Wisconsin Engineer Around the World

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Bonjour Paris - April 2nd, 2014

After taking several RyanAir flights these past few weeks, I have come to realize the brilliance of its operation and how they still are able to make money with such cheap flight tickets. For those unfamiliar with RyanAir, it is an airline in Europe that offers the cheapest flights by far. For me, from Madrid to Brussels it was around 30 euro, Madrid to London was closer to 35, and Valencia to Paris was about 20.

It’s absurdly cheap comparing to almost any flight from city to city in the States. However, there are some stipulations. Everything extra you want to purchase is expensive; a fee if you don’t print your ticket ahead of time, charges for any checked bags, a fee if you want to reserve what seats you want, and another for flight insurance. They also try to sell you everything and anything on the flight, from very expensive food and drinks to Dolci and Gabana perfumes. The brilliance that I see, however, is where exactly their flights go to and from. Every airport I flew into wasn’t a major airport. In London, the airport wasn’t Heathrow; it was Stansted, an hour by bus from downtown. In Paris, the airport wasn’t Charles du Gaulle; it was Beauvais, another hour by bus from downtown. I would assume RyanAir does business with the bus companies and the airports themselves to give them more business. The owner of RyanAir recently said that in the next five years, he will be able to have a flight from New York to London for 20 euro. That may just be his ego speaking, but it’s cool to think how much that would change the world and the way Americans could vacation or do business overseas with ease.

And now on to my final adventure of this ridiculous series of traveling! I am glad to be done with trying to get a taste of a city and see all its attractions in a weekend. The final destination was Paris with my sister and before arriving, I had a few concerns. I always heard from people that in Paris, people tended to only speak French and so it was necessary to learn a few French phrases ahead of time. I also heard how the people in Paris can be rude and unaccommodating because they deal with tourists all the time. Considering neither my sister nor I learned any French, I quickly tried to memorize a few key phrases on the plane ride over. “Ou sont les toilettes?” “Je ne parle pas francais.” I was worried, but luckily we ended up having no problems at all and I only had to use the phrases once or twice.

It’s always interesting to me how the pronunciation of words differs from language to language. While trying to learn a few phrases from the French phrase book my sister brought and from my friends who speak French who study in Valencia, I quickly realized how poorly my intuition of the French language was. First, at the end of most French words with an “s” at the end, you don’t pronounce the “s” at all. Why do they use the letter? Could it be similar to how we put “e” at the end of some words? Also, at least in the once case I came across it, the “y” in French sounds like a “z.” In general, I always thought there were too many letters that weren’t pronounced in each word, but everything is always compared to the native tongue. I’m sure so many words in English seem strange the way we pronounce them to people who speak different languages. I’m not a linguist, but after being abroad for some time, it is becoming more and more of an appealing topic of study.

My sister and I arrived in the crowded and bustling city of Paris and started by venturing over to the Notre Dame cathedral. Now I believe I have seen the two most gorgeous cathedrals that I will ever see in my life – La Segrada Familia in Barcelona, and now, Notre Dame. While La Segrada Familia has a modernistic style, Notre Dame was the best representation of a Gothic masterpiece I have seen. Even though it says “silence” on the signs upon entering, the beauty was enough keep me from making a sound. Having the classic Gothic architecture, it gives an awesome, yet gloomy atmosphere and it became even more somber when we walked in and heard a choir singing in Latin during Mass. I could almost feel the tradition and the history that the cathedral has lived through.

My worries of the culture and language barrier were literally shattered after we had our first dinner in Paris. The waitress realized right away that we weren’t from France and spoke excellent English to us and went out of her way to tell us everything that we should do in Paris with great enthusiasm! Everywhere we went people spoke English and were extremely kind and helpful – I began to wonder where the stereotype came from and why people were so concerned about my lack of French skills.

A recommendation from one of my French friends studying in Valencia was to go to a venue that looked like a cave and listen to a live jazz or funk band that they have play every night. It was so cool and once again, all the songs were sung in English and thereafter, the singer would talk to the crowd in French! I guess that style of music was invented in the States, but again, it blows my mind how the majority of music I hear abroad is in English.

Every restaurant or shop we visited in Paris was extremely expensive which was the only down-side to the trip. The food was absolutely amazing, though, so I guess you pay for what you get. Fortunately, the tourist destinations were inexpensive or free. All were in walking distance too, but far enough apart to make us extremely tired by the end of the day! We started off the next day at the Eiffel Tower, walked up it, walked to the Arc de Triumph, down the street that is dubbed the most expensive street in the world for all its fancy shop, through the gardens to the Louvre, and finally over to Notre Dame again. The Eiffel Tower was amazing! Walking up it was neat to see all the structural elements and see how the elevator moved up along the curve of the tower, unlike most elevators. Of course, looking at a picture of the Tower, you can see how beautiful the monument is, but up close observing how it is just a bunch of metal bars carefully pieced together, one can appreciate more the engineering behind a structure that is symbolic of a city and country. Then, when we returned to the tower at night, every hour the tower would shimmer with spectacular twinkling lights! I had no idea this happened and so was surprised and awestruck when the lights turned on.

The next day, we went to the Louvre early in the morning to beat the line and see the Mona Lisa and other ancient artwork. Maybe it is because I am not an artist or don’t know the entire history of the Mona Lisa, but I never really understood how it became so famous. Of course the famous artist Leonardo da Vinci painted it, but to me there are a lot of other portraits that seem more realistic or artistic. Don’t be mistaken, though, it is well worth seeing and a great painting! I enjoyed the other parts of the Louvre as well and the building itself, where the kings of France resided in the past, is gorgeous! There was an area with paintings about the French revolution which was great to see and jog my memory of the fascinating and gruesome history I learned in high school.

Later, we visited Sacre Coeur which is another breathtaking church in Paris. It sits atop one of the higher points in Paris and provides a beautiful view of the entire city. The Roman Byzantine style of the Basilica is also quite incredible and differs greatly from Notre Dame or La Segrada Familia. The area around the Basilica was also a lot different from the other parts of Paris we had seen. Thin, cute, cobblestone streets winded around rows of Parisian houses and led to a plaza with busy restaurants and waiters dressed like the Parisian waiters depicted in movies. In the plaza there were painters everywhere selling paintings of the classic monuments or asking if anyone would like their portrait done. While this area in general may have been constructed as a tourist trap, it was neat to see something so expected given how American culture has interpreted Paris.

From there, we departed and when I arrived in Valencia, I was so happy to finally be done traveling. The past three weeks have been exhausting and to be back in my foreign home was such a great feeling. Hasta luego!


London Calling - March 24th, 2014

And now for another adventure! Again with my good friend from UW-Madison, we traveled this weekend to London. After two weekends in a row with a Valencian festival in between, I feel exhausted, and the traveling isn’t even over. Right as my friend left yesterday, my sister arrived, and this upcoming weekend we will travel to Paris. As much as I love traveling and seeing the world, it really drains all the energy out of you!

