Thursday, January 6, 2011

El Fin

Four and a half months ago, I got on a plane.  I had very little idea of where I was going or what I was in for.  I left everything and everyone I knew and loved behind, to embark on the journey of a lifetime.  I was going to live with someone I'd never met, in a city I'd never been to, with a language I barely spoke.  I stepped on that plane young, naïve, excited, and afraid.  Today, I am boarding another plane.  Today I am older, wiser, and nostalgic.  Once again, I am leaving behind people I have grown to love and a place I have come to call "home."

In the last four and a half months I explored Europe and along the way, who I am.  I expanded my Spanish vocabulary and my horizons.  I gained self-confidence and 10 lbs.  I made many new friends and some very difficult decisions.  I learned about new cultures and customs and even more about my own.  I was enchanted by a language and a life-style.  I learned to appreciate taking things slowly and good wine. 

In the last four and a half months I traveled to 26 cities in 7 countries.  I saw performances of opera, comedy, ballet, choir, flamenco, and popular music.  I tried Sangria, paella, Manchego, and membrillo in Spain, and gelato, pizza, and pasta in Italy.  I climbed to the top of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Mt. Santa Tecla, la Giralda, el Monesterio San Geronimo, el Torre de Belém, the Piazza Michelangelo, and St. Peter's basilica.  I traveled by plane, bus, train, metro, car, boat, and foot.  I saw original works by Picasso, Gaudí, Valázquez, Dalí, Lorca, and Michelangelo. I paid for things in Euros, Pounds, and Durham.  I spent Thanksgiving in Spain, Christmas in Italy, and New Years in the Netherlands. 

In the last four and a half months I cried, got food poisoning, was robbed, got lost, was cat-called on a daily basis, and cried some more.  I laughed so hard I thought I'd ruptured something and smiled so hard I thought my jaw would fall off.  I stayed out dancing until 6am.  I made life-long friends with people from Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, and Holland, and a group of Americans became closer to me than family. 

The last four and a half months were not at all what I expected, but they were more than I ever could have hoped for.  It's true I decided not to stay for the whole year, but it's not because I was not happy.  Although I find Madrid busy and exhausting, I fell in love with that beautiful city.  I am going home today because I want to end this on a good note, and I can't imagine the next four and a half months even coming close to ones I've shared with the rest of my friends from Vassar-Wesleyan in Madrid, Fall 2010. 

Gracias por todo Madrid.  Nunca te olvidaré, y un día, nos encontraremos otra vez. 

Hasta pronto,
Un beso,

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Home in Holland

After living in Madrid for 4 months, and exploring city after city across Europe, I've been homesick for the countryside.  I miss those wide spaces, animals, and peace and quiet you can only find in the middle of nowhere.  Well, I finally got what I'd been missing.  I spent the last five days in the home of family friends in the small town of Espel

The mother, Froukje, spent time working on my grandparents' farm years ago, and has remained close friends with my mother ever since.  She now has a wonderful husband, Henk, and 5 beautiful children: Titia (age 16), Coen (14), Jurjen (12), Marjon (11), and Romke (9).

(Annie and I with our new siblings)
Annie and I took the train from Amsterdam to Weesp, where Froukje, Henk, and the two girls came to pick us up.  I recognized Froukje from her Christmas pictures that she sends every year, but it's been a while since she's seen me, so she mistook Annie for me.  We piled into their big blue van and headed out to the country, passing windmills, fields, and sheep all along the way.  We also passed a statue with a little boat, which showed where the water level used to be.  Henk explained to us that the area they live in is only 55 years old, settled after they drained the land with their crafty use of dykes and canals.

When we got to the house we put our stuff in Titia's room, gave Froukje the gifts my family sent, and headed out again to the recreation center, where Jurjen was playing in a soccer game.  Their town has a few days a year where kids of all ages, (and even the parents), play matches against each other. 

