I watched a beautiful short documentary today about a phenomenal guy named Zach Sobiech. I won’t say much about it, because I really want everyone to watch it, know his story, and feel just a little bit of the pain and beauty and richness of his life.
Zach has bone cancer, and only a few weeks to live. The documentary tells his story - in 22 tear-filled minutes I got to know Zach and everyone with whom he is close: his sisters, his brother, his parents, his girlfriend.
And I realized something.
I realized exactly why it is that I am ready to come home. Why, as much as I love Spain, as incredible of an experience as this has been, I am ready to return to the states. And it’s really very simple.
The people whom I love are there.
…thousands of miles away from me, and
though I proved to the world
(and myself) that I can live
for months at a time away from
with whom I am close,
I’m ready to cross back across the ocean and be home. After having grown immensely and learning more about myself than I knew was even there, I am ready to get back to a life surrounded by the people I love. My mom, my stepdad. My big brother. My sisters. My boyfriend. Every beautiful person I am blessed to call a friend. The people at home are who make me who I am, who build me up. Who laugh with me and pray with me and cry with me. This country taught me how to be alone; now that I know how, I want to spend every second I have left surrounded by the people that make me alive.
Spain is beautiful. I love to say, with some sense of cheesy and unwarranted nostalgia, that this is my homeland. And, well, it is. My great grandfather was born here and lived the first quarter of his life here. The ancestry with which I most identify is that silly Galician papa I never got to meet. The connection I feel to the red soil and rainy skies of this beautiful country is one I don’t think I will ever understand, but It’s a beautiful blessing that I am so grateful God gave me. But the blessings I’m most thankful for, I can’t find them here. The people who give my life meaning, they are why I am ready.
Spain may be my homeland, but on Sunday, I get to go home.
I am not too sure how to begin this, but I know that what I am about to share is really important to the continuance of my growth and the closure of this semester. Also, for reference, I wrote this while listening to the song below on repeat. I think the song speaks more than any of the words below do. Perhaps between the two I’m able to communicate somehow what it is that I’m feeling right now.
Coming to Spain has been the hardest thing I have ever done, and trying to articulate just why that is has become a really frustrating task. On its surface, a semester in Europe appears a dazzling vacation, carefree. It seems more like a trip and less like a challenge.
And I suppose this semester was a challenge for me because that was what I asked for. I did not want to spend four months with alcohol and discotecas; rather, I wanted to embrace time away from everything that ever defined me so that I could see what remained. While my search was unreasonable, I still anxiously and simply wanted to find the core of myself. I endeavored the likely impossible in hopes that somewhere before the free fall landing I’d find what I was really looking for. I never realized just how difficult of a journey this all would be.
I have spent a concerning amount of time over the last four months in some really uncomfortable places in my mind - in the pockets and corners and manilla envelopes of dark loneliness that reside deep within my psyche. Those foggy and obscure parts that everyone has, few acknowledge, and even less confront. I have admittedly experienced some of the darkest times, most painful tears, and the remarkably miserable conversations with myself while living here - thinking about my who I am, what defines me, the past that has made me, the decisions that lay before me. Being here and forcing myself to spend time alone, while thousands of miles from a family that raised me, friends that build me up, and a guy that loves me more than anyone in the world… it hasn’t always been fun, but it has been overwhelmingly transformational. And here’s the thing - I’m not even beginning to argue that I have things figured out. I’m arguing something far more beautiful, far more sincere, and far more edifying: In my semester here, I have found peace. Clarifying, confident, joyful, peace.
Ten days, and the chapter ends. The book closes. I suppose you could say that I’m nearing the epilogue, while pondering just where the climax took place. And more importantly, what it was.
I think Barcelona’s charm comes from its persistence to share its redemptive qualities. Despite the tourist traps, overpriced Rambla restaurants, and Americanized stores, Barcelona certainly beats along with the heart of Spain. Sure, along with it comes an acute murmur of Catalan independence, but the city’s recharging benevolence serves to welcome all looking for solace, for answers, for something new, for themselves.
I don’t think it’s even possible for me to articulate just how much I enjoyed my Spring Break - my boyfriend, Joe, flew in and we roadtripped around the Southwestern Iberian peninsula: Madrid to Sevilla, Sevilla to Ferragudo (Portugal), Ferragudo to Lisboa, Lisboa back to Madrid. Ten days of traveling and a wonderful way to spend some time with the guy I love a whole lot. The trip was unbelievable, and so were the meals. While I’ll surely post excerpts from journal entries and more sidenotes about the trip, I thought I’d post about it first in a slightly unconventional manner. Here are, in no particular order and accompanied by the stories that made them memorable, four of my favorite and most unforgettable meals from our road trip.
