like, it was the kind of place that you could easily imagine the three musketeers dashing in to. All the stone was a really rich red color, too, because of all the iron in the stone. We went once during the day, left for a kind of icky meal at the hotel (they served us fries, the nerve. We’re fry experts and they serves us their nasty fries!) and then returned that night for free time. We got a chance to wander the old streets of Salamanca and boire une verre and even dance a little.
Representing Belgium

At night

-Salamanca the tour
            Salamanca is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and one of the best Spanish universities in the world. The whole city is very influenced by the university, and almost every old building has something to do with it. Old graffiti of past-graduates is painted in red on certain walls, marks of victory, the passing of 300 year old finals. The Spanish-style buildings were amazing, even in the fog we spent our visit in. The buildings were all red or yellow, with extremely detailed stone work and lots of Mediterranean plant-life and balconies.

-The First Restaurant
            We were given free time for lunch. I think one of my favorite things about Spain was the food. Me and this other girl had heard all about Tapas from the southerners (my affectionate name for all our friends from South America) so we went on an immediate search for good, fairly cheap Tapas. We ended up sitting at a table with four other Americans, only one of which spoke Spanish (Mexican Spanish, so a lot is untranslatable into Spanish-Spanish). We tried to order in an orderly fashion, which is funny when you have no idea what your ordering/how to pronounce what your ordering.
            We all ended up with a traditional Spanish dish called Paella. Best. Thing. Ever. It’s basically a stirfry of protein and Spanish rice—not important what protein, apparently, because mine came with pieced of chicken, two mussels, two shrip, a craw fish, beef and some other unidentifiable stuff. We also all got our first taste of the Spanish fruit wine Sangeria and some rather…quirky Spanish desserts.  

-Where-ever the hell we were the second day
            It was rainy and we saw a lot of churches. Rohan got in trouble because he was eating an orange in some important catherdral, and I told some girls that the original cross of Christ was the one standing on display in front of the church, which wasn’t as good as Rohan telling BundahBurge that the red stain on the floor was from all the sacrificed dead babies. Keep in mind, we saw about five churches that day which was surprisingly miserable. It was only once we got outside of the “old city” and were able to appreciate the ancient walls over looking the valley (the city was up on a hill) that people started perking up. Again, free time for lunch, where I ate with some awesome friends at a little Spanish restaurant, a glorious lunch of calamari sandwich. After, we, being the people I ate with, mosied over to a small café on the same street where we ordered coffee, or in mine and another girl’s case, Spanish hot chocolate…which is basically like a melted chocolate bar it’s so think, and actually gets a simi-solid layer of cooled chocolate on top. It’s so good, even if it takes 30 minutes and the help of a friend to finish a little cup. My wonderful friend Derek also accidentally smashed a coffee cup about two second after he got it, and about two minutes after the woman working their warned us that the tables were a little sloped, so to be careful about putting our stuff down. The epic thing about him smashing is cup was that the fall literally lasted 20 seconds of crashing, because we were kind of on a second story within the building, so the cup, and then the spoon, and then the plate had to fall two stories and smash. Probably one of the funniest, most embarrassing moments. And then we played Frisbee in the grand place.

-Avila (and their specialties)
            Our tour of Avila started off early and rainy. The first thing we saw was the impressive and ancient aqueduct system, and, after a million steps, an absolutely amazing view of the city. We had a very cool tour guide, and it was a big change from the day before as far as interest-level goes. One of Avila’s “things” is that the houses are all decorate with relief, intricate patterns in the stucco, which was really beautiful. The day started off rainy, but ended up clearing up to bright blue skies. Avila is one of those Spanish cities hugely influenced by muslim culture, so a lot of the old buildings were this awesome mix of middle-east and Spanish architecture. We also saw an old Spanish castle with the most amazing view of the valley…it was pretty awe-inspiring.
            At lunch, I had gotten to talking to one of the exchange students from Columbia about the specialty Avila…roasted piglet. We tracked it down with some other exchange students and feasted on suckling pig. Kind of sad, but also very very good. And, you know, cultural. The restaurant was also situated in a cool kind of basement bar. But I think the most important part about that lunch was that I ended up hanging out with people I had never hung out with before, all exchange students from south of the border. There’s a little segregation between the latino/Latina population of exchange students and the gringo/granga population. For the Latinos, it’s a lot easier to speak Spanish amongst themselves, and for us it’s easier to speak English. This trip to Spain was amazing for breaking down those barriers. I met so many people I wouldn’t have met just because of the complete open atmosphere of our exchange student group. And I LIKE hanging out with the southerners…especially now that we all have French as a common language!