It was actually a bit odd traveling to a place where I could expect a fluid English response if I asked anyone a question. For once, my Spanish switch was completely turned off (given that during last weeks’ travels my mind told me to speak in Spanish since the population spoke a language other than English). To be honest though, sometimes when English people spoke to me, I had to take a second and decipher exactly what they said. Some of the terms that are used in England are much different than what is said in the United States! I think the first thing I noticed when we got on the Underground, London’s metro system, was when the announcement would say “Mind the gap between the train and the platform” at every stop. I can’t think of any other examples right now from the trip, but I have a friend from England who is studying in Valencia with me who, after both of us taking a test, asked me, “How did you find the test?” and “Did you revise your notes much for it?” Given our relationship and the way I like to joke around, I responded, “Well, the professor handed me the test and there it was! I found it!” and “No I thought my notes were sufficient, I didn’t need to revise them.” Of course, I knew the English English to American English translation was something like “How did the test go?” and “Did you review your notes much?” but in the end, I find it very interesting how different even people who speak the same language can speak.

Returning to “minding the gap” on the Underground, the subway system in London is absolutely brilliant. It seemed that literally every part of the city was connected – there was absolutely no need at all for anyone to have a car in the city. My friend and I took the metro many times and we didn’t wait for more than five minutes for any train to arrive and in addition to that, there was no attraction that we wished to visit that was more than five minutes from an Underground station. I couldn’t believe it! They say that London’s subway system is the best in the world and as far as I have seen, its expectation is met.

Upon arrival, we found our hostel and a kind Irish man opened the door and greeted us with a “Charlie! Welcome! But here, ya know, we call him the Duffman.” I was so taken aback I had no idea what to say! I guess since he had my name on the guest list and he was expecting me around that time, he knew who I was, but what a nice guy. The service at our hostel was amazing, even though it wasn’t the nicest place ever. It really has been interesting staying at these hostels – all extremely different, but I have never had a bad experience.

We were very hungry when we arrived and planned to seek out a classic English pub for a classic English meal. It was very late when we got there, around 11:00PM, but we thought nothing of it since in Spain, 11:00PM is about the middle of dinner time and we figured food is typically always available somewhere. It turned out that first of all, our hostel was in an area where many Indian and Arab people lived and so there were not many classic English pubs around, and the ones we did find were actually closed! Apparently, there was a law in the United Kingdom that all restaurants or bars cannot serve alcohol past 11:00PM. The law was recently changed allowing places to buy a license to serve alcohol later, but still many restaurants and pubs have not yet bought that license and so tend to close at 11:00PM. So while we couldn’t enjoy a classic meal our first night there, we did find food at more of a take-out Indian restaurant.

The next day we cranked out all of the necessary touristy things in London. We saw Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, rode the Eye, saw the London Tower and the Tower Bridge. Okay, so now it’s time to discuss my favorite thing I seem to talk about in this blog… architecture! It becomes so difficult to highlight the differences between the architecture from city to city, especially since every city I have visited I can describe as beautiful, intricate, etc. London is just as unique and beautiful as any other city I have been to. Big Ben and Westminster Abbey right next door were my two favorites. I suppose most people have seen pictures of them, so I shouldn’t need to describe too much, but in person they are truly awesome. Another time, I could have sat there and stared for hours. The way that the sun shined on Big Ben made it look as if it was made of gold. What a monument to symbolize the city! What I also found very cool was while riding London’s Eye, there was a video showing the process of how they built and installed the giant Ferris wheel. As an engineer, this was very neat because I had always wondered how they managed to build such a massive structure over the river Thames. Truckloads of pieces of the Eye were brought over and assembled on the ground, and then a massive crane lifted it up and put it into place (to say the most basic version of what I saw in the video).

We did find time to eat in between exploring all the attractions, though. I had an Olde English pie which was a bowl of beef, gravy, and vegetables with mashed potatoes and then English ale. It was interesting that they serve ales cooler than room temperature, but not cold, and they also pump out the ale since it is apparently less bubbly compared to normal beer that pours with a consistent stream right out from the tap. At the pub, it was around 4:30PM when we started to eat and gradually more and more people started filling up the place until it was very full. The strange part was that nobody was eating any food! Everyone was just drinking, seemingly right after work since many men were in business attire. We couldn’t believe how early it was to start drinking beer at a pub! I suppose with the law I mentioned earlier, it might push up the time when people start, but I wondered when everyone ate food since it seemed as if they came right after work. This was especially strange coming from Spain, where people eat dinner so late and then thereafter might go to the bar at midnight and stay a while. Later at night I ate some sausage and mash at a different pub which turned out to be another fantastic English meal.

The next morning we left the hostel and visited Abbey Road where the Beatles had their infamous picture walking across the street. Appropriately, my friend blasted “Here Comes the Sun” as we were sitting aside Abbey Studios as the sun came out from behind the clouds. It’s a weird feeling sometimes being in a place where someone so famous was years before. I don’t know why I am just commenting on this right now, as many of the places I have visited I also felt this feeling. I am a huge music fan and love the Beatles; for their music started a revolution in music. Thereafter, we headed to the Royal Palace, walked through Green and Regent Park, and flew out!

While I am not one to read the magazines and follow the royal family, it was interesting to hear the perspective of someone in London comment on it. We rode a tour bus to get around with ease from attraction to attraction and the various guides touched quite a bit on the royal family. As the government is really run by Parliament and the royal family doesn’t have much say at all in what the government does, the only real reason the institution continues to exist is to uphold tradition; and there is no illusion of this. The guide told us at times certain monuments that “the Queen had installed,” so despite not having ultimate say in the passage of laws as the monarchy had in the past, the family does maintain the well-being of the people, the city, and the country. The people love the tradition and would never want to change it. It’s like any other celebrity in the United States, but they are famous for a different reason. Just like many things in the United States and at UW-Madison, traditions are often not worth breaking. And with that, I’ll close with On Wisconsin! Cheers!


Las Fallas – A Valencian Celebration - March 20th, 2014

Now I will deviate away from the theme of my recent blog entries about other parts of Spain and Europe and describe an event I will never forget in my life, Fallas. This is an authentic Valencian tradition that has been celebrated for hundreds of years. Nothing in the United States is comparable and the fireworks beat out any I have seen on the Fourth of July – in person or even on TV in Times Square. The celebration is officially March 15th to March 19th, but the holiday can be anticipated as hints of it are seen beginning in March. The first thing I noticed was one day, I believe the first of March, a giant Ferris wheel showed up somewhat close to my house near Turia, the dried-up river converted into a park that runs through Valencia. Churro stands also seemed to pop up out of nowhere all over the city. I also saw groups of people in traditional Spanish clothing walking around playing instruments. Later on that day, I could hear loud fireworks being set off from afar around 2:00PM. I found out what I was hearing was called Mascleta, and it happens every day at 2:00PM at the Plaza de Ayuntamiento in the city center until Fallas is over. It is actually a competition between different pyrotechnic organizations to see who can make the best show and each Mascleta gets better and better until the final day of Fallas which is the best one.

