Category Archives: travel

the truth about study abroad

I’ve been in Spain for nearly six months now. I’ve seen a lot of great things, traveled to a ton of cool places, and met many new friends. I party my ass off, take long walks, and study hard when the moment requires. I’ve immersed myself in this society as much as I can and I’m wildly, perfectly happy here – or at least, that’s what you’d think if you read my blog or stalked my Facebook. But here’s the truth: what I tell you about my time abroad is only a small portion. I leave out the frustrating phone conversations with my horseback riding trainer, who was supposed to pick me up at 4:30 but didn’t and then called me twelve times while I was on the metro and couldn’t understand whether he wanted me to wait at the station or walk to the barn. I don’t mention the insatiable craving I feel for a goddamn Subway sandwich, followed by the even worse guilt over my inherent and unshakeable Americanness. I keep mum about the nagging feeling that I’m not truly taking advantage of my time here that I get when I stay in and watch movies on a Friday night. And then worse, the inadequacy I feel over the fact that I’ve been here so long and still haven’t made a truly close Spanish friend. I look at some of the other girls who’ve been here since September and they have Spanish boyfriends, for God’s sake, and even though I don’t really want a relationship, I feel somehow less-than.

When you see the life I put out on the Internet, you’re really only seeing the best ten percent of what I do here. You don’t see all the boring days where I don’t do much more than go to class and do homework after, or the petty squabble I have with a friend, or the nights I go out for a beer or two then turn in early. And you definitely don’t see the moments when I break down and just want to go home.

Which, in case you hadn’t guessed, is right now.

In a lot of ways, I think that’s dishonest of me. While I was getting everything together to come out here, all I heard about studying abroad was how awesome it was going to be. Every person I talked to (including the woman working the phones at Chase who made sure my debit card wouldn’t get flagged while I was abroad) gushed over my trip. Past study abroaders fed me story after story of endless fun. And at first, Sevilla was like that. I devoured this city.

But at a certain point, this stopped being a vacation for me. I thought I could outrun my social anxiety and introversion, but of course that’s impossible. I had this image of myself as Sevillana Katy, some sort of study abroad alter ego. And that Katy was fun and adventurous, organized and driven but always up for a spontaneous night out. She would strike up conversations with everyone and snap street photos without fear. But that person doesn’t really exist – at the end of the day, I still start to sweat when I ask someone if I can take their photo. I still long for quiet nights in with a terrible movie and too much Diet Coke. I still come off as stand-offish, or worse, boring, to new acquaintances thanks to my debilitating shyness in groups. None of that went away simply because I ran off to Spain.

It’s funny, this has been one of the hardest things to write and put out there. I want everyone back home to believe I’m having this unreal time. When people, even some of my closest friends, ask how I’m doing I invariably answer “incredible” or “amazing” or some other superlative. “I may never come home,” I say. I’ve been feeding the stereotype that it’s all good times, all the time. It feels wrong. So here you go, readers: study abroad is not always fun. It’s real life. Ups and downs happen, and I think on a more extreme scale than back home. So if you’re planning to go abroad anytime soon, try not to idealize it too much before you leave. Because sooner or later you’re going to have a terrible day – there’s no need to make it worse by feeling bad about feeling bad.

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la vida extremeña

the alleys of caceres's jewish quarter.

I’m starting to realize how much I like traveling alone. I don’t have to worry if I’m boring my travel companions. I can eat when and what I want. And if I get lost, I can wander at leisure until I eventually find my way back to a place I recognize. I think that’s the best part of traveling – turning up a street just because you like the look of the cobblestones, or ducking into a cafe solely based on the cute sign. A few weeks ago, I was sent to Extremadura for an interview and got the chance to do just that. I was headed to an isolated farm in the middle of nowhere and ended up spending the night in the small city of Caceres, which I had never heard of before I bought my bus ticket.

When I pulled into the city that Friday night, Caceres looked like any modern town in Spain – blockish apartment complexes, department stores, freeways. I was glad I would be leaving at 7 the next morning. But when I went hunting for a bocadillo at dinnertime, I found this.

the plaza mayor of caceres. a lovely place to stop for a coffee and people watch!

Turns out, Caceres’s medieval walled city is a UNESCO heritage site – just like Toledo. I immediately extended my stay a night so I could explore all day Sunday. All thanks to a lucky right turn as I stepped out the front door of my hotel.

To be honest, Caceres can be seen in a day. But i liked having time to turn up random streets as I felt like it. I didn’t even have a map – I had no idea what the important sights even were, let alone how to find them. And that was nice. So if you have a day or two, check out Caceres. Or any little town on your way to the next must-see city (I’m looking at you three, Madrid, Barcelona, and Granada!). You just might be surprised.

bougainvillea in the casco antiguo.

If you go…

Stay: Hotel los Naranjos. Clean and cheap, los Naranjos has a great staff. They’ll even be nice to you when you wake them out of a deep sleep at 5 am when you hit the doorbell accidentally on your way out. Not that I’ve done that. It’s located just outside the Casco Antiguo, and about a 5-10 minute bus ride from the main bus station.