Our first evening in Ferragudo, Portugal
This city will always hold a very special place in both of our hearts. Just brace yourself for this story. After checking in to our incredible bed and breakfast (a villa owned by a retired world superbike racer, Mark, and his girlfriend Diane, both from the UK), we went to the beach. We had a few beers and a serving of potato wedges and blue cheese dressing at a beach bar, then walked up to watch the sunset. The beach was empty, the sunset was beautiful, and the weather was perfect. Portugal had welcomed us with wide open arms.
After the sun retreated past the Mediterranean horizon, we drove to a restaurant in the middle of town highly recommended by Mark and Diane. We walked in to see just a few tables in a cozy restaurant serving some of the most delicious food we had ever laid eyes upon. We needed to eat there. A waitress came to tell us that, unfortunately, they were all full. Joe cheerfully spoke up, “we will wait as long as we need to. I want THAT,” pointing at quite possibly the largest piece of meat I have ever in my life seen. Another waitress ran up to us and said “you two are with Mark and Diane, aren’t you? Come back in a half an hour and we’ll have something figured out.”
Mark and Diane were angels.
Joe and I went across the street to another fun bar and had a half bottle of delicious vino verde while he taught me how to play chess and we got to know the owner, an English man named Andrew. We ended up going back there the following day for their lunch specials. After a game of chess, we meandered back to Fim do Mundo where we were promptly and excitedly seated, right next to Mark and Diane. What ensued was an absolutely, hilariously perfect night.
We enjoyed great food with the company of Jo, the best waitress in the world. Mark and Diane made us feel like we had found a new home away from home in Ferragudo, and towards the end of the night nearly every sentence began with “Next time you both are here…”
Ferragudo was simply perfect. The Algarve of Portugal is absolutely beautiful, and that evening came right out of a storybook. All night, I could not believe how blessed I was to be enjoying such a perfect vacation with someone so wonderful. There’s a lot more to the story of that night (a bar owned by the mayor, for example), but the essence of the story really is that it was absolutely the highlight of the trip.
Dinner at Al Solito Posto, Sevilla
After a day of traveling (Madrid - Sevilla), Joe and I made it to our AMAZING first apartment in Sevilla, right on the river and near a cool plaza called the Alameda. After Joe slept off some jet lag and I caught up with some reading on the terrace (is my life real?!) we went for a late dinner to Al Solito Posto, a restaurant in the Alameda that had received great reviews on TripAdvisor (a website I strongly recommend if you’ve never checked it out). We made it there around 11:30, just as the kitchen was closing, and begged them to feed us. The chef, who we both adored, came out to our table and personally took our order. I warned him that we were very, very hungry before ordering a bottle of wine, a caprese salad (Joe’s favorite), a margherita pizza, pesto gnocchi, and a steak with potatoes. Even I thought it was too much food, but Joe insisted, and I obliged. I’m glad I did. We ate nearly everything, and almost considered coming back the very next night. The steak was lifechanging, the caprese was unbelievably fresh, and the wine was perfect. We meandered to a gelato shop afterwards and conclusively decided that we were the happiest of all the couples in Sevilla.
Lunch in Trujillo
We were rushing to arrive from Lisboa to Madrid on time to meet with our AirBnB host when I received a message saying she would no longer be able to meet until much later in the evening. We were initially frustrated until we passed a small city that looked charming enough for a rest stop. We had time to kill, didn’t we?
Trujillo ended up being a perfect stop, and a perfect welcome back into Spain. I had gone four days without speaking Spanish once, and I was smiling ear to ear when I got to order two menú del días at El Medievo in the language I love. For anyone who doesn’t know, “menú del día” is one of the most typical ways to order a meal in Spain. It’s a set price, in this case €14, that includes your entire meal. At El Medievo, two menú del días meant a bottle of wine, two primer platos (appetizers), two segundo platos (entrees), and two desserts. They had a few choices for each plate; Joe ordered picadillo soup and pork loin, I ordered stuffed peppers and a salad with grilled pork on top. The wine was their homemade house wine, the waiters were unbelievably friendly, and the food was delicious. The restaurant overlooked Trujillo’s plaza mayor, and everything about the meal was absolutely perfect. From a stressful and frustrating car ride thanks to our AirBnB host, we transitioned to a relaxing and wonderful lunch in Trujillo. Just what we needed to recharge us. We got all the way to Madrid and made it in time for the Real Madrid game that evening. Absolutely perfect.
Pizza and Churros in Madrid
On our last night, we both got the most dressed up we had gotten and had the most ironically and hilariously casual dinner of the trip. We went to a pizza place highly acclaimed on TripAdvisor (which by this point had turned into our bible) and walked in to find out that it was a carry-out type of pizza place… No tables. It smelled too good, however, to pass up. As per usual, neither of us could make up our mind on which one we wanted (they all sounded so delicious), so in our typical fashion, we just ordered three pizzas. Normal. It would make for a good breakfast. Of champions.