After about an hour of soccer we went back home, where we looked through an H&M catalog with Titia, and then flipped through a grocery catalog to learn Dutch.  Unfortunately, the only two words I remember are kaas (cheese) and kip (chicken).  We also learned to count to ten.
Then we ate dinner together as your standard family of 9.  Dinner was delicious and healthy, and we were very pleasantly surprised with what they eat for dessert: yogurt.  They have several cartons of different flavors, (which taste more like pudding than yogurt), and add granola.  I love this country.
(vegetable curry)
(yogurt comes in flavors such as apple pie, mixed berry, strawberry, chocolate & vanilla, vanilla, plain, etc)

The next day we woke up early to go ice skating.  People from all over the country come to this one lake to do a 19km skate.  Annie and I were a little bit nervous about doing 19km, but we figured if the youngest children could do it, so could we.  Well, we were wrong.  In the Netherlands, they use distance skates: ones with long, thick blades.  I had actual skates and Annie had blades that you attach to the bottoms of your boots.  I though maybe I had an advantage with the actual skates, but neither of us had any luck.  We waddled around the ice for about 5 minutes before the pain became too much to bear.  It was so cold that we'd lost all feeling in our feet, but we could still feel tearing pains in our ankles and shins.  We were definitely doing something wrong.
(For breakfast in the Netherlands, people eat sprinkles on bread.  Yet another reason why I love this country.)
(Annie and I pretending to skate)
(My ankles did not support this position for more than the 2 seconds necessary to take this picture)
We decided to put our skates in the car and venture about a mile toward the village to find some hot chocolate so we could thaw.  When we finally made it, we realized there was only one cafe/restaurant and a grocery store in the whole town.  The busy cafe was also where they were doing registration for the skating, so we tucked ourselves into a corner with our hot chocolates.  After a while, we got bored and decided to check out the grocery store.  We saw tons of varieties of their famous yogurt, and almost as many varieties of sprinkles.  While in the grocery store, we started smelling something delicious, so we followed our noses and found out we were smelling freshly baked cheese pockets.  We bought one to share, but our frozen, gloved hands dropped about half of it on the ground.  We decided to go back in and buy a package of discount Dutch Christmas cookies, and then ate them in the cafe and stared at cute Dutch boys until it was time to head back to the lake.
(after a mile-long walk in the frigid cold, this welcome sign was a welcomed sight)
(if I had room in my suitcase, I would have bought this cow for my dorm room)
(freshly baked kaas (cheese) pocket)
(the beautiful Dutch countryside)
The kids had all completed the 19km in about an hour, and Henk was feeling so good he did it twice.  So everyone else got great exercise, and we ate a package of cookies.  Yep, that sounds like what happens when you put Hannah and Annie together.

We went back to the house, had some warm soup for lunch, and thawed out a little bit.  After we ate, we went for a sleigh ride behind Rosa, the pony that they are boarding for two weeks.  I didn't think that fat little pony could pull 4 of us kids at once, but as soon as we sat down she took off running.  It was so much fun, all I could think about was singing, "dashing through the snow..."
(Bossy, my new furry friend)
(being attacked during a crazy photobooth session)
(Ready for a sleigh ride with Rosa the pony)
(Jurjen and Titia leading the way)

Then we brushed the pony, went to pick up milk from the farmer down the road, and fed and counted the 33 sheep.  (I'd also like to add that the farmer refused payment for the milk, as long as we brought him some oliebollen the next day.  Try finding that kind of trust in Madrid). 

Henk and Froukje went to dinner with Henk's siblings, so they made us frozen pizzas and ordered us french fries from the bowling alley down the street.  After dinner, we all curled up in the living room and watched one of the only movies they had in English, 27 Dresses, with Dutch subtitles.

On Thursday we slept in, and when we finally woke up and went down for breakfast, Annie and I each had a calendar of Holland under our plates.  Henk and Froukje bought them for us to remember our trip, (they are the sweetest).  After breakfast, Annie and I took showers and she packed her bags.  Froukje was busy making oliebollen all day.  She started making the 6 kilos of dough at 5:30am, and didn't finish frying them all until well after 3:00. 
(6 kilos of oliebollen dough)
(frying the little golden dumplings)
(I love Annie for many reasons...)
(Nina the guinea pig)
(mountain of oliebollen)
A friend of theirs had to go to Leylstad as well, so he picked us up and we took Annie to the train station.  (She was flying to London to visit Cuong).   After saying goodbye to my Pannie Cotta, we went to a farm to pick up a part Jurjan needed for his farm.

Then we stopped home briefly so the neighbors could come over for oliebollen and beer.  After relaxing for an hour, we rounded up the troops again and went out to a night ice skating event that was lit by candles around the entire lake.  I decided to give the ice skating another go, but my ankles and shins literally felt like they were ripping in two, so I gave up after falling 3 times onto the wet ice.  So I sat on the bench with Froukje and the kids and drank some warm mulled wine instead.  Once everyone was too cold and wet to skate anymore, we dropped off some oliebollen at Froukje's parents' house, ate some more oliebollen for dinner, and then relaxed and watched tv until bed.

