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The Last Weeks and Coming Home!! July 29, 2013

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I am currently writing this thousands of feet above the Atlantic on my way back to Atlanta! During the last weeks, it became very difficult to travel anywhere due to the amount of group projects that were assigned. Still, this did not stop me from having a great time in Barcelona.

The first major event after Sant Juan was the 4th of July. Of course, this is not celebrated in Spain, but this did not stop us from having a good time. In order to celebrate, a large group decided to climb a mountain in Barcelona around midnight, stay up all night on the mountain, and watch the sun rise over the city. We all donned some red and white and started the climb.

It was one of the most memorable nights of my life. The hardest part was getting up the mountain considering the path was not well lit. Once up though, the view was amazing. The mountain was located near the center of the city near Parc Guell. From the top, we had a 360 panoramic view of the city at night. Everything was lit up, and it was beautiful. There is something different about a skyline when there are only one or two skyscrapers. Plus, from the top of the mountain, we were located at the end of one of the main streets in Barcelona, and so we could see directly to the beach.

The night consisted of Budweiser, stories, and a few occasional naps. All of the sudden, the sky started to  get brighter. Everyone looked to where the light is coming from, and eventually a bright red orb started to appear from behind another mountain. The sun perfectly illuminated  the fog that was gently spread around the city under us. Once we could see the sun, the rest of it appeared over the mountain incredibly quickly. It covered everything in a morning glow that was made even better from my lack of sleep. After enjoying the view, we had to soon head back down because some people in the group had class that morning.

Enjoying the View

After this, I still had one four day weekend remaining. I had a friend from Kentucky who was studying in Paris, which was also celebrating its independence day that weekend. However, at the same time, Pamplona was hosting the annual running of the bulls, which I know I did not want to miss. I decided to spend the first night of the break in Pamplona for the night and the afternoon. Then, I would head to Paris for three days.

Stepping out of the bus to Pamplona was one of the oddest experiences of my life. Because it is a small town, it has no hope of housing all of the visitors, so most people sleep outside somewhere. So, when I stepped out of the station, people were everywhere even though it was two in the morning in a non-central part of town. There was trash everywhere, the city smelled, and everyone was wearing the red and white bull running attire. We made it into the center of town, and it resembled a war zone. There were people passed out everywhere, and trash covered the streets along with police.

We stayed up experiencing the culture until it was time to run. Everyone packed into a small portion of the track until they let everyone spread out. You could really feel the tension. People were saying prayers and making the sign of the cross. Everyone seemed very anxious. Soon enough, we heard the first firework. The bulls were released. Some people started running, but most waited for them to get closer. I was getting pretty jumpy waiting. People started jumping up after the second blast to see the bulls. Soon after that I could hear them and even feel them. Then people started screaming “Vamos!!” and I knew it was time to go. I started a sprint down the path. It was hard to move anywhere because of all of the people. I felt people spread out, and then I saw a huge pack of bulls rush past. We moved into the middle to follow the bulls, only to see that there was one still behind us. People immediately went to the sides to let it pass.

In the Arena

In the arena itself, they let the bull roam with the racers. I eventually managed to get close enough to one to smack it. After a while, it ended, and we spent the rest of the day enjoying the city and sleeping until it was time to take a bus back.

The next morning I had a flight to Paris. I was flying by myself but my friend was meeting me soon after I got in. Despite neither of us having data or messaging, we managed to find each other. My friend was studying Paris during his time there, so he gave me a very thorough tour of the city. He took me by a lot of the main sites in the city and explained why they were important. My personal favorite was going to the Arc de Triomphe and climbing to the top.

Later, we got dinner by the river and had one of the funniest waiters ever. At first, he told me I had to order in French, and I thought he was going serious (it was a pretty touristy place, so it wouldn’t make much sense). It turns out he was just giving me a hard time. He kept joking that I was ruining the French language. I worked during the whole meal to deliver the perfect line of French when asking for the check. I delivered it well, and he followed up by more French. I just looked at him and continued to make fun. I left a tip for the first time in a while that night.

We spent the rest of the night relaxing with a guitar in the nearby Luxembourg park. We then roamed the city, meeting people along the way.

The next morning I woke up early to meet up with the group from the Barcelona program that was visiting. We went to a lot of the same sites, and I tried to pass on any knowledge I had. The best part of the day by far was loading up on wine, cheese, and baguettes and going to the Eiffel Tower. Once it got dark, a few of us went up to the second floor. We were shocked to see a huge light show and fireworks lighting up across the city. It was another great night.

