Madrid with 50 American Students

When I first began this blog, I couldn’t come up with a creative title. I didn’t want something lame – – which I must admit, that’s what I got – – or something cliché that I feel most ex-pat blogs use. I just decided on something easy: my first name and the country I’m living in. Pretty easy to remember, not too cliché, but it is admittedly pretty lame. However, I have with great pleasure come up with a complete renaming of my blog.

It began with this weekend’s trip to Madrid. Let me preface this by stating I not only got to visit my most cherished city in the entire world, but I got to go for free. Continue reading

Holidays in Alicante

Christmas and Reyes are now over.  The weather here is still quite nice (haven’t worn a jacket during the day since ‘Nam).  It’s almost always sunny and no one can complain about that. One could complain, however, about the amounts of studying I need to be doing and the paper writing that needs to be completed in the next few weeks.  But after finals in two weeks, I’ll be heading off to Belgium for a week to desconectarme and to just relax.

Christmas this year was probably the most Spanish I could have ever imagined. Continue reading

La Mercè

It’s the weekend of La Mercè here in Barcelona which is a three day holiday celebration to Our Lady of Mercy, an enormous festival consisting of papier mache giants, the Correfoc (fire parade), pyro-musicals (or insane fireworks show with music), Sardanas, an awkward Catalan dance (mostly done by all the old ya-ya’s as they call them), and everyone’s favorite, the Castells, or human towers.  At night, there are light shows, fountain shows, concerts, and other festivities all over the city. Continue reading

Barcelona: Week 1

I just finished my first successful week in Barna (street-name for Barcelona.) I have accomplished many of my short terms goals (and a few are still pending, like my visa renewal.) I have gotten one English class so far, but I’m pending on a few others, so that’s good that I’ve got that cog slowly in motion.  Also, I met up with two people to do a language exchange (half Spanish, half English), and they both went really well. In fact, last night, I caught the thirty-minute train from Barcelona center out to Cerdanyola del Valles to go to a house party of one of the girls I met doing the language exchange. She and her boyfriend threw a house party out on this amazing terrace that they have at their house. It’s up towards the mountains, it’s got a swimming pool, and the terrace was big enough to throw even a typical American kegger. Continue reading

Spain: World Champions EuroCup 2012

Spain is good at two things: Partying and football (soccer). And both came in to play as soon as I stepped off the plane from my trip to Brussels.

Upon my arrival to Madrid from Brussels, I barely even got a moment to breathe. I went straight to my flat to drop off my bag and then I went directly to the Bernabéu Stadium (where Real Madrid plays). As I was entering the Metro, you could already see all the people painted red and gold: It was the EuroCup championship and Spain was in the finals. People were screaming, blowing horns, and of course wearing flags, jerseys and t-shirts all decorated in the colors of the Spanish flag.

I finally got to the stadium that was jam-packed with people cheering. I was trying to meet up with Angel, but I’d have to wait until half-time to find him because there were just too many people. They set up three enormous television screens where viewers could watch the match.

Spain versus Italy.

I’d like to say I was a bit torn as to who I was going to root for because I have so many friends from both countries.  But the choice was pretty clear. It had to be Spain, despite all the groans and complaints from my Italian friends.

Within just a few minutes of me arriving at Bernabeu, Spain scored its first goal. The crowd went berserk: People jumping, screaming, blowing horns and whistles, climbing each other, complete and utter chaos.

We’d see this madness repeat three more times. The environment was incredible; you could smell the excitement of victory in the air. Not even the stench of beer and tinto de verano spilling on the streets could over-empower the emotion that flooded the air.  When the match ended, with Italy in silence, and Spain in what seemed like revolution, the people took to the streets. We marched with them as cars flew by honking their horns, people screaming, and police trying to maintain control but there was no hope. The fans stopped every car to yell their excitement at its driver, bus windows were broken in the frenzy of excitement, and of course more and more alcohol was drunk.

Everyone was heading in the same direction: Cibeles, the main glorieta in Madrid, right in front of the town hall.  There we found a chaotic stampede of people drinking and screaming.  Even the police were relaxing and enjoying the victory of their country. Seeing the joy turned chaos in Spain, I can’t even imagine how Spain must have been when the Franco regime collapsed: Every street was chalk-full of people, no one was left indoors, everyone came out to celebrate their success.