The next day, my friends and I went to see them in person and it was incredible how many people were there to watch! The entire square was packed tight – to the extent that not everyone fit in the plaza and had to watch from streets leading up to it. Looking up and around, people who worked or lived in the plaza paused and crowded around windows or on their balconies anticipating the show. I was so curious to see what was about to happen, especially since it seemed strange to launch fireworks during the daytime. I quickly found out that these fireworks weren’t about the pretty lights; they were about the sound. “Mascleta,” in Spanish, actually is the word for the sound of the fireworks while “Castillo” is for the light part of fireworks.

While I couldn’t hear her speak, apparently the Fallera Mayor (the head falla girl) calls out from city hall “Mr. Pyrotechnic, you may commence the Mascleta!” in Valencian Spanish, and then the show begins. I have never been so close to such a huge firework show and have never heard such loud fireworks in my life! In the sky one could see the sharp flashes of light followed by a thunder. I could feel every sound in my chest. I think if passersby would have not known a celebration was going on, he or she might think a war was breaking out close-by. I found it crazy that so many people brought their small children to the Mascleta. It’s so loud I would think it would be dangerous for young ears. Then again, I would think it dangerous in general to be so close to the fireworks. In general, this whole celebration, Mascleta and la Crema I will discuss later, couldn’t happen in the United States. It would be considered far too unsafe.

As the official holiday approached, the city seemed to get antsy and each day, more fireworks could be heard in the street. Everywhere I went, I would hear an occasional pop or see both children and elderly people lighting them off. Finally, the first official day arrived and the actual Fallas could be seen all over the city in plazas and various intersections. A Falla is a giant structure made of cardboard, wood, Styrofoam, and paper-mache. They usually are formed to be people, animals, and objects and are painted appropriately. Artists spend months making them and they always look very cartoony. Usually there is a theme for every Falla that is oftentimes satirical and comments on something that happened in the past year. I saw Fallas with Lionel Messi, Barack Obama, Spiderman, Minions, and the one closest to my house, a donkey jumping through an ice cream bar on top of a refrigerator. I thought at first there would only be maybe ten or so, but it was actually impossible to count how many there were! I don’t think I came even close to seeing all of them.

Some neighborhoods have bigger Fallas and also decorate the streets a lot more than others. The biggest Falla is always in the Plaza de Ayuntamiento, where the Mascleta takes place, and this year it was a giant Zeus or Greek-god figure sitting on a chair on top of a stack of books. Everywhere in the streets hang lines of Valencian flags and have lights overhead as well, but one neighborhood in particular, Ruzafa, was decorated much more than the others. There was a massive light structure that looked like a building which was programmed to do a light show! Classic music played including Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen and the lights flashed to the music. It was brilliant in more ways than one. It reminded me of the house with Christmas lights that was programmed to flash lights to Christmas Canon by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, except much much better. You could walk under and through the light structure where many churro stands and street venders sold food or Valencian souvenirs too. Each night of the official celebration at 1:00AM, there is a huge firework show and the night before the final day, La Nit del Foc on March 18th, there is the biggest firework display which was absolutely incredible. There were some really cool ones that changed color, smiley face fireworks, and some that are really indescribable. Each night we would go close to Turia to watch, and thereafter, dance in the street in one of the many intersections with a Falla hosting a DJ.

On March 17th and 18th there was a parade a bit after Mascleta where men, women, girls, and boys, all dressed in the same traditional Spanish garb as I had seen before, some playing instruments, others riding horses, went with flowers to the Plaza de la Virgen. The parade was called L’Ofrena de Flors which means the offering of flowers. The offering is to the Virgin Mary and a giant statue of her made of flowers is in the Plaza de la Virgen where the people put all the flowers upon arriving at the plaza. Wow, the plaza was incredible! I first could not believe that the massive statue of Mary was actually made of flowers and then to close ones eyes and breathe in the air filled with the smell of flowers was amazing.

There was another parade with a much different ambience on the last day at 7:00PM called la Cabalgata del Fuego, meaning the fire parade. Here, some people dressed as demons and danced around with giant sparklers or walked around on stilts with creepy masks on. There were bands too but playing a bit more dark music compared to the music before. Big floats that depicted fire-breathing creatures could be seen along with people dressed in cult-like red robes carrying fire in some way. It seemed symbolic of what was going to happen next; la Crema – the burning of all the Fallas.

Finally, the time came where the fiesta had to end, but of course it had to end in an incredible way. At midnight on March 19th (or I suppose 00:00 on March 20th) the burning of the Fallas began and so we hurried from Falla to Falla to try to see as many burning as possible. They always begin with a series of fireworks and then go up in flames. To me it was a bit creepy to see the cartoon faces smiling as they burned, but I liked it all nonetheless. It got extremely hot and people gradually would back up as the Falla burned. Luckily, there were firemen close-by to control the fire in case any fire got out of hand, but as I said before, there is no way this would be allowed in the United States, in my opinion. Some of the Fallas were so close to buildings, I got worried for peoples’ apartments in case something on their porch was to catch fire.

The reason this whole tradition started is said to be because at the end of winter, people had a lot of broken artifacts and leftover firewood that they saved to burn to keep warm. To celebrate the spring coming, they would burn all of it on one day. This became more and more trendy and people started making the fire bigger and turned the day into a holiday. Later, with the church influence and the date being close to another Christian celebration, the festival of Saint Joseph, the holidays were combined. As the tradition evolved even more, the structures to be burned took on shapes and eventually became the Fallas as we know them today in Valencia. Some other areas in Spain have somewhat similar traditions of burning structures around this time, but in Valencia the celebration is the largest by far and dubbed a regional holiday.

And so it ended, people returned to their homes and continued living their lives the next day. I actually couldn’t believe how quickly everything was cleaned up the next day! The remnants of the Fallas couldn’t be seen anywhere. It was as if nothing had even happened the week before. The celebration of Las Fallas was a very unique experience that I surely will never forget!


Crossing Borders: Brussels and Amsterdam - March 16th, 2014

For the first time this past weekend I left my foreign home for a completely new cultural experience – to Brussels, Belgium and Amsterdam, Netherlands. The main reason this weekend and then the next two are filled with long travels is because my good friend from UW-Madison is visiting and then my sister will be flying in the day he flies out. The travel plans for this trip were a bit complicated to ensure we saved the most money and luckily all worked out without any trains or flights missed! Odds would have said traveling from Valencia to Madrid by train to meet my friend, Madrid to Brussels by plane, Brussels to Amsterdam by train, Amsterdam to Eindhoven by train to catch a flight from Eindhoven to Alicante, and finally a train from Alicante back to Valencia would have given us a problem at least once but we lucked out.