We indulged in teriyaki, margherita, and potato pizzas with Alhambra beers on an empty table in the middle of a street. It was perfect. We were starving, and we inhaled every bite before consolidating our leftovers to one box and making our next stop: it was Joe’s last night in Spain and he had yet to try churros con chocolate. We found a great outdoor churreria and sat in comfy chairs while an Asturian man played guitar and struck up conversation with us. Eating our churros con chocolate. So Spanish.
The entire evening was bittersweet. I was not looking forward to the sure-to-be tearful (on my end) goodbye at the train station the following morning, and I couldn’t quite shove that thought entirely out of my head. Simultaneously, however, I was entirely in that moment of pure happiness with Joe, and it felt as if nothing or no one else around us was worth paying any attention to. I’m extremely blessed, and in that evening of pizza, canned beer, and churros with guitar accompaniment, I couldn’t help but be thankful for the wonderful guy I got to share a perfect trip with.
Yes, I love Oviedo. It will always have a very special and irreplaceable place in my heart.
I don’t think I can even quite pinpoint exactly what it was about Granada that’s getting me smiling, a month after I traveled to the place. Perhaps it was the welcome of the sun, the hard-headed beauty of the Alhambra, the thin streets filled with colorful African artisan shops, the tasty and potent Alhambra beer, or the in-your-face Moroccan influence. Perhaps it was all of these things, or none of them, that made me fall head over heels in love with Granada. Whatever it was, I cannot believe my fortune in being able to stay 3 days and two nights in a city that is surely one of my favorites in all of Spain.
I started my visit to Granada with an unintentional 2-hour walk through the city. I walked alone and enjoyed the serenity of city noises and Spanish voices. It was one of those evenings where, after being surrounded by people and inundated with conversation, I desperately ached for a few moments of solitude and reflection. Sure, getting intentionally lost in a city I had only known for a few hours wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But, I survived, and I loved it. I woke up the next morning recharged and ready for what would be one of my favorite days thus far during my semester.
We traveled to the Alhambra, where we spent most of our morning and afternoon. It’s a small city on the top of a mountain that was built as a palace and fortress just before the year 900. Inhabited by sultans until Spain’s good old Ferdinand and Isabel took it over in 1492, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a symbol of arabic influence in the Iberian peninsula, and one of the most beautiful and interesting places I have ever and will ever see. It contains some of the most incredibly intricate and detailed architecture of any time period, and has quite the story. From Napoleon’s army attempting to destroy the entire place to rooms outside of washrooms for orchestras to play while the sultans bathed, the Alhambra is, if any string of words could properly describe it, marvelously historic and stunningly sophisticated.
After several hours of gawking at the Alhambra, I went to lunch with a handful of friends. Falafels, Alhambra beers, sunshine, and an unforgettable few hours laughing and marveling at what a great day we had enjoyed so far - perfection. We spend a few more hours wandering around the artesan stores, city outlooks, and froyo shops. Granada had a feeling of authenticity and joy, color and vibrance. The city exuded a personality, and it was contagious. We soaked up every second of sun that we could.
Dinner that evening was special - our professor, José, was taking each group for the final project out for a meal to discuss the progress of their film scripts. After grabbing drinks at a cervecería on the way, we went to a Moroccan restaurant and I enjoyed some cous cous with chicken and golden raisins. José is such a fun and caring professor, and though I despise him when he assigns us impossible tasks or places laughable exams in front of us, I really am thankful to have him with us this semester.
The morning after dinner with José, we boarded the bus and headed east for Valderrubio, Córdoba, and Sevilla. Overall, Granada was delicious. I ate up every moment of my time there, and am confident that my first visit will not be my last.
Travel, food poisoning, travel, food poisoning. It’s the new pattern of my life. But I am confidently devoting my evening to breathing in the springtime air of Oviedo and catching the site up with pictures, thoughts, reflections, stories, and journal entries describing the fantastic month I’ve been blessed to live.
Yesterday was, without any doubt, the best day I have had in Spain thus far. Arguably one of the best days ever. Ever. Ever ever ever.
The fourth city on our cultural trip was Valencia, where we were lucky enough to stay for two nights during Las Fallas - one of the biggest holidays in Spain, and one of my new favorite holidays EVER.
Las Fallas celebrates Saint Joseph, but the holiday has become more focused on embracing the traditional culture of Valencia. Each bario, or neighborhood, has a falla made for them… They are judged, and then on the last night of the holiday, all but the winner are set on fire. Fireworks - and I mean LOUD and BIG ones - are set off all day and night, and the fiestas never seem to end. The horchatas de chufa and fartons are abundant, the traditional Valencian dress and random parades are everywhere, and the streets are honestly just filled with proud Spaniards. I don’t think there’s a better way to first experience Valencia.
