Europe

Thoughts about May

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I can’t believe its May already. I couldn’t believe it was March, or April and then suddenly here we are. May is my final month in Spain and it’s also the month I turn 21 so it’s simultaneously sad, exciting and strange.

This weekend I popped to Seville to see the Alcazar, a place I hadn’t visited but knew I needed to see before I left Spain. It was really, really beautiful, with sprawling gardens, fountains and courtyards. They use it as a location for the Game of Thrones TV series and you can definitely see why, it’s a magical setting and quite incredible that it all sits within a big city centre.

Unbelievably it was 40 degrees in Seville the day I visited. 40 degrees on the first of May, blimey. It was around 30 degrees on the first of November if I remember rightly, so I’ve probably had one of the shortest winters ever. I am now appreciating the perks of a Spanish apartment too. The white tiled floors may have been icy in winter but they now cool my feet all day long and it’s fabulous. Gone are the January days of me cursing the drafty windows and echoing rooms, mi piso was built for the summer and I now realise how great this is.

So, my final month in Spain will consist of a trip to Córdoba to see the famous los patios festival, a weekend in Granada – where I will celebrate my birthday in the beautiful Alhambra, then two final weekends of parties and goodbyes. I will be making the absolute most of the hot weather too because a British summer can’t always be relied upon.

**I’ll also be negotiating the cancellation of my wifi and phone contract, closure of my bank account, deep cleaning the apartment and packing my belongings into suitcases. I’ll then be lugging the contents of the past 8 months onto various modes of public transport before inevitably collapsing in a heap of emotion and exhaustion at Heathrow arrivals. But we won’t dwell on this.**

Time to enjoy the rest of the month!

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Expectations

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Back in January 2014 I attended a rowing ball with my boat club at Durham (yes it was as pretentious as it sounds). Unusually, to encourage mingling between members of different colleges, there was randomly allocated seating at this event. Now initially this situation filled me with great excitement at the prospect of being paired with a hunky oarsman who could later become my husband, passing his chiselled jaw line and natural athleticism to our future children (the dream lives on…). This expectation was soon dampened however, when the seat next to me was filled by a very posh, ponytail-wielding rower, who turned out to be a bit of an idiot. Despite immediate disappointment, I told myself that hairstyles were temporary and ploughed ahead with the small talk. We quickly covered the usual topics before moving on to discuss my impending year abroad.

The reason I’m telling you this anecdote is because when I mentioned I would be spending the Spanish part of my year in Extemadura, this boy, who we’ll call Charles, had a very strong opinion to declare. He raised his already up-turned nose a further two centimetres and loudly scoffed ‘That’s the ugliest of the Spanish regions, it has a bland landscape of nothingness and its not worth visiting at all’.

Now this was a bit of a conversation killer for me as I was soon to be not only visiting, but living in this ‘bland region of nothingness’ for a whole eight months. I didn’t bother asking, as I should have, just what evidence or experience qualified him to make that statement, instead I turned to focus on eating my garlicky chicken and wallow in self pity.

What Charles said went on to stay with me long after the garlic aftertaste that evening and I added his comment to my growing list of reasons to be anxious about my year abroad.

After living here for six months I can safely conclude that Charles was wrong. There are definitely more beautiful regions in Spain (the absence of a coastline is a bit of a downer) but Extremadura is still really, really beautiful. As I described in my previous posts about the waterfalls and cherry blossoms in Plasencia, the roman ruins in Merida, and the beautiful parts of my own town Zafra and nearby Badajoz. This region is actually really diverse, interesting and pretty. I am not sponsored by the local tourist board, but I have spent a lot of time in this part of the world and I now feel qualified to prove Charles, and anyone else wrong.

Yesterday for example I went for a hike with my friends and found fields and fields of wild poppies. The other beautiful thing is that the area is mostly untouched and sparsely populated, possibly due to Charles spreading his ill-informed message.

So, the moral of this story: DON’T trust men with ponytails and DON’T write off places before you visit for yourself. I hope you’re having a wonderful weekend!