When I was younger, I traveled to Italy with my family which was the first time I was in a country where I really spoke none of the language, but my parents took care of most of the communicating and navigating while there. When I arrived in Brussels and saw French all around me, it was a bit intimidating and I realized I really had to work hard to ensure I was communicating effectively with the population. Fortunately, most people spoke a good amount of English. I feel so blessed to have grown up in a country where the main language is more or less the “world’s language.” After so long being in a country where I had to speak Spanish, it was strange going back to only English. It was a bit funny though, because since I was in a foreign country and people spoke a foreign language to me, my mind naturally wanted to speak my foreign language, Spanish, to the people. After a few mishaps, I reverted back to only speaking English.

Brussels was a very cool city and I hope to return! Vendors sold waffles on the cobblestone streets, restaurants sold some of the best beers in the world, and the architecture was incredible. When we first arrived, we went to a restaurant called Poechenellekelder which was decorated with old mannequins and toys. It was also close to the famous fountain with the statue of a little boy urinating. A matching one of a girl urinating was fairly close by as well – it’s interesting how something so small and silly becomes famous around the world. At the restaurant, we had a Belgian pasta kind of dish and a beer. What I found remarkable (and this can be said about every place we visited in Brussels) was not just how vast the list of beers they offered was, but also that the waiter or waitress knew much about each one and then served it in the distinct glass of the brewery it was made. They seem to take it very seriously – as if the beer was meant to go in the specific glass or that it would be an insult to the brewer to serve it in any different glass.

As we arrived in the later evening, we saved most of the city exploration for the following day, but after our dinner we found a famous bar that apparently set the world record for the most beers on tap. There happened to be a concert going on and it was interesting that only one of the four bands we saw sang in a language other than English. I knew from experience that American music dominates all others in that Europeans listen to mostly American music but I didn’t realize this extended to European bands typically singing in English. I find it peculiar as well how the foreign accent becomes lost when singing in English. It may be that they try to mimic the sound of American musicians as they are popular in Europe, but to me it’s fascinating how I actually would have guessed some of the bands’ origins being American. I remember a few times on campus, I would be close to a group of Spanish students having a conversation and then out of nowhere, one would start singing in English – my favorite example being while studying, two students were having an intense conversation about a project and then, all of a sudden, one started singing “Can you feel the love tonight?” It was hard not to burst out laughing!

Returning from my tangent, the next day we did more exploring of the city. The thin cobblestone streets gave a lot of character to the city, but the highlight that I made me fall in love with the city was the main plaza. I cannot begin to describe how beautiful it was. The main building had an enormous tower with intricate designs carved into it with golden highlights but every building surrounding had a similar theme. One could slowly turn around and around admiring its brilliance for hours.

Next we hopped on a train to Amsterdam; another very unique city. There is really nothing like it but if trying to compare, I would say it is a mix between Brussels, Venice, and Las Vegas. The buildings throughout the city were gorgeous alongside the many canals. Although most canals are not used as a main source of transportation, they give the city a quaint, homey feel. The main way of transportation, actually, was biking! I don’t think I have seen so many people, young and old, biking in my life. I thought at first that Madison was a biker-friendly city, and then Valencia topped Madison, but Amsterdam is on a whole different level.

The combination of the city buildings, canals, bikes, and then the weather, language, and culture actually gave me a bit of a culture shock. This was funny to me since in Spain, I didn’t seem to get any culture shock. It just didn’t seem to me that the way of life could possibly be considered normal for anyone. The weather was very cloudy but without rain and so the lighting outside stayed the same from sunrise until sunset, making it seem as if time was standing still. Again, luckily, everyone spoke English which was nice and seemingly necessary as the Netherlands is situated between countries that speak many different languages. While I am familiar with the sounds of German, French, and then the Scandinavian languages, Dutch was very unique and seemed to be a mix of all three and then English as a fourth. I guess it makes sense given the geography as previously mentioned.

The culture, specifically what was considered acceptable in Amsterdam, surprised me the most. Of course I had heard of the red light district and how marijuana was legal there, but seeing it was very strange. Seemingly everywhere there were coffee shops that didn’t sell coffee. I actually really wanted a coffee and breakfast in the morning and had troubles finding one that didn’t have a smoky haze inside. Then while wandering around, we stumbled upon the red light district which was inconceivable. I had never seen any prostitute before but it made me sad to see how it worked – girls in doors soliciting themselves as men walked by and gawked at them. Surely everyone has to pay the bills, but in my mind there is always some other way than that. It seemed ironic how a cute city like Amsterdam had these two factors legalized. I suppose it brings in tourism, but I think the city already is unique and attractive enough to bring people to it.

Another few examples of the influence of American music came up in Amsterdam. The place we stayed was right above a bar that had DJs who only played my favorite type of hip hop music from the States. This was surprising to me since the music I listen to is unknown to most people. The bartender recommended we go to a venue that turned out to be an old church converted into a dance club. It just so happened that the music being played there was all funk, soul, older hip hop and 90s classics – the Jackson 5, Temptations, Destiny’s Child, N’SYNC, etc. It was mind-boggling to think that I was in a different country when everyone was singing along and freaking out as much as I was whenever a classic favorite came on, especially the UW-Madison classics like “Build Me Up, Buttercup,” “My Girl,” and “Swing Town.”

After a long day of traveling the next day, we made it back to Valencia where the incredible Las Fallas festival was now in full motion! More to come about this amazing holiday soon. Hasta pronto!


A Spontaneous Road Trip: Cuenca, Toledo, and Madrid - March 3rd, 2014

I have returned from one of the most spontaneous vacations I have ever been on! As someone who always tried to plan most everything to a T, especially when traveling, this trip was fun, unique, and successful. One of my Dutch friends was in the mood for a road trip and I was more than happy to join, especially because the goal was to find some smaller destinations in Spain to go to for the weekend. He asked me two days before the planned departure date… talk about spontaneous. As Toledo was known to be a smaller city able to be seen in a day or two, we chose there and then a city along the way called Cuenca along the way which was recommended to me by my dad’s friend. We then convinced some others and had enough to fill up two small cars. And off we went!

One of the coolest things we quickly noticed about our group was that with eight different people, we represented seven different countries: the United States, Finland, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Austria and Canada. As mentioned before, I love knowing people from all over and noticing some of the differences between their cultures. Students from certain countries tend to excel at English; others tend to be very goofy or optimistic; and most have very different food preferences.