 -The Procession
So,  I spent Easter week in one of the most catholic countries in the world. Every church we went into was preparing huge, portable statues for the epic Spanish processions, of which I purposely witnessed one and got trapped by two. These processions are somber affairs, with the Spanish holy people dressed in outfits Americans traditionally associate with the KKK, but it multiple colors and with bright candles. Eerie, dissonant music is played as we witness the death and resurrection of Christ threw statues. I had an odd ability to be literally trapped by these processions. Normally, they make a kind of circle around the church, and I somehow managed to get stuck WITHIN that circle with no escape. A bit alarming.

-The Bad Planning and the Monastery
            Maybe it’s just me, but the day that they announced we were going to Madrid, being mid-april, I imagined warm weather and blue skies. So I put shorts on. And then we make a surprise visit to a monastery (burial place of Spanish kings and their mothers. Important stuff.) that happens to be scenically nestled in the mountains. Where it snowed.

And I was wearing shorts.

Also, our tour guide was unfriendly.

            Our first stop in Madrid was the STADIUM OF REAL MADRID. Americans won’t understand, maybe, but that’s like going to see Fenway or Rigley field in America—kind of a big deal in Europe. Our hotel had an amazing view of CITY! To be almost right in the hustle and bustle of Madrid was awesome. I waved at Spanish people happily from the forth story balcony. How American, but they waved back. Probably other Americans.
            We walked up to the center of Madrid. The day was gorgeous, blue skies, cool breeze…I had already changed back into pants. Madrid is one of the most beautiful cities ever—there’s just vibrancy and movement that’s so SPANISH. We were all hanging out in this huge open place, with a castle in the background, sweeping blue skies everywhere, and a huge park, when our grumpy Rotarian (he had already gotten lost that day and wasn’t in the mood for the absolute gaiety that the students were up to…basically the whole feeling of MAAADDDRRIIIIDDD!!!!!!!!!!)  did some quick organizing that left me, some friends, and a bunch of southerners dazed and confused and going on a guided tour of Madrid with grumpy boots. But I ended up being happy I did that and not going off with other friends, because, again, bonding with people I normally don’t talk to. Also, one of my new Columbian friends taught me how to salsa dance in the streets of Madrid to a traditional Spanish street band. Who gets to say that?! ME! I get to say a Columbian guy taught me to salsa in Madrid. Although Salsa is hard because he refused to let me do the “stupid people” step, and jumped right into complicated maneuvers.

From the balcony

            I should start by saying I lost my wallet in a Paella restaurant in Toledo. And, despite that, it was my all-time favorite place ever. Literally the most beautiful city in the world. It’s about three thousands year old, and has been claimed by multiple different peoples and religions through-out its history. It basically on these miniature ragged mountains carved out by a huge river, and everything has this sort of mixed Spanish/muslim feel. Everything is just layers upon layers of history…I mean, 3,000 years is a long time to be established. In New Hampshire, 1/10 of that time is considered ancient. We saw and old Jewish house of worship, built by Muslims in the Muslim style, converted to a Christian church. God, just remembering driving into Toledo and seeing the houses from across the river gives me chills.
            The Paella was really good, despite losing my wallet. There was a ridiculous amount of options as far as proteins to have your paella made with, so me and 10 other exchangers pulled two tables together, ordered two pitchers of Sangeria, and ordered a bunch of Paella. It was awesome.