The next day was Bastille Day! We went right to the parade because we had to leave at 6 in order to catch our flight. After seeing some of the parade, a few of us split off to go the Louvre, which was free that day. We thought that this would make the line huge, but we only had to wait for 40 minutes! The Louvre was my favorite site in Paris. Being in the presence of history like that is very humbling. I got to spend around 4 hours, and I used every minute. Unfortunately, eventually we had to leave to catch our plane.

The rest of the time in Barcelona was spent either working on group projects, relaxing on the beach, or seeing any sites we happened to miss. Now that I’m on the plane, I still can’t believe I’m going back. I have a feeling it might even be strange to speak English again. I will miss so much about Spain, but I can’t wait to get back home. This has been one of the best summers of my life, and I can’t describe how thankful I am. I hope you enjoyed hearing about some of my adventures!! If you are reading this and have the opportunity to study abroad, please do it!

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Planning, Italy and Sant Juan! July 15, 2013

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After getting back to Barcelona, the first thing I wanted to do was relax. I spent the last day of the break relaxing on the beach, and catching up on some work. Because I haven’t mentioned before, access to the beach might be one of my favorite parts of Barcelona 🙂

The next week was largely consisted of work and planning for my next trip. Monday was the feast of Sant Juan in Barcelona, and because the entire city had the day off, so did we. Most of the people in the program wanted to stay in Barcelona because they were tired out from the week break, but also because Sant Juan was a famous party in Barcelona where fireworks and bonfires on the beach lit up the night on Sunday. I knew that I wanted to go, but I also knew that this would be one of my limited opportunities left to travel.

Since nobody from Barca was willing to go, I asked some people from GTL what they were doing. As it turns out, they were headed to Italy for their long break. On Friday they would be in Florence, and on Saturday Cinque Terre. I was beyond excited because this worked perfectly with my plans, and I would be back in time for Sant Juan. I rushed the rest of the week to make plans.

Early Friday morning, I woke up at 4:30 to someone who we didn’t know drunkenly stumbling into our room (it was weird). However, I had to wake up that early anyway to catch my 6:30 flight. I flew to Rome, and caught the train to Florence.

I checked into my hostel and let the GTLers now that I was there. While I waited for the always difficult European communication to come through, I wandered around Florence. I found the Duomo, which isn’t that impressive considering it takes up a good portion of the city. Saying I was impressed by its size is an understatement. THE THING WAS HUGE. Eventually, I rambled on, finding my way to the Galleria Academia where Michelangelo’s David resided. The line was long, but I happened to run into a group of Australians who were going in. I joined with them, so we got to get a reduced rate and skip much of the line (meeting others is one of the best parts of traveling alone). The art inside was beautiful and massive. It’s hard to describe David without seeing it. I never imagined he was that tall, I couldn’t help staring. You get a much better sense of how amazing Michelangelo is when you compare David to other sculptures.

Duomo from Piazzale Michelangelo

Anyway, once I got out, I met up with the group from Lorraine. We decided to go the Piazza Michelangelo, which is famous for the best view of Florence. We took SO many pictures. We headed back to the main city, to the most famous, oldest bridge in Venice that the axis decided to leave standing during WWII. We ate dinner over the river. I split a Florentine steak and spaghetti with Parker Buntin. The steak was up there for the best steak I’ve ever put in my mouth.

The rest of the night was spent experiencing the city. We went back up the Piazza to see the sun set over Florence. We spent an hour watching a band play on the bridge with the sunset in the background. The best part of the night came after we had gotten Gelato. We wandered into a big square, where we happened to find an orchestra playing. All the while, vendors were throwing blue light up toys in the air, which slowly fell back down. They whole scene was surreal.

The next morning, we headed to the Leonardo Da Vinci museum before catching our train. Seeing Leonardo’s drawing ideas actually built was phenomenal. That man was a genius. Before long though, we were on the train to Cinque Terre.

When we got there, we split up so we could check in at our different hostels. I accidently took the long way to get to theirs. I was incredibly lucky though, because it put me on an amazingly scenic route. Riomaggore, one of the towns that makes up Cinque Terre, was situated in a valley on the Mediterranean. It was the most beautiful view of the coast that I had seen so far in Europe.