It was like war; the noise could silence a bombing.

I flew home Sunday morning from Brussels just to see the party when Spain won and that’s what I got. It’s too bad I was still so exhausted from the long weekend away that I ended up retreating home around two in the morning. But even that was difficult as I had to dodge all of the people running down the streets and sidewalks. Eventually I made it home, safe, sound.  And as the entire country erupted in mass-fiesta, I finally fell asleep dreaming about how no one would give a darn if the United States ever won anything soccer related.

Write more later,

Graham

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End of another school year

(Foreword to the reader: To clarify any confusion that may arise from this post, I am not leaving Spain. I am moving from Madrid to Barcelona in September to pursue a master’s degree in International Relations. Please read on…)

As I’m sitting here in this coffee shop, the one that Chris Kelley and I sat in on our first day back in Madrid after our two-year spans of impatiently waiting to graduate college to finally get to move back to our favorite place, Spain, the sudden realization of my second year coming to an end hit.

It’s almost over.

This life I’ve been living isn’t real. It can’t be real. None of it seems real. Language is faded in the distance, cultures, societies, countries, cities, buildings, food, people; it’s all just an illusion in a painting. These places don’t really exist. These people don’t really exist. Only really talented authors can create such rich characters and places. It just can’t be real. It can’t be.

But it so strongly is.

The past few weeks, I’ve been running around town trying to buy souvenirs, pack up my stuff, throw away all the old clutter and clear out for my next step in life. It’s almost unfathomable for me to imagine actually leaving Madrid. It’s still easily my favorite place in the world, and it’s the place I’ve tried so hard to get to for as long as I can remember. And now, willingly, I’ve decided to leave it all behind.

I’ve had two incredible years here that have forever changed me in thousands of ways: the way I think, the person I am now, and even the way I communicate. Not to mention being bilingual certainly has its rewarding benefits as well.

I began to go through all the things I’ve had stored in crammed drawers, toppled shelves and overcrowded bookcases. I started to uncover all of the things I thought I’d want to save. I opened the lid to my secret souvenir box. Ryanair boarding passes to a handful of places, Spanish train tickets, French metro passes, Italian travel guides, Portuguese city maps, and an endless amount of museum ticket stubs from all over Europe. I held on to each thinking that I’d like to have it in the future. But as I ponder back to whatever the trip or day or place was, it’s no longer about having that as a souvenir. Yes, living in Europe still blows my mind every time I think about being an expatriate in such a wonderful place, but now these things aren’t just paper-waste memories that I’ll be taking back home to show my friends and family. They’re now a part of my life. So instead of bringing them back to Denver to show off what I’ve done, maybe this summer I’ll be saving ticket stubs to museums and bus passes to bring back with me to my new home here in Spain.

I begin to throw more paper-souvenir things away. Each one getting heavier and more difficult to trash. I start to think about the times, the people, the excitement, the adventures. And then I’m almost incapable of throwing out one single more, and I’m at the point of pulling the rest out of the trash and putting them safely back inside the box I’ve left on my bottom shelf where they’ve resided for the past two years.  But I continue to toss them away. As the past goes into the trash, I think about where I’m going to be in the future. Where am I going to end up? Will I just have these ancient memories and plane ticket stubs to remember my European experience by? Or will this become my future?  I want it to, and I’m going to do all I can to make it so.

Aside from cleaning up, I´ve been in search of the last few little token and mementos I can bring back home. It’s impossible to summarize my version of Spain or Madrid in a simple souvenir. I can give shot glasses and Real Madrid t-shirts, but who really cares? It’s difficult to know what to bring back to friends and family who’ve never seen the things I’ve seen. And half the time, I think that many of them don’t even care. Or it’s not that they don’t care, they just don’t have the drive to come out and live these experiences I have everyday for whatever reason. So maybe they would be fine with a tacky tourist t-shirt that says I heart *enter city name here*. But I want to give them something that represents the experiences to me. The next best idea that occurs to me is giving someone something from one of my trips. Maybe a book. Maybe an old postcard that I’ve written a letter to no one on the back. Maybe my backpack. Maybe pictures I’ve taken.