-Not Sure How to Title This One
            Our second night in Madrid we had a bunch of free time (the first night we had been taken on a failed two hour forced march to the Hard Rock café Madrid…not to eat there, just to see it. There was some language confusion between rotary and us…when they asked if we’d like to go, we assumed they meant for dinner. Nope.) I explored some of the out-door shops, and then a large park by the hotel with some friends. The point of the story was we ended up in a dried-out fountain eating chips while we were surrounded by a lose peacock. Only in Spain.

            Barcelona is far from Madrid. Like, six hours. So we got up early and spent the day in the bus (one of the nicest days of the trip, ironically. Darn weather.) We got into our hotel (about one hour outside of Barcelona) and were faced with a pleasant surprise…
Our hotel was literally on the boardwalk. We could see the Mediterranean sea from our balconies. Rotary gave us free time, a midnight curfew, and a reminder that dinner was at 8. I would say about 80% of the exchange students got their beach gear and headed straight for the sea.
            I can now say that I went swimming in the Mediterranean on Easter Sunday, played Frisbee on the Spanish beaches, sat out on the beach late at night with some of the best company of multilingual friends ever.
            For the record, I think only about five people got in the water. It was pretty cold.

From the hotel

            The spelling of Barcelona with a Spanish accent. In Barcelona they speak Catalan, and language that has a lot more in common with French than Spanish does, so a lot of us were surprised to start understanding some of the signage again. The Spanish speakers were a little saddened, I think, to lose their mother tongue again. Even if no one in Spain understands the Mexican accent.
            We started off the day at this beautiful park, were there were a suprising amount of native Americans playing native American music…it fit into the atmosphere and all, but then I realized I was in Spain and not south America…plus the park had a lot of mayan/Aztec/inca-styled “ruins”.
            I ate at a small Spanish café with one other friend. After, we all took a tour of the BIGGEST CATHEDRAL IN THE WOOORLD, Catherdral de Familia…which isn’t even done yet. It’s honestly one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I have ever seen—it’s kind of childish, in some aspects, but it really touches on different parts or religion that, in my vast knowledge of cathedrals gained from touring about 30 of them since coming to Belgium, are not a part of the gothic styled churches.
            Our electronic guide didn’t work (one of the Rotarians had put the main guide around his neck and whenever it bounced as he walked, the sound would cut out of our head phones. Extremely annoying.) so Quinn and I took a self-guided tour, were we saw a lot of things that we WOULD NOT HAVE SEEN! Independence = victory! One of these things included windows showing that there’s a whole, classic style cathedral built UNDER the Cathedral de Familia. It’s like, that old one is were humans go to pray, and then this alien one just landed on top of it, and this is wear god comes to pray. It was extremely cool, and later we found out we weren’t allowed to see that—the “no groups” sign. Sneaking  away worked out in our favor!
            The windows were also really different, stained glass but with no pictures, just colors. And the whole style was kind of naturey. Just amazing in general.
            Next, we saw the architects house. I had a little drama with the bus toilet, which is located on the first level of the bus (not where I was sitting). I waffled back and forth about using the toilet or holding it until the next rest stop (WHICH COULD BE NEVER). We were parked outside the architects house, and I was waiting for my group’s turn to go (we were the last of three groups, so only 1/3rd of the exchange students remained on the bus. I finally broke down. All the people on the first level yelled at me when I told them my intentions—apparently, the bathroom stinks royally and whenever someone opens the door the smell floods the first level of the bus. So they lectured me on being QUICK when I opened the door.
Okay, no problem. I open the door. And it’s black as pitch in there—when the bus isn’t on, the light doesn’t work in there. I close the door and ask for advice. I run upstairs to grab my phone as a light. Open the bathroom door. Immediately realize there’s no toilet paper. Run upstairs to grab paper towels. Open the bath door, get yelled at by everyone on the first level. Trip, accidentally leaving my shoe outside the bathroom door. Close the bathroom door. Put shoe on. Open bathroom door. Bus driver tells me when the bus is off, a camera is going to come on in the bathroom and record me peeing. Close the bathroom room door. I have to debate with myself whether he’s joking or not for several minutes—jokes don’t always go so well in French. Finally decide he’s joking, open the bathroom. Success.
            At this point I’ve worked myself into an uncontainable state of giggles. The most dramatic bathroom trip of my life, I swear it could have been on SNL.
            The House was cool too.