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Monday musings #11

Believe it or not, when I’m not travelling or sunbathing I’m actually working here in Spain as an English language assistant. Last week I helped in a class based on pronunciation. The teacher rightly told the students that they can get by in England with a Spanish accent but they need to pronounce words more or less correctly in order to be understood. In English there are so many words that sound similar but can give completely different meanings so it’s important that the difference can be heard. There’s a ridiculous amount of these words if you think about it and for those learning English these words sound mostly identical, causing all kinds of confusion. For example, bird, beer, bar and bear all sound the same to many Spanish students. English is a lot tougher than we realize.

So my job for the day was chief enunciator (or something), I had to read out lists of subtly different words and the students had to repeat after me. So there I was slowly repeating perk, park, peak, pick, peck and puck doing my best to emphasize the difference in sound. The students struggled so much with differentiating between park and puck so I repeated them with excessive emphasis paaaarrrk and puuuuuuck so many times that I sounded like I’d developed a speech impediment. After the 34th time I’m fairly sure the students pretended that they heard a difference between the two, to save hearing my drawn out vowel sounds for a minute longer.

We then moved on to ‘notoriously difficult words for Spanish speakers to pronounce’. This mainly consisted of the ‘sh’ sound in words like procession and a personal favourite, the adjective social. I had to repeat the word so many times that after a while I was struggling with the different ‘s’ sounds as much as the kids. They try to say sho-ssial and after the 50th attempt I was starting to mix up the sounds myself. Disastrous. I’ll probably never be able to say it normally again.

To make matters worse the teacher enforced silence (a rare phenomenon in Spanish schools) so that the students could listen intently to my pronunciation. I felt the responsibility of exemplifying correct pronunciation because I am effectively the only access most of them have to natively spoken English. It didn’t help that the teacher gave a long lecture about how I speak ‘standard’ English because I am from Surrey and it’s important for the students to copy exactly what I say. Under all this pressure I definitely crumbled and some questionable examples of correct English were given.

What I have concluded from this experience is that a) when standing in front of 30 pairs of expectant eyes it becomes difficult to function normally b) English is really very difficult and I am eternally grateful that its my mother tongue and not a language I have to learn.

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Cádiz

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The Easter holidays are just one week long in Spain; as opposed to two at home (or five if you go to university!) but the time off was much needed and much appreciated nevertheless. I spent four highly relaxing days in Cádiz where I lazily flitted between the beach, the park and the town square, taking time to read my book and sunbathe. This has actually been my first Easter break without revision in about six years and it was quite blissful.

Cádiz is smaller than I expected and very easy to walk around. It reminded me of Manhattan, New York for the sole reason that its surrounded by water and the streets are in a grid formation. Its beautiful because you can get lost amongst the shops and bars then glance to the right and catch a glimpse of the turquoise ocean.

I spent most of my time being a lady of leisure, listening to podcasts, sleeping and eating frozen yogurt… However when I did get my camera out I captured these snapshots of the seaside scenery.

Cadiz2Cadizcadiz3IMG_0592IMG_0642IMG_0555It was a little sad not to be at home for the holidays, but these beautiful views certainly made up for missing the family Easter egg hunt… For now though its back to another eight weeks or so of teaching Spanish teens. I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone and I know I’m going to miss all this sunshine and traveling next year, so I’ll be enjoying every last second of the next few weeks. Happy Easter weekend!

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Madrid

Cybele Palace (City Hall)

This weekend I finally made the trip to Spain’s capital city! I’ve technically been to Madrid airport during a flight stopover, but that definitely doesn’t count as visiting Madrid for real, so this was my first time and I was really looking forward to it.

I got a 5 hour bus from my sleepy town to the big city. 5 hours may sound like a long time but I’ve become quite used to bus trips now, and it’s cheap, and I listened to a really good podcast (Serial, I’d highly recommend it) so it was a pretty good journey.

Madrid is a big place and with only two days I obviously couldn’t see everything. However, the centre is quite compact and with Emmy (my friend and Madrid expert) by my side, I managed to see a lot in just one weekend.