Driving in Spain was certainly a unique experience. We were driving a Fiat 500 which is a very small car – only slightly larger than a Smartcar it seemed. It was a stick-shift, as are the majority of cars in Europe, which I prefer over automatic. Driving on the freeway sometimes difficult with such a small car and the wind sometimes slowed us down a lot. Trying to do the math in my head of how fast we were going, converting kilometers per hour was to miles per hour, was entertaining (as usually the same goes whenever I talk about the temperature to any of my friends in Europe). A real difficulty though was city driving in the four cities. Driving in Valencia, Toledo and Madrid were similar in that roundabouts surprisingly didn’t have lanes labeled. I couldn’t believe it! How could everyone stay organized in a smooth pattern without distinct lanes? It seemed to be a free-for-all and you really had to watch the other cars carefully. Another strange thing, for example, was that sometimes to turn left, you had to merge off to the right slightly, redirect the car and wait for a light – hard to explain in plain text, but it was strange. In Cuenca, the streets were very narrow and so there were many one-ways and also a lot of hills which made it fun driving with our small stick-shift car. Freeway driving was easy but there were fewer gas stations available at the exits compared to the United States which was challenging at times. I always enjoy comparing things to the way the States does things, and in general, was pleasantly surprised that for the most part, the driving system was similar.

Getting to the actual trip itself, the way there was nice to see the Spanish landscape. The colors around us were shades of brown and yellow with occasional green patches. It reflected what I was told in that it doesn’t rain often in Spain; at least in central Spain. The terrain was also very mountainous and I guess I could compare it to Wyoming, but it was still very different. I began to realize why the Spanish economy had some problems. Farming in these conditions would be hard and there didn’t seem to be many populated areas besides the large cities. A diverse and spread-out population has the opportunity to succeed in more trades than concentrated populations in small areas. Once in a while we would see a small, compact city out of nowhere, but as much as I wanted to explore every one, we had to get to Cuenca.

Cuenca was a very small city integrated into a beautiful, mountainous area. In all directions was a beautiful view – the landscape in one direction, mountains and a valley in the other. What also made the trip extra spontaneous was that we didn’t reserve any hostels beforehand. I thought this was crazy, but my European friends guaranteed me that everything would be alright. And sure enough, when we arrived, my friends walked into the first hostel they found and got three rooms for the eight of us! The place’s main function was a restaurant owned by a sweet couple but they also had many rooms upstairs. This was not a typical hostel either with bunks, strangers in the room, no sheets or towels, and poor cleanliness. To me, the room would compare to a four-star hotel in the States and the ambience was old-fashioned and cozy.

After we checked in, we walked up and down the hilly streets all over the city. The city itself felt cozy too and every little passageway led to a spectacular view or a nice plaza with a beautiful church. Some of the buildings seemed poorly constructed – on a tilt or having weird soffits jutting out in places. However, the real tourist attraction that Cuenca is known for are the Casas Colgadas which are houses built on the edge of a cliff! We saw those the next day after a nice dinner and night at the hostel. They were remarkable and I couldn’t believe the engineer who thought it was a good idea to build houses there, yet I give the engineer a pat on the back for making them so that they have stood for so long!

Before we left for Toledo, my flatmate in Valencia recommended we check out a close-by place called La Ciudad Encantada (The Enchanted City). I had no idea what to expect of it but we drove there and the road kept going up and up. The weather was foggy and a bit rainy too, so though it might have been a beautiful view off the sides of the roads, but we couldn’t see anything. And then, we went so far up that there was actually snow on the ground! We were unprepared for this kind of weather and so once we arrived in La Ciudad Encantada, we only stayed for twenty minutes – leaving with sopping wet clothes and shoes. The city itself wasn’t a city at all, actually. There were these massive rocks worn down by weather that made it seem like there were streets and giant rock buildings. And there was one rock that looked like a cone standing on its nose! It’s amazing what Mother Nature can do sometimes.

The next (and what we thought would be final) destination was Toledo. Toledo was an amazing city. It’s fairly big but the main central part is walled off with narrow cobblestone streets, small shops and restaurants, plazas, and beautiful medieval architecture. With the city keeping its tradition, not only was the architecture medieval, but many restaurants, shops, and our hostel, for example, were themed medieval as well. I haven’t seen so many places to buy actual swords, shields, and chainmail (and also wondered who would actually buy any)! Toledo is also famous for inventing mazapan (word in Spanish), a sweet almond pastry that melts in your mouth, and I certainly had my share while there.

We had no idea prior, but Toledo was having a big carnival the day that we got there. Everyone, old and young, was dressed up in costumes and out and about in the city. Of course we came without a costume, but we managed to find our own in a store a bit later – I dressed as Zorro. After arriving, since there was a festival going on, it was a bit more complicated finding a place to stay. We checked place after place but finally found one in the city center that happened to be close to a plaza that had a big concert at night. It was a fun experience going to a concert that was in a foreign language and seeing how the people danced and sang. It must have been a popular band because people knew the words to most songs!

The next day we explored the city and one of my favorite parts was going to the famous medieval bridge there. It was massive! To this day it baffles me how people built the huge structures in the past without the technology we have. Ironically, a modern, boring bridge was very close to the medieval one and it really put in perspective the care and appreciation for beautiful architecture people had in the past. Yes, there is certainly modern architecture that is attractive, but it appears to only occur sporadically.

After realizing we wouldn’t be able to make it back to Valencia in time to return the cars, we called the car company and they said we could extend the contract if we made it to their office in Madrid before the time we were supposed to return them. So, surprise! We got to go to Madrid too! After adding one day to our contract, we explored Madrid for a while. Madrid was the closest thing to a big American city that I have seen so far. The city was very crowded with people and with the skyscrapers, street vendors, and a big park, it reminded me a bit of New York City. The great differences between the cities are the plazas and style of buildings. Having initially been given the choice between studying abroad in Valencia or Madrid, I am very glad I chose Valencia because it seems to provide more Spanish culture than serving as a big business-run city. I could be mistaken but I love my city. In Madrid, we visited the Plaza Mayor, Plaza de España, Puerto del Sol, and the Palace before getting dinner and heading back to Valencia. All were neat places and very big compared to the plazas and buildings I have seen elsewhere in Spain. All had an extremely different kind of architecture too; using more white marble and stone with Roman style columns.

After a four hour drive, we finally made it back to Valencia successfully. It was a great adventure and I’m glad I was able to see three very unique Spanish cities. So for now, adios!


The First Excursion: Barcelona - February 17th, 2014

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This past weekend I survived my first trip away from Valencia just a few hours north, in Barcelona. It was quite an adventure for many reasons. I had never planned out a trip on my own (besides planning my travels to Valencia to study, but I consider that much different) and so being the leader on a vacation was very new to me. I have traveled a lot in my life, but typically on family vacations my dad was always the master planner and I was able to just go with the flow. Despite being new to the backpacking life, Barcelona turned out to be a major success, although there was a shaky start.