Yesterday José arranged a meal of paella (because the delicious stuff originated in Valencia) for lunch for the group. It’s no secret that I have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with authentic Spanish food, so I was beyond excited for a big authentic meal of perfection, especially since the restaurant (an off-the-beaten-path place on the outskirts of town) was featured in the New York Times.
We started off with pitchers of Sangria, of course, and then the baskets of toasted bread came out with the most unbelievable roasted red pepper mix. After that were cod and potato croquettes with ali oli, and a big traditional Spanish salad of greens, carrots, olives, hard boiled eggs, and tuna. I resisted eating more than just a small serving of everything because I knew the headliner of the meal was coming up soon, but let me tell you, it was tough.
These photos don’t do it justice. I now firmly believe that you haven’t lived until you’ve had real Spanish paella… There’s nothing like it. The one on the left was marisco, or seafood, the one on the middle was vegetable, and the one on the right was a stew. The seafood tasted just like what one imagines paella should be like, and the other two were fantastic in that they weren’t quite so usual. The stew had EVERYTHING in it, and the vegetable paella had so many artichokes that I couldn’t contain my happiness. Honestly, perfection.
About 30 minutes after we had finished the paella and were discussing our plans for the rest of the day (just brace yourself!), the waiters came out with gigantic trays of fruit: a very common dessert here. We were all so excited - though we were full, we could always find some room for some fresh kiwis and oranges. Fifteen minutes later, after we joked about being thankful our dessert was light, the waiters re-entered the room with trays of what can only be described as heaven. Perfect cakes sent from heaven above. I finished the meal off with a café con leche (of course) and was ready to head on to part II of a perfect day in Spain.
We arrived at Valencia’s Plaza de Toros, not even an hour after lunch, excited, anxious, and willing to be open minded. A group of students decided to go to a bullfight, and José was excited to show us one of the most beautiful parts of his culture. I was so happy to have him there with us - he answered questions, told us how to respond to certain things, and explained everything that happend so we could understand.
I decided to attend the fight because, simply, the reason I am in Spain is to strengthen my connection to my Spanish heritage. I couldn’t say no to one of the best bullfighting matches of the year… though controversial, even in Spain, it is an important part of the culture here, and I wanted to see what gives it such longevity.
I am so happy that I went.
Now, let me establish that it was not always easy to watch. I had never seen an animal die in front of me, and I spent the entire first fight shaking, feeling my heart pounding, and thanking God I had chosen to grab a beer for the event. The second time around, I had adjusted to what I was going to see, but didn’t get it quite yet.
It was the third matador, Daniel Luque, who lured me in. I began to understand where the beauty of the sport comes from: acknowledgement of the fact that it’s far less of a sport and far more of an art. A good matador showcases the bull’s strengths, keeps the crowd on the edge of their seats, and ends the fight in the most humane way possible. I was entranced by the movements of the cape and hypnotized by the dance he was choreographing with the bull. It was beautiful.
I understand the opposition to the sport - taken at face value, bullfighting is pretty horrific and terrifying. However, knowing that the bulls who enter the ring are raised better than any livestock, that they become the next day’s delicacy in the form of bull tail stew at local restaurants, and that they die in one of the most honorable and historic Spanish traditions - it softens the blow, but it’s still difficult to understand unless, well, unless you just get it. I’m not saying I do get it (and I’m not necessarily saying that I don’t get it, either), but I am suggesting that it’s an experience that can not be taken simply for being an old-fashioned past time filled with mortality and brutality. It is more than that. You have to understand the beauty and art of the matador’s work to see why bullfighting has withstood the test of time while remaining steadfast in its historical roots. There are no digital screens, no jumbotrons. With the exception of the loud speaker at the beginning, the cell phones in the crowd taking pictures, and the armor on the horses, you very well could be witnessing a scene similar to one that occurred 100 years ago. The white handkerchiefs applauding a good fight are still the same, the shouts of “Olé!” are still the same, the clothing is the same, and the fighting is the same. It’s a piece of preserved spanish culture and history that pretty accurately reflects the country’s past: violent, threatening, but the Spanish people nearly always surface as the victor. I ultimately found the Corrida de Toros unbelievably brilliant and beautiful. I felt connected in a new way to the culture here, and I was overwhelmingly happy that I disregarded my fear, stepped outside of my comfort zone, and attended one of the best bullfights of the year: the Corrida de Toros during Las Fallas de Valencia.
After the bullfight, we got some drinks, walked around the city, and watched the fallas burn. It was absolutely beautiful, and a perfect end to a completely perfect day. When I got back to the hotel at 3am and climbed into bed, I fell asleep with a big smile on my face. Yes, I have a new favorite holiday.