I uncovered several books that I read this past year. Many that I’d like to bring home with me and reread in years to come. But as I picked up one not in particular and thought that I could use it as a souvenir, I thought about whether or not the person would even care to get a book. It’s just a book. And it’s most likely in English. In fact, I probably bought it used off of the UK’s Amazon website. But as I flip through the book’s pages, I remember reading it and where I was in Europe at the time. I always travel with a book, and I think about the destinations we’ve seen together. I pull out a blue pen and write on the first page.

To: Friend

I hope you appreciate this book and take it on as many wonderful adventures as I did.  This book and I went to Poland or Germany or Holland or… together and we saw this and we did that and you didn’t so to show for it, you’re getting this book.  Thought you might like this one since I really enjoyed it.

Love, Graham

But that’s not a gift. That’s just a small piece to the picture. It may be heartfelt and sentimental and true (there are many  books I will be giving to friends this summer because I know they’ll love them), but those books mean the most to me al fondo.  The pages hold unwritten meanings only understood by me. Do my friends care about something that means a lot to me, to my experience out here in Europe? Sometimes I feel as if they’d wish I’d just stop and come home. God knows my mother prays for that day in and day out.

But I can’t go home. Not yet. I’m just getting started.

I’ve begun to think of all the things I’ve accomplished this past year. I know that I’ve felt somewhat restrained with my job this year since I’ve had more responsibility and more working hours. I’ve had a great teaching experience, but not the most amazing experience in terms of living abroad as a young person should have.  At least it wasn’t as exciting as my first year. But maybe that’s because it was just that, my first year.

This year, I had a job for someone settled down. I’d love the job if I were older, already with a family and all that. But for a youngster like me, it was too much. I can already hear my father’s voice in my head saying something like, “Welcome to the real world,” we all have to work. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Why work so much? Since I started working more, as well as my flat mates, we all got stuck in a rut this year. We didn’t meet as many people, we didn’t go to as many parties, we didn’t socialize as much. That’s not to say we didn’t do things. I was able to explore other parts of my life since I now had more money and was pretty comfortable with my life here in Madrid. For example, I’ve been able to study French and for most of the year, I’ve taken it pretty seriously.  Also, I’ve read a lot of books which I think I only read like two last year. This year, I’ve devoured more history books than I think I did when I was studying history as a major back in college.

This year, I also traveled much more and got to see a lot of Europe that was previously unexplored by me. I dedicated much of my first year to only traveling around Spain to learn the language and really discover the culture. So this year, I decided to leave Spain more. I got to see a whole number of great places, and because of already having lived a year in Madrid, I had friends all over so I got to see some places up close and personal with some locals (for example my trips to Brussels with Chloé, or to France with Chloé’s family, or to Ponferrada with Marta, or to Paris with Britt where we met up with friends of mine, or to London with Alejandra.)  But there were also lots of other trips where we knew absolutely nothing and just fully explored and gutted the place making more new friends from all over the world.

So now it’s time for goodbye. Last Friday, I said goodbye to Robert, who is one of the children I’ve been giving private lessons to for about two years. Robert was my oldest pupil (12-years old) and I taught him Friday afternoons which kind of sucked for the both of us, but it’s the only way our schedules worked. But let me say that Robert always made my entire weekend. I always had such a great time teaching him because he was such a cool kid, a good student and he speaks really good English. After leaving his classes, I always felt invincible and energized.  I’ll really miss teaching him. He was the start of my weekends and definitely the best part of them.

That’s Robert!

This week, I’ll be saying goodbye to my other pupils which will be almost impossible. There’s Alvaro and Lucia who are just wonderful. Alvaro is already practically fluent and the kid is only 10. Lucia, who is only 8, has a perfect American English accent. I always had to ask if she was American or Spanish. She’d always turn red in the face and immediately blurt out at me that she definitely wasn’t American (god forbid!) They are some of the best behaved kids I’ve ever seen and I can honestly say that if I were ever to have kids, I’d hope they’d turn out like these two.

Alvaro and Lucía

Then there’s Luis and José Miguel. My two little buddies. These two are the funniest little whippersnappers one could meet. Both very brilliant personalities and completely opposite builds, these two always made me laugh. They have shown so much progress in the past two years that it’s almost unbelievable. I’m going to miss going down to their courtyard to play football (these guys needed a small break from class time to time) and just mess around with these guys (yes, there was English teaching somewhere in with all the games and sports.) It’s going to kill me to say goodbye.