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Of course, being the novice traveler, we ALMOST missed our train. I travelled with three other Americans and we got to the train station (Valencia-Nord) 45 minutes before our train was supposed to leave and so it seemed we were all set. To print the pre-paid tickets, we had to use a machine and type in a code which I had written down. The only problem was that the machine that we were supposed to use looked exactly the same as a different machine that was for purchasing tickets the day of! ‘Well, no worries,’ I thought, ‘I’ll just wait and ask the man at the counter.’ So after 20 minutes waiting to ask the man at the counter, he pointed me in the right direction of the machine. Then we walked down to a different section of the train station (what I thought to be Valencia-Joaquin Sorolla; where our train was supposed to leave from) but it actually turned out it was the location of the bus to take us to Valencia-Joaquin Sorolla which was a five minute bus ride… and our train was supposed to leave in ten minutes. The bus driver doubted we would catch the train and so I asked him if we should run instead and he just shrugged. We were really stressing right about now. We chose to stick with the bus though since at the time we didn’t know how long it would take for the bus to get there. So we jumped off the bus right as it stopped and sprinted to the train, making it aboard about three minutes before it started to move. Thank goodness!

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The first thing I noticed in Barcelona was that the language was Catalan. I should note that in Valencia, there is also another language (or more a dialect) that many people speak called Valenciano, except the main language is still Castellon (Spanish). However in Barcelona, almost everything was in Catalan. People still spoke both languages though so it wasn’t an issue to communicate with people when asking for directions or ordering food. It’s very interesting to me that a place only three hours away spoke a language so different! I could pick up some words of general phrases when I read them, but it really is a different language. It is surprising especially comparing to the United States, where people speak with different accents and have slightly different words for different things, but coast to coast you can understand almost everyone.

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The second thing I noticed was how touristy the city is. Walking down the main street, La Rambla, close to our hostel, more people spoke English than Spanish (or Catalan) from what I could hear. The street was consistently packed, even though we arrived on a Thursday. There were many people everywhere trying to sell things, handing out flyers for bars or clubs, tours, etc. I didn’t like this aspect of Barcelona, but the sights were so amazing; no wonder it is such a big tourist city.

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We first ate some delicious paella and then checked into our hostel. The hostel was completely different than I had expected. Since I had never stayed in a hostel, I expected something very dirty having a giant room with many beds, and it being very loud, uncomfortable, and solely a cheap place to sleep. The hostel we stayed in was very clean and even came with complimentary breakfasts and a dinner at a nearby restaurant. The room had six beds, bunk style with a pillow included but no sheets, and there was a bathroom in the room as well. It ended up being the four of us and two other random guys who were very nice. Overall, the experience was much better than expected for a great price.

We set off to explore the city. First, walking up La Rambla, stopping in the market which was full of colorful fruits and a large assortment of chocolate I couldn’t help but indulge in, then seeing the Arc de Triomphe (Barcelona’s version, but there seems to be an Arc de Triomphe in many different cities which I didn’t know) and thereafter walking through a nice park. The next day we really were able to see the city since there wasn’t much daylight left when we had arrived. I really loved exploring and getting lost in the thin streets in the Barri Gotic neighborhood of Barcelona. The streets were medieval-like and all looked the same. I could only guess the direction I was going and then sometimes reach a dead-end without a clue where to go next. The streets were beautiful though with plants, laundry, and flags dangling from balconies and many different colors of buildings everywhere. Then sometimes out of nowhere, we would stumble upon a beautiful cathedral or plaza. It was nice to get away from the tourists here for a while, only to meet them again when we arrived at the major sights.

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As I mentioned, the tourist attractions were attractions for a reason and while I hate standing out as an American tourist, I quickly became lost in wonder and amazement in the next places we visited. I should say that the day (and the next day, for that matter) was mainly dedicated to seeing the works of Antoni Gaudi. The first was the Segrada Familia. It was a cathedral that from a distance looked as if it was melting away in the sun. Moving a bit closer, it also looked to be composed of bones like the skeleton of a building. And even closer, it seemed impossible, but it was almost one continuous sculpture of difference scenes. It was so intricately carved into the building that from a distance it really does look like the building is melting with so many curved faces and bodies protruding. It would have taken days to look and analyze each and every sculpture-scene to see what was happening. While others may not have thought this, I found it fun to try to imagine what Gaudi was thinking in the design of this cathedral – how did he conceive the flow of all these scenes and why did he choose the ones he did? And then we went inside. Wow – the combination of the pale stone with the roman columns, more intricate sculptures, and a breathtaking design on the ceiling seemed to silence the room. The most amazing part though was the stained glass. The colors were so vivid and they were placed on the east and west walls so that there was consistent beautifully-colored light shining in as the sun changed position (or being the engineer I am I should say the earth rotated).

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Thereafter, we hiked up a ways to another Gaudi masterpiece, the Park Guell. This park is most commonly known for an amazing view of the entire city with a winding, colorful, tiled bench that you might have seen in a movie or two as well as two houses – one looking like a gingerbread house and the other like a small castle you would see in Candyland. However, there was much much more to this park. There was a combination of the beautiful, colored tiling and stone stacked in different shapes even one area that when you walked through it, it felt like walking through the tunnel of a stone wave crashing down. One thing I really liked was a fountain that was a colorful, tiled lizard that spit water from its mouth. There was also a hike up to a stone cross where there was a 360 degree view of the city. Quite remarkable.

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I’ll jump ahead to the next day to keep all of the Gaudi masterpiece descriptions together. The last and most incredible building (in my opinion) was the Casa Batllo. This was one of a few houses that Gaudi designed, in this case for a very wealthy family, the Batllos. Unfortunately I was unable to see the other houses, but I suppose if I do return, I now know exactly what I want to see. The casa on the outside had blue and green tiling and a rooftop that made it look like a house from a fairy tale in line with a bunch of normal shops. It seemed very out of place on the street, but upon entering, it was a whole different world and I quickly forgot about what was going on outside. There seemed to be no straight lines in the entire house. Everything was flowing into something else and it almost felt like I was in an underwater mansion. The ceiling in some rooms looked like it was made of sand and one had a large spiral with a chandelier in the center that looked like a shell or sea urchin. There was also a beautiful terrace with a garden, tiled sculptures and a tiled floor. It was my favorite place by far but it may also have been because in the audio recording we were listening to, giving the history of each part, the background music was my favorite classical piece, Clair de Lune by Debussy. However, the architecture I found to be the most fascinating and stunning was the covered inner courtyard where as you walked up the stairs, you could peer into other areas of the house through windows that spewed rich, yellow light. The entire courtyard was tiled blue from the bottom up which made for a nice contrast with the light and there were windows that if you looked through them, it seemed like you were looking underwater. Getting up to the roof, there was a great view of the city and then colorful, tiled chimneys seemed to be from a fairy tale. There was even a room on the roof that was meant to be a piece of art – it didn’t have any other function. The room had a ceiling that was hemispherical and there was a light shining down on a hemispherical, reflective fountain that bubbled small bits of water out continuously. The effect of the mirror, light, and water combination made it look like water was dripping down the walls and there was a speaker on the bubbling water which really made it feel like you were experiencing the artwork. And to think that someone actually lived in this place! I could not believe it.