(candle-lit lake)

Friday was New Years Eve.  We spent the day relaxing at home, eating more oliebollen and other snacks, drinking mulled wine and hot chocolate, and doing a puzzle.  The puzzle was my idea, because I wanted a relatively quiet activity that I could maybe talk the kids into doing to stop them from screaming and hitting each other.  It worked for about 5 minutes, and then I spent the afternoon doing the puzzle by myself, with some scattered help from the older kids and Froukje.  Around 11pm, their neighbors and friends came over for drinks and oliebollen. 

About 5 minutes to midnight, we turned on the tv and watched a recap of the important events in the Netherlands in 2010.  We all counted down the last 10 seconds together in Dutch, and then at midnight tiredly yelled Gelukkig Nieuwjaar (Happy New Year).  After everyone got up and kissed each other, everyone started putting on their coats and boots.  "Where in the world were they going?"  I thought.  "It's frigging cold outside!"  Once someone explained to me that everyone goes outside and lights off fireworks, I didn't need any convincing to join in, and I threw on my coat. 

They weren't lying, either.  When we got outside, you saw fireworks coming from every house around.  The sky was filled with colorful lights.  We lit sparklers and walked around looking at all the fireworks.  Then we went back inside and talked and watched a concert on tv until the neighbors went home, and then we all went to bed.

(New Years' Fireworks)
(Marjon and Jurjen with their sparklers)

I didn't go to sleep too late the night before, so of course I was up early as usual on Saturday.  After breakfast Coen and I spent all morning finishing the puzzle until lunch.  After we ate, Henk took us all to the dyke so I could see the water, (or rather, ice), and all the windmills.  It was a little warmer and the sun was out, so we walked along the dyke about 5km until we got to Urk, a small, old harbor town with traditional little houses and old buildings.
(With our completed puzzle!  left to right: Jurjen, Romke, Coen, me, Titia, Marjon)
(the dyke)
(Jurjen, me, Coen, and Marjon at the dyke with all the windmills)
(so many windmills...)
(the small harbor town of Urk)
(Dutch is such a cute language.  They translate to bike-path and lighthouse-path)
(Monument to those lost at sea)

(oldest church in Urk)
After our excursion, Titia and I made cheese fondue for dinner.  After dinner, we watched some kind of medieval movie in Dutch called (letter to the king), and although I didn't understand the words, it was cheesy enough to understand the gist of the plot.  After the movie we Skyped with my mom, told Romke a bedtime story, and finished another puzzle before bed.


Sunday was my last day.  We woke up and had a special breakfast with toasted bread and croissants.  I packed my bags.  Coen and I started and finished another puzzle.  (I think I have created some serious puzzle addicts).  

(our three completed puzzles)
After lunch, Henk dropped off me, Froukje, and Marjon at de Orchideeën Hoeve.  It's an orchid farm with a tropical greenhouse you can walk through, as well as a butterfly exhibit.  That region is a large producer of tulips and orchids, so they wanted me to be able to see something very typical.  It was beautiful, warm, and really nice to spend time with Froukje away from the house of crazy children.  I normally hate flowers and greenhouses, (I have terrible allergies), but I was really fascinated by these.  Each orchid blossom was support by an individual string/hook to hold it up straight.  I'd never seen so much care and attention to detail for a bunch of plants before.

(Potatoes, green beans, and "cheese souffle")

(so many orchids)
(me and Froukje)
When I got back to the house, I had about 5 minutes to grab my things and say some very rushed goodbyes to my new Dutch siblings.  They really made me feel like family.  It's kind of funny, really.  I felt more at home in 5 days in a family of seven in the middle of nowhere in Holland, where I don't speak the language, than an entire semester in the city of Madrid. 

This marks the end of my crazy 2-week, 2-country traveling excursion.  I'll be back in Madrid for 2 and a-half days, and then I'll be home.  I'm not sure how I feel just yet.  I'm extremely excited to go home.  I can't wait to see my boyfriend, my family, all my friends, and my cat.  I can't wait to go back to Wesleyan.  But at the same time, it doesn't seem real that this dream is almost over.  It's hard to grasp the idea that my life here in Europe is coming to a close.  The next to days will be dedicated to packing, visiting favorite spots in the city, and saying goodbyes.  Next time you hear from me, I'll be home. 