            Hahaha, I’ll give a little more than that. We started by entering into a courtyard. And then we walked up fifteen flights of stairs to the roof, which was an odd, dr. seuss-like cacophony of odd sculptural chimneys and entrances. The inside of the house didn’t have any corners on the walls, which kind of gave the house a dream-like quality of something being missing. Regardless, it was really cool.

-La fin
            The next day, we got our salty, sandy butts packed and went into Barcelona one last time to spend the day wandering around by foot. It was actually extremely cool—we saw the harbor, and some old official buildings. We got three hours of free time in the center of Barcelona, were we toured a huge indoor, open-air market (kind of an oxymoron…there were ceilings but no walls, and the ceilings were extremely high above  everything) which was an absolute over-load for the senses—the colors and smells of foreign spices, fruits,  seafood and butcheries. I bought a mango smoothie and wandered around in contentment. The seafood was so fresh it was actually moving and we saw dogs HEADS in the butcheries! I ate a lunch of Tapas with two friends—delicious, greasy, tapas and calamari. Mmm. We saw the Picasso museum, which was interesting (I had fun putting ridiculous symbolism into his later pieces). Then we feasted at a restaurant buffet, and then returned. It’s always sad, the end of an awesome vacation. It was especially sad for me, having to beg a train ticket from rotary considering I had no money.


While I have you here, I’d like to talk about some other important life events.

On March 17th I went to a huge techno concert called “Sensation White” where everyone dresses up in white and dances all night. I spent an amazing night, but I did expect it to be a little more, well, cultural than it was. I think I met more Americans that night than in the rest of my exchange in Belgium combined. I even met a physiology major from UNH! I had so much fun though, and danced for seven hours straight—maybe that will start burning off the waffle weight.

Three days after I returned from Spain, I changed to my final host family. My how time flies! All is calm and cool at my last family—I’m very happy with them. It’s odd how normal it has become for me to live in someone’s house who I barely know.

I went on a weekend trip with 10 Belgians from my class to and adventure camp, where we slept in Teepees, did kayaking, tree-ropes courses, underground pitch-black mazes, archery, gun shooting, night hiking…pretty much everything cool you could imagine. I actually was able to bond with my class a little bit more, and I really felt like an accepted member of the group which was wonderful. Also, they started calling me “Maman Audrey”  because, with out me, they wouldn’t have been able to do the weekend…you have to have an adult with you over 18 to rent the teepees. Them being 15 and 16 and one or two 17 year olds, I was the “adult” of the weekend. At 19, sometimes the age difference is obvious, but sometimes not at all. They told me how they got this impression from me that I lived deep in the woods back home, to which I responded that I kind of did. They don’t have a lot of rivers and lakes in Belgium, so my comfort with the kayaks surprised them I think.

....yeah. that's my frisbee...

I got my official exchange student sweatshirt! Only problem is we accidentally got…um…mixed up. The sweaters are yellow, with black writing. On the front, we have the black Cock de Wallone (rooster) and a black Lion de Flandre (roaring lion) sante-ing (cheering) together. Problem: The lion de flandre, in all black, with out it’s normal red tongue and nails (because it’s expensive to add another dye when buying sweatershirts) actually means the OLD lion of flanders. Not the official one. The old one. Which now also happens to be the symbol of the separatists movement to divide flanders from Wallonia. Well, merde. We’ve only had one girl be harassed for having a separatist lion, but I think most of us will hold off wearing them proudly until home.

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