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The works of Gaudi were beyond incredible. I think that coming from the United States especially; where it is rare to find a unique, artistically-designed building anywhere, one can really appreciate what he built. It really seems to be a whole game of perspective. He already lived in a place full of beautiful buildings and so to him he may have thought there needed to be more variety and beauty in the city. His passion took him to a whole new level of architecture. I really wish this mentality was more common in the United States – not necessarily that buildings should be as extravagant as Gaudi masterpieces, but they should at least try to bring some character to a city. Gaudi really seemed to love colors, and who doesn’t love bright colors? I feel like after visiting the cathedral, park, and house, I live in a world of black, white, and gray. The way Gaudi utilized light in so many ways too was very inspirational. As a mechanical engineer with a focus on energy systems, my mindset is to find ways to minimize the amount of energy needed. Also, since I appreciate art, I would like to make sure that whatever I design or build should look nice and fit in well with the environment. So I suppose I have a new role-model!

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That night we went to see the Magic Fountain of Montjuic. Although I have not yet seen the fountains in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, I think this show was similar. There was music accompanying and the water and colored lights changed with the music. It was a great, relaxing way to end the day.

The last day, we had enough time to see the Picasso museum and the Port Olímpic. I found the Picasso museum very interesting because I had only known Picasso for his obscure, distorted later works of art but in the museum, many of his earlier pieces were there and were good, but more normal-looking. The museum arranged his artwork chronologically and so as time passed, we saw how more and more abstract his paintings became. In my mind, it almost seemed like he was losing his mind little by little, but I really like his contorted paintings! They are fun to look at, ponder and thereafter guess the title, realizing you were very wrong from what Picasso was trying to convey. He did a very interesting interpretation of Las Meninas by Velasquez with distorted bodies and faces. I felt that he did it for a reason and each distortion was supposed to say something about the personality of the character in the painting.

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I could really go on and on about the trip to Barcelona, as I did leave some things out, but I highlighted the most important things to me and this is already a much longer post than the others! Perhaps I will return and have some more things to say about the city. In the end, I was very content with my first trip outside of Valencia and am extremely excited to go on more trips! Hasta luego!


Initial Thoughts of my Foreign Home - February 10th, 2014

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At last! I am settled in to my new apartment in Valencia, classes have started, and I have been able to explore a little bit of the city. At first I was slightly nervous for most things – living with foreign roommates, not being able to understand the professors when they spoke Spanish, and getting lost in the city – but so far I have adapted well and things couldn’t be better.

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The first day I moved in to the apartment, my roommates decided to have a welcome and farewell lunch since the two girls whose rooms we were taking (my good friend from UW-Madison is living in the same apartment as me) were still there. When we signed the apartment, we met everyone very briefly, but sitting down and chatting at lunch made it clear to me that we were all going to get along very well. I live with a guy from Costa Rica who has lived in Spain for quite a while now, a girl from Germany, a girl from France, and my American friend. All speak a bit of English, but speaking Spanish is the rule of the apartment so I’m glad I will be forced to practice my Spanish! In some of my other friends’ flats, it’s only Erasmus students living together and they speak mostly English to each other so I’m very happy with my choice. I was surprised that even the first day we had lunch and chatted for hours, my I understood most everything and communicated very well. The roommates were also surprised at how well we could communicate because they were used to past roommates who took at least a month to really get it down.

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The apartment itself is a simple apartment on the 15th floor but has great balcony with a view of the city and the stadium, Mestalla, where the soccer team, Valencia CF, plays. But even better, only one floor up is the rooftop and you can walk around and see the entire city! You can see La Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias, La Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, the Mediterranean Sea, and the mountains. It’s absolutely breathtaking and I’m very excited to host some barbeques with all my friends when it gets a bit warmer.

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The apartment is located in a district where mostly students live, and there is the main road called Blasco de Ibañez. All along the street and side streets there are restaurants, shops, markets, and then apartments above most of them. I think what I love most about the street (and this may be common on other streets but I haven’t gotten to explore everywhere yet) is the mini-parks with small playgrounds, workout devices (and I say devices simply because I don’t want to call them machines), small caged soccer fields, and basketball courts integrated everywhere. I have already played multiple soccer games on the courts – a much better start to an athletic semester than the last. It’s great how the city really seems to encourage the people to get outside and exercise. No matter what, there is some way to exercise close-by, so the excuse “oh it’s too far to go to the gym… I’ll go tomorrow” is never valid.

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Along with that is the brilliance of public transportation in Valencia. There is the metro which is the subway that connects just about everywhere and is fairly inexpensive, the bus which connects everywhere in between the metro stops, again fairly inexpensive, and the best thing of all, Valenbisi. Valenbisi is the same system that Madison uses and calls B-Cycle; where you can swipe a card, enter a code, take a bike and ride it to any other station to dock the bike; but there are many more Valenbisi stations per square mile than there are in Madison. The best part is an unlimited, yearly pass for Valenbisi is only about $35; and what better way to see the whole city than to bike somewhere, dock it, walk around a bit, and then bike to another destination? Also, and this is the most surprising part to me coming from Madison, Valencia is more bike-friendly than Madison and a much bigger city. There are bike lanes on most streets, but instead of having a bike lane in the street, the sidewalks are much larger and the bike lane is on the sidewalk, painted a different color. Sadly, since cars dominate every other mode of transportation in the United States, it seems roads are always being expanded instead of sidewalks. This is where Europe really trumps the United States. All the major cities (and some smaller cities in between) are connected by train and similar systems of public transportation are used in each major city. Having an American way of thinking, I always felt that cars allowed for so much more freedom of transportation. I could never have been so wrong! While, yes, you may be able to drive very very close to your final destination (and hopefully find close parking), you also have to be focused on the road, you have a greater risk of being in an accident, you can’t be as productive on-the-go, and you pollute the environment far more than public transportation. So far, I have never had difficulty using the combination of the public transportation systems in Valencia and there has never been anywhere that seemed off-limits because of it. Maybe in the United States we’ll see a day where we have transportation like Europe, but I highly doubt it.