Me and the boys (and Toy their dog)

Today, was my last day at my instituto. And none of the students came. I didn’t really get to say goodbye to any of them. Maybe it’s best that way. But there were several that made such a huge impression on me that I’ll really miss them, whether or not I’ll be able to express that to them.

However, the hardest goodbyes are the last ones to come when I say goodbye to my best friends here in Madrid. Fortunately Barcelona isn’t too far from Madrid and I’m sure I’ll be seeing them frequently.

It’s hard saying goodbye, but honestly, I’m really ready. I’m ready to leave here and start something new. I’m not happy to leave my friends or the lifestyle we’ve created here in Madrid, but I’m ready to start fresh. I’m ready to meet new people, I’m ready to learn even more, and I’m ready to really make myself international. I’ve been living abroad and I speak two languages, but now I’m going to project myself into that professional international working world (scary!) And I couldn’t be more excited to really get out there and explore what opportunities there are.

Alongside my master’s, I’m going to continue studying French. I’m going to do intercambios to meet more people. I’m going to these social events like cocktail and happy hours for all these international companies. I’m going to meet people and I’m going to continue to learn more about the lives of others, their cultures, and their languages.

Just yesterday, Carlo’s parents came over to leave him something.  Carlo had warned me beforehand that they’d be stopping by since I was the only one at home. They came in and we began communicating in a mix of Spanish, English, and Italian. I actually spoke to them in Italian. I don’t even speak Italian! But that shows how much my life has changed living out here. I’ve lived with people from all over Europe and since I’ve spent so much time with all the Italians here, I’ve certainly picked up on a few things I didn’t even know I knew how to say.  Even amongst my English speaking friends here, our lexicons have become so completely messed up that even in our common language, we now throw in many Spanish and Italian expressions that would be incomprehensible for someone outside of our group.

It’s just all of this. All of this combined. This unreal time I’ve lived. I can’t give up and I have to keep going because I love it. I love my international life. So here’s to the end of an amazing year and to the start of the summer and fresh slate in a new city this fall to really start my expatriate life.

Write more later very soon, I’ve got four trips coming up to Brussels, Galicia, Barcelona, and Brescia!,

Graham

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El País Vasco

Although Semana Santa was only three weeks ago, I think everyone can agree that we were all ready for another break. Something about coming back to reality after such a long vacation simply requires another to really relax (or to take advantage of the free time and go all out! Depending on who you are…)

So Friday had finally arrived. Tomas and Angel had already left that morning for Bilbao. Me being the pringado, I was stuck in Madrid having to work. But as soon as that final bell rang, I ran to the bus stop, picked up the first bus that came by (and by luck was the one that goes to the airport), went to the airport, and caught my flight to meet up with my friends.

Upon arrival, I was immediately given the feeling that I had returned to my favorite part of Spain, Galicia because it was raining and the scenery was so green. I quickly decided that maybe it’s not just Galicia that I love, but rather the north of Spain. However, after you enter Bilbao, you realize that although the surroundings might be similar, they are very not similar.

Bilbao is the economic capital (the real one is Vittoria, this was just pointed out to me) of Pais Vasco (or Basque Country) which is a region of Spain I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. It’s a place that speaks the supposed oldest language in Europe and has no relationship to any other language in the world. It’s completely unique and that makes the people there very proud. Up until just recently, there was a separatist, nationalistic, terrorist organization called ETA which basically controlled the entire region (maybe sort of like the Mafia in southern Italy.) Now, you can see Basque flags flying in every window and in the doorways of every shop.  However, you shouldn’t have the impression that it’s a highly political, radical, and dangerous place. In fact, it’s very tranquilo, the food is wonderful, and although Bilbao is a pretty commercial city, the Old Quarter certainly has its very own special charm.

Since Tom and Angel had already seen most of the small city, when I got there, we just decided to wander a little more. We made it down to the Guggenheim Museum, which is the one thing I really wanted to see in Bilbao. We didn’t go inside, we were saving it for Saturday, but the architecture is really quite impressive.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, SpainThere we met two American girls who were also auxiliares. We ended up grabbing a few beers with them and then wandered around with their hosts from couchsurfing, who were two real friendly Spanish guys.