Friday, December 31, 2010

Amsterdam Adventures with Annie

Sunday night
When the plane landed, the first thing to take me by surprise was the snow covering the ground.  It is extremely normal for us to have snow and cold weather this time of year at home, but I have been spoiled in Madrid and Italy, and have not yet had to deal with extreme cold, slippery ice, and sloppy snow. 

When we finally got our luggage, I went to the information booth to ask about public transportation to the hostel, but it was closed.  I was too tired to try to figure out the trains with all my bags so late at night, so I decided to try my luck with a cab.  The driver told me it would cost about 55 Euros.  As painful as it sounded, I really had no desire to go back and figure out the trains, so I agreed to take the cab.  It ended up costing 65 Euros, but the driver felt bad that he had underestimated, so he did me a "favor" and only charged me 60.  What a guy.
When I checked in to our hostel, (the StayOkay Zeeburg), I was horrified to find that Annie still hadn't checked in.  She was supposed to get in 2 hours before me.  My phone didn't have any battery, so I was forced to pay for Internet to try to find out what happened to her.  Unfortunately, the man at the desk didn't have terrific pronunciation, and I thought he said it was 1.50€ for 50 minutes, but it was actually 15.  What a rip-off.  When I got upstairs, I checked Facebook, but there was still no word from Annie.  I sat nervously for 10 minutes, stress-eating my Belgian chocolate from Erica, trying to figure out what to do, when Annie came through the door.

Her flight left Madrid, but after half an hour in the air, the plane couldn't handle the turbulence, and they had to turn around and go back.  Their scheduled landing at 9:30pm ended up happening at 11:30, about the same time as mine.  We were both in the airport at the same time, and could have figured out the public transport together, or split a cab, but we had no way of contacting each other and thus no way of knowing we were both still in the airport.

We slept in a bit and headed down to a wonderful breakfast, which lifted our spirits and got us ready for the day.  Our hostel advertised a free walking tour through EuroAdventures, and since we had limited time in Amsterdam, we decided to take advantage of someone showing us the sights.  We stepped outside to find that it was absolutely frigidly cold, and would remain that way for the rest of our stay.  We saw our tram down the street, and ran/slid to try and catch it, and somehow we made it.  (I think the driver saw the two crazy American girls sliding around on the ice and felt bad, so he waited for us).
(view from our room in the morning)
(breakfast: granola, yogurt, toast, and tangerines)
When we got to Dam Square, we found the meeting point and had to resist the urge to take the tour in Spanish.  I'm so glad we didn't.  Our guide, Lee, was delightful.  She was incredibly funny and made our trudging through the cold much more enjoyable.
At the end of our 3-hour freezing tour, we decided it was necessary to find Indonesian food to warm up.  Unfortunately, there were not as many Indonesian restaurants as Annie remembered, so we settled on some Asian fusion, which was just as good.