 

Cinque Terre

 

That day, we decided to hike up to a church on the peak of a hill next to Riomaggore. The hike was rough. I was pretty dehydrated, which was a huge mistake considering how hot it was. I knew the view was going to be worth it though, so we all powered through. We spent a good amount of time on that hill relaxing and taking pictures. The coastline was beautiful. We made our way back down, and started looking immediately for somewhere to eat. We got some pizza and pasta and chowed down. After, we made our way to the docks and the shoreline. The rest of the night was spent skipping rocks and relaxing. I went back to my hostel, which was a town over, discovered how a bidet works, and went to bed.

The next morning, I boarded a train to Milan, took a shuttle to the airport, boarded my plane, and went back to Barcelona by 5:00 PM. I felt pretty accomplished because I somehow managed to successfully plan two plane rides, two bus rides, and four trains by myself.

By the time I got back to my room, it was almost time for the Sant Juan. I went with most of the program to the beach with lots of fireworks. We were up late that night laying back on the beach and experiencing the fireworks. By the end of the night, the beach looked like a warzone.

That’s it for this part, stay tuned for more!

Brussels, Amsterdam, and Munich! June 30, 2013

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I’m finally on my way back to Barcelona. I loved every second of the trip, but a week of constant travel is very tiring. This half of the trip was more experiencing culture than sightseeing. It started off in Zurich.

There was nothing particularly interesting in the city itself except maybe the people. One thing that stuck out was an almost complete lack of crosswalks. Pedestrians pretty much weave in between the trams and the cars to get where they are going. Plus, the sidewalks sometimes blend into actually roads, making the situation more difficult. On the more serious side of things, on a subway ride in Zurich, we were stopped by the metro police because we no passports to go along with our eurail passes. Thankfully, we were staying with my friend’s uncle, and he was able to bring our passes to the next stop. They had four officers wait with us at the stop along with three security personnel. It was incredibly awkward, and I apologized in every language I knew afterward. Her uncle later told us that running away from the police is pretty common, thus the extra security.
Speaking of the people in Switzerland, I happened to be taking a train to Zurich by myself and I had a great conversation with three swiss people. We started talking after they heard me speak English. Two of them were a couple headed to a birthday party, and the third was headed to a business meeting. After talking about some great places to go in Switzerland, the topic changed to America. Everyone there had been, and they said they found people in America nicer than those in Europe. The business woman (her boss happened to be from Kentucky) did say that the American system of production could use some work. According to her, Americans prefer the “quick and dirty” method of quickly producing a product and making improvements each time. The Swiss prefer to do it right the first time no matter how long it takes. Another thing I noticed was that the birthday cards all started off “Happy Birthday to you!” I was very surprised about the English, and asked them about it. Apparently it is a very common way to say happy birthday, and it was the first time I realized how prevalent English was in other cultures. At the end of the trip, the couple gave me their email, phone, and address in Switzerland, along with a beer they were taking to the birthday party. I don’t plan on actually drinking the beer because I think it would be funnier if I take pictures with the beer around Europe and send the pictures back to them. I will post progress pictures.

Belgian Waffle!

The next stop of the trip was Brussels, where we met up with a bunch of other people from the Barcelona program. The stay was for two days, and it consisted mainly of eating. Brussels’ food is phenomenal. I must have had three waffles, and it didn’t help that our hostel was right next to a chocolate factory. It was my first time staying at a hostel, and I have to say I’m a big fan. It lets you meet people from all over, the only problem is the showers. You have to hold down a button to get water drizzled over your head. I am so glad a got a haircut beforehand.  One last thing about Brussels, the grand plaza is beautiful at night, because the biggest tower starts to change colors.

Brussels’ Grand Place

After Brussels came Amsterdam, still with the whole group. Maybe it was because our hostel was a minute from the red light district, but Amsterdam came off as a very sketchy city. I never really felt in danger, but there is just a lot there that we were not used to. The red light district was more sad than interesting, but highlights include the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum, and the IAmsterdam sign.

IAmsterdam Sign with friends from Barcelona

Next, it was on to Munich with just the two of us. Our entire first day in Munich was spent at old castles in the country. Even though the weather was bad, the castles were absolutely beautiful. Also, there were a lot of interesting facts from that day. For instance, the king who built the castles was gay and had trouble dealing with the situation, so he spend a lot of time in seclusion (of course no one knew he was gay until years later in his journals). When we got back to Munich, we fell asleep almost immediately (we were pretty tired by this point). The next morning (this morning) we headed for a German Beer Garden. Even though I have never lived in Germany, I felt some connection to the atmosphere because I have a very German family and name (that sounds odd but it was a weird feeling). At the hall, there were huge pretzels, meat everywhere, and massive glasses of beer. We stayed for a while before we had to depart to catch our last train, where I am now.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria

And so ends my weeklong break. The second half of the trip includes a lot more travel, so these posts will hopefully stay interesting. Until next time!