Later, we returned to our hostel, changed and got ready for the night, and went out. However, our timing was poor because the previous night, the football team from Bilbao, Athletic Club of Bilbao, had won a huge match and I guess the whole city erupted into a mad party. So Friday night came around and the entire city was dead. We wandered and went into a few places, but even the most crowded place was nothing more than a hallow bar with loud music. Eventually, we retreated and just went home.

We got up Saturday morning, checked out of our hostel, went and saw the Guggenheim, this time from the inside, and then we caught the hour and ten minute train to San Sebastian.  We walked to our hostel, still in the rain, checked in, then took to exploring the city a bit. We met up with some girl from New Zealand that Tom and Angel had met before I arrived in Bilbao. Together, we all went and ate pintxos, which are Basque tapas and are over-priced, but delicious.

Later, we took a break back at our hostel, met some cool kid from Florida and about 10 French women who were celebrating a bachelorette party, and then after we had all solidly pre-gamed in the hostel, we went out. We ended up going to some place that was unfortunately littered with alpha-male jerks from France who started a fight with us.

One of the guys was good and drunk, and you could tell he had that real Neanderthal mentality where when anyone that looks at him funny needed to be hit. So he was staring at me, and I said, “Hey, what’s up, man,” in a friendly tone. And me being the nice guy I am, clearly I need to be beaten upon like a punching bag. So in his efforts to get out his aggravation from meeting such a handsome and friendly American lad, this rugby-type macho douche bag decided he would return my nice salutation by grabbing my throat and choking me. Fortunately, I’m a P.E. teacher so I’m pretty buff these days and ripped off his hand like the Hulk tearing off his clothes.  Then he randomly decided that Tom, who was standing right next to me, was such an outstanding guy too that he started after him, and then began kicking that American kid from Florida.  The kid from Florida said, “Don’t start, man,” and he had the look in his eyes like he had played college football for the Florida Gators and was about to show him what American might is all about.  Tom was thrown back by some other guys in the bar, and fortunately, the big baboon was held back by his friends, but he kept at it.

Out of nowhere, some random idiot dressed in a rat suit started punching Tom, and since I was right there, I grabbed the moron, pulled him off Tom, and then we were all thrown out. As we were standing outside, we heard threats that the police had been called.  We were stared at in the street by these aggressive meat-head mongoloids, but nothing else happened.

Eventually, we were all super pissed that these shallow, drunk assholes had ruined our fun night, we went home. None of us even threw a punch or retaliated in anyway and no one was hurt except for Angel, because he stepped on some glass it went through his shoe. Other than that, not a scratch.

The following day, we woke up going, “What the heck was that all about?” and we laughed off the stupid events of the previous night.

Eventually, we got out of bed, had an amazing lunch, then wandered a bit more before I had to go back to Bilbao to catch a flight to Barcelona.

Unfortunately for me, I had to leave my friends and two more days of fun in San Sebastian to visit the university I will most likely be attending next year. The school had accepted me but they wanted a 1000 euro matriculation payment so obviously I wanted to see what the school was all about before I started throwing money into it.

My friend Sarah who I work with told me she had a good friend living in Barcelona, so I called her up and she was nice enough to host me. She even had an extra room for me to sleep in. I easily found her flat in the center of Barcelona and she turned out to be such a cool girl! We went out and got a few beers in this really indie, hipster rock bar, and then later, we went back home and just chilled chit-chatting all night. I woke up early the next day, went and saw the university, which I really liked and now I’m dead-set on going there (finally, I know what I’m going to do next year!)

I went back to Michelle’s flat, found her awake so we went for a little stroll through the city and grabbed some cañas to finish off my super short trip. Then around 3 in the afternoon, I went back to the Barcelona airport and came back home to Madrid where I now have two days to just sit back and relax.  Thank goodness for five day weekends.

Basically, I took three trips this weekend, and each lasted exactly 24-hours. It was short-lived but worth every second (except for maybe our skirmish with those short-brained hooligans from France).  As always, I had a complete blast with my two and only American buddies, Tomas and Angel. Those guys are so much fun; I don’t stop laughing when I’m with them. It’s nice to have such awesome friends out here.

The best thing that came of this is that I got some of my priorities out of the way and Barcelona now just feels like the right decision and I’m really looking forward to starting my Master’s degree there this September.

Anyway, I’ll write more later,

Graham

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