Eat: At any of the little carnicerias lining the streets. You can order a sandwich made fresh with the best jamon iberico in the country and delicious sheep’s milk cheese for under 3 euros.

See: The whole old city. Climb the wall (free on Sundays!), walk through the cobbled streets, and stop when you feel like it. It’s worth it, I promise.

caceres seen through the arrow slits in the citadel walls.

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la ciudad de las tres culturas

toledo's medieval city, as seen from the cathedral tower.

At the moment, I’m sprawled out on the couch in the living room, watching a movie about baseball dubbed over in Spanish. I haven’t been able to make myself leave the house today, aside from to go to class this morning. I’m not sick anymore (thank God) – I’m just taking advantage of finally being back home. In the last month, I’ve traveled every single weekend: Cordoba with my program, Lagos for three days of sunbathing, Toledo with my friend Michelle, and finally Barcelona these past four days. It’s been exhausting, but in the best way. But as much fun as I’ve had, I’m just so glad to be back in my flat for the foreseeable future. I was literally grinning the whole way to class this morning because I was so happy to pass all my favorite landmarks – the confiteria with the fabulous pastries, my post-siesta beer stop, the gorgeous designer bridal boutique with the feathered dress in the window…perfection.

Two weeks ago, however, I was getting restless in Sevilla. I was ready to get out and see some more of this country that’s my home for the next nine months. Cordoba was a brief day trip, and since my jaunt to Portugal (while fun) was with a company specializing in trips for American students I didn’t feel like I was seeing anything culturally significant. On Wednesday I mentioned this to my friend Michelle, who agreed, and on Friday morning at 1 AM we were boarding a bus for the first leg of an 8-hour journey to Toledo.

a view of the cathedral from the winding streets.

For those not in the know, Toledo is a small city about 20 minutes by train outside of Madrid. It’s famous for its medieval center, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. As in, the whole thing.

So as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s pretty awesome.

We got in around 9 or 10 on Friday morning, and since our hostel couldn’t check us in until noon, we went straight away to see the cathedral. Like Sevilla’s, the cathedral is from the Gothic period with a reclaimed minaret for a bell tower. But Toledo’s cathedral was built much earlier than Sevilla’s, as it was the first major Arab city in Spain to be reconquered by the Christians. I didn’t even realize the bell tower was originally Muslim; a nice security guard who ended up giving us something of a free tour told me. Overall, the church is a great example of Gothic style – I was pretty into it. And since we showed up right as they were opening the ticket booth, we managed to avoid the crush of tour groups. It’s always nice to see churches when they’re quiet; we even got to see part of a Mass going on in one of the side chapels.

the biggest bell in the tower. it's HUGE.

My favorite part of the cathedral was definitely the bell tower. The climb is actually terrifying – I can’t even begin to describe how tiny and twisty the staircase is – but it’s worth the effort. The bells are beautiful, as is the view. The biggest bell has only been rung two times. It’s cracked now so they don’t use it, but its smaller companions manage to make up for it.

One of the reasons Toledo is so famous is its history as “la ciudad de las tres culturas” – the city of three cultures. The Arabs first set foot in Spain in 711, and by 780 they had taken over most of the Iberian Peninsula. Toledo became a major epicenter during the first few centuries of Moorish rule, and the time became known as “la Convivencia” – the co-existence. Supposedly, Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in relative harmony. In reality, there were probably some tensions between the three, but Toledo still carries the mark of all three. See: la Juderia, the Jewish Quarter, and the two beautiful synagogues still in tact.

the arches of sinagoga de santa maria la blanca.

The more famous of the two is la Sinagoga del Transito, which now houses the Museo Sefardi. It’s certainly larger. But I liked the much-smaller Santa Maria la Blanca better (and yes, I realize it’s a bit of a misnomer). The courtyard was beautiful, and inside was a beautiful art exposition featuring drawings of a Judeo-Christian bend. A kindly older nun was selling them, and we got to talk to her a little bit. She said she was part of an order that helped take care of the synagogue (which was converted into a church, and now back to synagogue). Either way, both synagogues are worth a visit.

After all the sightseeing we did, Michelle and I were desperate for some good food. The first night, the guy working the front desk at our hostel gave us a recommendation for dinner: “Bar Enebro,” he said. “Cheap, delicious, fun.” I can’t even begin to tell you how true that is! We had originally thought about going to a real restaurant first and stopping by Enebro for drinks after, but I’m so glad we didn’t. You see, with every drink you buy, you get a HUGE plate of fries and bocadillos. So for 5 euros each, we both got two drinks and a full meal. The sandwiches were delicious – melty manchego cheese and either ham or bacon, depending on the bartender’s mood – and I couldn’t believe the amount of fries they served. Suffice to say, I was impressed.

outside of convento de san clemente.

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