First Days Out of Spain! June 16, 2013

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A LOT has happened since my last blog post. I am currently writing this on a train headed to Zurich from Lucern in Switzerland, but I won’t be able to upload it until I have a laptop so I can add pictures easily.

So last time I left off, I was about to head to Tarragona (a city an hour down the coast from Barca) for a day. I woke up that morning bright and early to catch the earliest train possible to Tarragona. It was my first time on the train system and I was going by myself, so I made sure to triple check the correct train. At the train station closest to myself, I quickly found out that there was no option to buy tickets for the train. Realizing I was going to miss the first train, I headed over to Sants (the biggest station there). I had a whole hour and a half to figure out how to get there. After about an hour, I was getting pretty worn out, and I still wasn’t any closer to my ticket. I had waited forever in the ticket window, only to find out that the person couldn’t speak English and I had to wait again.

All of the sudden, someone jumps on my back. Being in a foreign country with no one I knew around, adrenaline started pumping. However, having stood in line for an hour, I was too tired to do anything about it. After the dude on my back started hugging me, I figured out it wasn’t some crazy Spaniard. It turns out it was a very good friend visiting from Madrid who was studying abroad from University of Kentucky. We weren’t able to meet up that weekend because neither of us could communicate without phones or constant Internet and we kept getting lost. I had no idea he would be at the train station so I was happy to see him, but I got worried when I noticed he was having trouble talking.

As it turns out, he had his bag stolen at the station. The bag had his wallet, passport and all of his other belongings in it. He had no way of getting back to Madrid because he had no phone or money. We literally couldn’t believe that we happened to see each other in such a big station without any prior knowledge. After I helped him get a ticket, he helped me order the pass to Tarragona because he was near fluent in Spanish. So as it turns out, it worked out for both of us. After all this, I still happened to barely miss the train. I decided to go back after that, and I was dazed all day because I was so dumbstruck. Sorry that took long to tell, but it was one of the most odd, least likely things to ever happen to me. Picture below.

Me and Sean

The next two weeks were more of the same. That next weekend, a lot of the people from the GTL program came to Barcelona. A few of them were even fellow purple snakes! I went with some of them around Barcelona, and it was perfect weekend to be there: bright, sunny, and very warm. We did all of the Barcelona activities that weekend like beach, tan, parks, and clubbing. It was a solid weekend, but I was still looking forward to the week-long break that was a week away.

The first stop of the trip was going to be Zurich in Switzerland. My friend who I was traveling with me had an Uncle that lived in Zurich, so we made Zurich our base camp in Switzerland. We had Eurail, which meant a lot of train travel. The night train was incredibly long, and it was my first time hearing French. There was a small fight in the train that night, and we did not understand a word of it. It was very uncomfortable, especially because it was almost right next to us. One benefit of the trains is the layovers though. There are some beautiful towns that we got the chance to stop through such as Cerbere in France (pictured below) that we never would have seen otherwise.

Cerbère, France

When we got to Zurich that day, we were supposed to head directly to Interlaken for canyoning. Unfortunately, the canyoning was moved due to weather, and so my friend decided to go to Zurich for the whole day while I headed to Interlaken by myself (I had paragliding scheduled for that day as well!). Here’s where the very bizarre circumstances start. On the train ride, I happened to meet two girls from Atlanta who were now going to college in Kentucky. After talking for a while about how we had switched places for school, we walked around a little when the train arrived in Interlaken. Interlaken was stunning. There were huge mountains with a lake reflecting them, and it was a perfectly sunny day.

I said goodbye to the girls and headed to the paragliding base. The circumstances continued as I happened to run into the group from GTL that I had seen the week before. We chatted for a while, and soon it was time for paragliding. Paragliding may have been the best experience in my life. Interlaken was even more beautiful from thousands of feet up. The guide let me steer for a while and did all of the tricks. Again, the group that I was going with happened to be from Cincinnati (15 minutes from where I live in Kentucky).

Me steering the ship

The next day, we were back in Interlaken for canyoning. Have you ever tried hiking in a wet suit? It is very difficult. The workout was worth it, and now I have some good footage of me failing at rappelling. After Interlaken came Lucern, where I’m headed from now. The train there was a huge surprise. It took us through the hills with a great view of the alps and smaller villages. We didn’t have as much time in Lucern as we planned for, so right when we got off the train, we picked a spot on the high hills and headed there. It took us a while, but we were rewarded with a great view of Lucern, the lake and the alps. And here we are, on the train back to Zurich. Stay tuned for more vacation adventure featuring Brussels, Amsterdam, and Munich!