(a crazy man and his music machine)
(the Heineken horses)
(large phallic monument in the middle of Dam Square)
(as you can see, it was extremely frigid)
(Annie and me, freezing in Dam Square)
(Lee, our wonderful guide)
(enough said)
(the most adorable bench I've ever seen, right in the middle of the Red Light District)
(only in Amsterdam)
(a church, conveniently located in the Red Light District, so that the sailors could confess their sins immediately after committing them)
(anonymous art right in the church sidewalk in the Red Light District)
(the Dutch equivalent to the pink vespa in Italy)
(many of the buildings are crooked/falling over because they were built on unstable sand)
(there were swans everywhere: these ones happened to be riding a sunken boat)
(another crooked building)
(we took a break for hot chocolate and oliebollen to warm up halfway through the tour)
(very warm but bland curry soup)
After lunch we ventured back out to the frozen air to find the Anne Frank house/museum.  This was an incredible experience, and I'm really glad we went.  When the annexe was discovered, all the furniture was removed, and it was decided that it was to remain bare forever, so you walk through an eerily empty house.  There were quotes from Anne's diary on the walls, as well as videos and a few display cases, telling the story of what you were seeing.  The most remarkable room was Anne's, with all her news-clippings and photos still attached to the walls.  This is where this amazing young girl spent her time, writing the diary that would change lives for years and years to come.  We also saw her actual diary and other notebooks/letters that she wrote.
(still freezing)
(using the map to shield my face from the cold)
(Anne Frank House/museum)
Now in a somber/reflective/tired mood, Annie and I set off to find a coffee shop to get some coffee and relax before dinner.  We were also extremely interested in seeing a coffee shop menu (in case you didn't know, coffee shops are where people go to get their marijuana/hemp fixes).  We found several, but were too scared to enter.  We did need to find Wifi to contact Annie's friends, and that ended up being our push to enter.  We found an internet cafe/coffee shop, and nervously stepped inside.  They asked for our IDs upon entering, probably because you can get secondhand high just from standing there.  We paid for our internet and contacted our friends.  All our talk of pot brownies made us want regular brownies, so we decided to ask the man if he had any "normal" brownies.  He laughed at us, and said slyly, "maybe you should try a pastry shop."  Laughing hysterically, we left the coffee shop and decided to take the man's advice, and searched for a bakery.
(am I the only one that doesn't get this sign?)
(chocolatey goodness)
Unfortunately, all the bakeries were closed, and we eventually found a cafe that had giant chocolate muffins, so we decided to split one to take care of our chocolate cravings.  Being too cold to know what else to do, we decided to just go to dinner.  This time we actually found an Indonesian restaurant with a very nice man inside.  We ordered the vegetarian rijsttafel, which is a sampling of all the dishes.  It was incredible.  Almost as enjoyable as our dinner were the two men at the table next to us.  They were both high as kites.  One was a very awkward Asian man, and the other was a strange hobo/hippie.  Our theory is that the Asian man got very high, and then somehow invited the hobo/hippie to dinner with him.  When we got up to leave, they both waved and said goodbye to us; the Asian man stared at us with a very distant look in his eye, and the hobo/hippie was apparently too stoned to be able to focus on where we were standing.
(tofu, veggies in peanut sauce, a coconut curry dish, tempeh, and so much more)
We made our way back to Dam Square to catch the tram, almost getting hit by several trams/cars, (this seems to be a reoccurring theme for us), and eventually made it back to the hostel.  To our relief, we were still the only ones in our room, so we watched the Motorcycle Diaries in Spanish on my laptop.  I had downloaded it 2 years ago, but without subtitles, so I was never able to understand it, but now we both speak Spanish well enough not to need them.

On Tuesday we woke up, ate another wonderful breakfast, and checked out.  We had planned to meet Annie's Dutch friends at the station, but they wrote to us last minute to say that the husband wasn't feeling well.  A little disappointed, we decided to get in touch with another Wesleyan friend, Benny, who was passing through Amsterdam on an end-of-study-abroad Euro tour with some friends from high school.  Unfortunately, we took the tram in the wrong direction, and ended up arriving at our meeting point 45 minutes late.  Annie paid some random guy a Euro to use his phone, and we agreed to meet them at their hostel.  As usual, we had to stop and ask for directions.  Annie asked the man where the street was, only he didn't understand our pronunciation, so she tried it a few times in different ways.  The man told us that we could say it like that a hundred times and he still wouldn't understand what we were saying.  Luckily, he knew which street we were looking for, which ended up being a completely different name from that which we were attempting to pronounce.  Oh well.
(our hostel was giant, and resembled a mental institution)
(giant plastic rock in front of our hostel)
(Amsterdam Centraal train station)
(Annie was the first one to fall on the ice, and we'd almost made it the whole trip without doing so)
(Annie and me on one of the many cute bridges)
We met up with Benny and his friends and set off to find one of their favorite pancake places, the Pancake Bakery.  I can see why it's his favorite.  It definitely wasn't the kind of pancakes I was expecting, but they were definitely delicious nonetheless. 
(Apple and cheese pancake)
(the Dutch are crazy about their bicycles.  This is a bike-version of a parking garage.)
After lunch we said goodbye to our friends and hiked back to the train station.  We were supposed to meet my family friends at a train station in Weesp.  (The mother of the family, Froukje, worked on my grandparents' farm years ago, and has remained very good friends with my mom ever since, so I decided to come meet her family while I was in Europe).  We asked the man at the information booth how to buy a ticket to Weesp, pronouncing it like it's spelled, but unfortunately we failed at our Dutch pronunciation once again.  The man corrected us, (it's actually pronounced Vaishp), and made us repeat it until we got it right.  The Dutch get great pleasure out of listening to foreigners trying to pronounce their words.  We bought our tickets, scrambled to the platform, and jumped on the train to meet our friends in the countryside.