Puerta del Sol

Puerta del Sol

Puerta de Alcalá

Puerta de Alcalá

Palacio Real de Madrid

Palacio Real de Madrid

Parque del Buen Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

Parque del Buen Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro

The temperature was about 23 degrees celsius and it was gloriously sunny so we had a great time wandering around, stopping frequently for frozen yogurt – my favourite. On this visit we made the most of the weather and stayed outside, however I’d love to go back and explore some of Madrid’s many museums and galleries (El Prado in particular) so a return trip is definitely on the cards…

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Half way

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It’s incredible to say that I’ve passed the halfway point of both my time in Spain and my year abroad as a whole. All in all, although of some individual days and weeks do drag (lessons with 15 year olds often feel like lifetimes of pain), it has gone really quickly. Over the past few months I’ve established myself as a private English tutor, I’ve become familiar with plumbing vocabulary and I’ve finally adapted to Spanish mealtimes. I have built solid friendships with the eight other language assistants here and I’ve made plenty of Spanish friends too. Bizarrely, one of my closest Spanish connections is a seventeen year-old student with whom I’ve bonded over a shared interest in Harry Potter and One Direction. My other closest connections are fellow teachers (mostly middle-aged) and my language-exchange partner Maria (aged 35), with whom I enjoy weekly cups of tea and life discussions. It seems that I have bypassed integration with people of my actual age and so the whole Spanish party lifestyle has alluded me so far. I’m very happy though and I always feel like my head is simultaneously younger and older than my 20 years anyway. Having said that, just last week I made a new friend – a 22 year old local girl called Ana, she invited me out with her friends and we were chatting in a smokey bar until 2.30am. Perhaps my granny lifestyle may be set to change after all!

In September I was really terrified to come here and the whole first term flew by in a blur of settling in and mild panic. I got through any moments of sadness with the thought of Christmas and my impending flight home. Luckily, since returning in January everything has seemed much more familiar and relaxing. I’m now witnessing lighter evenings, easier conversations and I’m enjoying everything a whole lot more. I’ve got through January and I’ve started planning trips for the remainder of my time here, I’m off to Madrid next weekend, Morocco the week after – it’s all going far too quickly.

Now though, for memory and comedy’s sake, let’s reflect on my lowest moments:

  1. Tripping over and falling flat on my face in front of a group of students whilst on an afternoon jog. Knee severely grazed and pride dented.
  2. The power cut in out apartment on cold November morning, which lead to icy showers and a day without internet (tragic).
  3. Getting stranded on a broken down bus and watching in dispair as fellow passengers were, one-by-one, rescued by family/friends with cars. I had to wait for three hours with the driver and a few other abandoned folk, I cried silently and felt very abroad and alone.

However, as bad as these experiences felt at the time, they’re hardly terrible. I’ve had so much fun, so much sunshine and I’ve visited so many beautiful places. These can be summarized in the picture montage above.

Here’s to the rest of my time in Spain and thank you (once again) for following my year so far.

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The Portuguese Palace

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The second stop on our Sintra trip was to the Parque e Palacio da Pena. Yes you’re Portuguese is fantastic – that’s the Park and Palace of Pena.

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To reach the palace we had to get to the top of a very steep hill. This would have been about an hour’s walk, which wasn’t too appealing on a chilly afternoon so we considered other modes of transport. There was a bus, but at 5 euros it seemed a bit pricey. We then discovered that there were TukTuks travelling up for the very same price and, well, it was an easy decision – it’s not every day that you can hop in a TukTuk…

Riding in a six-seater TukTuk up a steep, cobbled hill on a windy sunday afternoon was my highlight of 2015 so far. It was terrifying, hilarious fun and the fact that our driver insisted on turning around and chatting rather than watching the road only added to the adrenaline-fuled excitement.

Pena sits on the top of a hill and is a considered one of the greatest expressions of 19th century Romanticism. Built by King Ferdinand II, the palace is colourful, ornate and an intentional mixture architectural styles. Basically it looks like a disney castle, it’s stunning.

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So, a TukTuk ride up, exploration of a magical castle, TukTuk ride down. It was an unforgettable day spent with lovely people and I couldn’t have been happier. Thanks to my lovely friend Helena for traveling with me (and for some of the photos!), you’re the best. You can read more about our adventures exploring Lisbon here, or Sintra part one hereUntitled