Barcelona!! (Pronounced Barthelona) May 26, 2013

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(Please forgive the lack of photos for now. It says I have to compress them down to 60 kb)

Two weeks have never flew by this fast! So much has happened since I arrived that it will be hard to pack into one post, but I’ll do my best to give the highlights.

Stepping out from the plane after a nine and a half hour flight was certainly disorienting. As I walked past the airport security agents, I noticed something incredibly odd. They were speaking a different language to each other. For some reason, it had never really sunk in that this would happen. I think half of me expected for there to be an English translation of what they were saying over the loud speaker. Still, I moved along to customs where I started to break out the Spanish. I delivered “Hola!” and “Gracias!” with the charm of an American tourist. The agents rolled their eyes, and I continued on my journey.

A short bus ride later, and I was at my dorm. One of the things that struck me immediately about Barcelona was all of the graffiti and art lining the streets. I had always pictured every city in Spain to be picturesque and quaint. The art gave the city a much more urban feel, and I liked it.

The first day consisted of experiencing the fresh markets in Spain, pointing to pictures on menus, and taking naps on public benches (which is totally acceptable here). Despite the lack of sleep, many people decided to go out for a taste of the Barcelona nightlife. We headed to a club, and I soon discovered something hilarious. One of the rooms in this club had an “American” theme. The DJs were donning jean overalls, American flags lined the walls, and a completely random video of Dolly Parton was being looped in the background. I spent most of my time in that room. However, the best part of the club was the people. Over that night, I met a group of three Italians, five Germans, a guy from France, and a girl from Barcelona. Most of them were on “holiday”, and they all spoke some English with the exception of the Italians (communicating with them was like playing charades). They all had different stories to tell and differing opinions of Barcelona and America. (The most interesting fact: the girl from Barcelona learned English almost exclusively from American movies)

Barcelona Beach

Barcelona Beach

After a long night, we woke up the next morning to explore more of Barcelona. We headed down to the beach during the day, witnessed a spontaneous parade over lunch, and hiked up to Monjuic in the afternoon. For reference, Monjuic is a old military base overlooking the town. It was great to get a sense of Barcelona so early. I never would have been able to grasp the layout otherwise. Monjuic also provided an interesting mix of old and new. The base was built in the 1600s, and includes cannons that are now covered in graffiti. I thought that I would be opposed, but it actually provides a very interesting contrast. On the way down, we passed through parks and other landmarks while being informed by the group’s leader Sabir Kahn. He was incredibly knowledgeable about Barcelona and filled us in on a lot of Catalonia history.

Soon, it was time to go to class. Unfortunately, the campus we are commuting to is 40 minutes away by Metro :(. Still, it is nice to see college life outside of the states. For most of the week, I was able to explore Barcelona during the night. Sometimes, I would wander to a new part of town to see if I could discover anything new. Because the program is split between CS and Architecture majors, the programmers are getting much more exposure to architecture. One place I traveled to was the German Pavilion, which is extremely prevalent in Architecture. I went with a couple architects, and they explained to me why the building was so important. Their excitement was very interesting. However, the weekend soon rolled around, and I had the opportunity to go to two extremely exciting events: the X-games and the FC Barcelona game.

While at the X-Games, we got to see Moto-X and skateboarding big air. It was a lot more exciting than what you see on TV, but the announcers spoke Catalan (different from Spanish) so it was hard to understand. Another amazing thing was the age of the competitors.   The kids probably averaged 16. On Sunday, we traveled to Camp Nou for the Barcelona game. We fought freezing rain, but there was still a surprising amount of people out. One thing about Barcelona sports: people watch the game. Unlike America, when I went to go to the bathroom, there was almost no one in the halls. I was even the only person in the bathroom (something you would never see at a football game).

This weekend, Barcelona was blessed with great weather, and I went with a group of others to hike up to Tipidado, a mountain that contains the odd mixture of a cathedral and an amusement park. The hike was beautiful, and the top of the cathedral is the highest point in Barcelona. That night, I had the opportunity to meet up with friends from Madrid who were studying abroad as a part of the University of Kentucky program.

These experiences were just the high points of the first two weeks. As the program progresses and we start to travel, many more incredible times will be had.