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School, on the other hand, at least with respect to finding and organizing class schedules, is a little bit more unorganized than in the States. While I initially thought I had my schedule well-thought-out months ago, I realized I would have to change a few things around because they finally gave us access to view the times of classes a week before they started. And in addition to that, they officially accepted us into the classes the second week of school, and I ended up getting rejected from one I really wanted to take. So there I was again, searching and searching to see what classes would match up with classes back at UW-Madison and actually work with a schedule. I love UW-Madison’s system of entering all the possible classes you want to take, and then it spitting out magically all the possible options (with break times included if you want to add them)! It seems a simple program like that would be applied to all schools around the world, but at UPV, the location of the class description, class times, class building, and class location were all in different spots. It might be that I was just an international student not used to the system, but I thought it would be a little bit easier than that. When I told my parents about my troubles, they laughed since back when they went to school, they didn’t even sign up for classes online! Oh, how technology has changed things.

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I do like the University itself though! It is fairly large (about five blocks by two blocks), walled, and rectangular in shape. There is a long main strip that students walk on and there are many sculptures, statues, and other types of art scattered around the whole campus. On campus, there are many cafes, workout facilities, a student union, libraries, and even a salon. The campus buildings are organized by school and have different colors to label each building and type. So while very different from UW-Madison, I like UPV a lot. My time here in Valencia seems to have just begun but already I’m loving my new home!

More to come on classes and my first trip away from Valencia! Adios!


Erasmus and the Language Program - February 2nd, 2014

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Today I am officially moving into my apartment in Valencia, finally! Living out of a suitcase more or less for two weeks is not the most ideal situation for me, but these past two weeks have been such an experience, it really didn’t bother me much at all. Through the intensive language program in Gandia, I met many friends from all over the world and I learned a bit more about the Spanish culture.

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Despite having class, the time spent in Gandia reminded me a lot of welcome week freshman year at UW-Madison. I remember how unique welcome week was and thought I would never experience anything like it again – a bunch of people from all over the US (and now in this case from all over Europe) who had never met thrown together and forced to interact. Everyone gets a fresh start to express who they are, and in a weird way, everyone sort of gets to choose their new friends. It’s natural for humans to judge by appearance and retreat to familiarity and so it was interesting to see how everyone interacted at the events that were planned for us. Groups of people from the same country or people with similar styles of clothing tended to stick together at first but then after some time once a bit of familiarity was established, the groups started to mingle more and more and at the end of it all, it really became one giant group of friends. I loved meeting everyone and got to learn a bit about their home countries – Germany, Sweden, Turkey, Canada, Norway, Holland, Finland, Italy, and more. I found it interesting that when all international students speak with each other, unless it’s two students who speak the same language, English is always the language to speak in. Almost all of the students speak very good English and are always happy to practice their English with an American so I can help correct phrases or teach them more common terms. Then, sometimes, they would teach me a phrase or two in their own language which was very cool! I really underestimated I guess how English is the universal language which I suppose is good and bad for Americans. Yes, we can communicate fairly effectively with people all over the world, but then also, we don’t take time to learn other languages to help guarantee the effectiveness of our communication and understand other cultures.

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After getting to know everyone fairly well and talking at the outings, there was one thing that stood out to me that I was very surprised and quite bothered by. It seemed that a great amount of the students, specifically many of the German students, knew much more about the United States’ government and foreign policy than any average American student (myself included). In the US – and while this may be a generalization, I believe it to be extremely accurate – students never would discuss politics at a social event and the majority of students don’t even take time to learn about what is actually going on in their own government, let alone any other government in the rest of the world. Students rarely watch the news; it’s usually SportsCenter, MTV, Comedy Central, and the rest of the entertainment-based networks that dominate students’ interest. It may be the negative way the news is sometimes presented or simply publicity being dominated by the entertainment networks, but overall, something needs to be done to ignite the youth’s minds to start thinking and caring about the country they live in. After discussing universal health care, the NSA situation with domestic and international spying, and the wars in the Middle East, I really was awestruck how a young student knew so much about someone else’s country. Getting back to the trip, the group called the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) organized all of the activities for us throughout the whole week. Erasmus is essentially the study abroad organization for all Europe. At the universities, they call all abroad students “Erasmus students” just because there is really no other way to study abroad in Europe. ESN is a nonprofit organization that organizes activities and trips as well as offers deals and supplies for the Erasmus students. Even though I’m not technically an Erasmus student, I was able to participate in many activities in Gandia with all of the other abroad students.

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One of the first nights there was karaoke, and it was fun to see how the students’ accents disappeared when they sang and how they all knew so much American music. I had a lot of fun singing Backstreet Boys with a Swedish girl who knew the lyrics as well as me (which is surprising if you knew how much I loved the Backstreet Boys growing up). We had beach soccer and volleyball tournaments, and I think I proved that, yes indeed, an American can be a good soccer player! Other days included a how-to-make-paella lesson, salsa lessons (which I didn’t think was a Spanish tradition but was fun nonetheless), a hike to a ruined castle, and a historical tour of the city of Gandia. I liked the architecture and organization of Gandia. There were thin streets that seemed only to be pedestrian streets, but then cars would drive through on occasion making people scatter. Besides the streets, there was a sporadic plaza where there were always Spanish kids playing soccer or games like hide and go seek or ghost in the graveyard.

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I suppose I should highlight a bit of the intensive language course too. The first day we took a test to determine which level we would be placed in. Europe has a common way to determine your level for a language – A1, A2, B1, or B2, with A1 as the lowest and B2 as the highest. Despite my speaking and listening being only average, I was placed in B2 and was happy to see all the other Americans placed in that level too. I think in America, there is always such a push for reading, writing, and having proper sentence structure and grammar when learning Spanish, and so while the American students were definitely not the best at communicating, we already knew quite a bit about those areas. I was surprised that so many students came to Spain knowing next to nothing about the language and how to speak it! What I was also surprised about was how some students had minimal training in Spanish but were place in the B2 level and could communicate much more effectively than me. For example, an Italian girl had only taken a one-month crash-course in Spanish and was way better than me. I was jealous, but she said since Italian is very similar in sentence-structure and grammar to Italian, she really just had to learn a few new rules and many words as well. The course met every day from 9:30AM-2:00PM and the teacher we had taught us not only Spanish, but what fun things to do in Valencia, the different types of paella and other good food, and a bit about the culture and celebrations like Las Fallas. I was grateful that I had elected to do the course in Gandia as it gave me a warm-up to the semester in Valencia and I made so many friends who I’m sure I will have more great experiences with in Valencia.

Hasta luego!

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The Beginnings - January 20th, 2014

To begin, I suppose it would make the most sense to introduce myself. My name is Charlie Duff, I am a junior studying mechanical engineering and math originally from outside of Milwaukee. This semester, I am studying abroad in Valencia, Spain and wish to document my travels and experiences on this blog, especially with respect to the culture, schooling, and engineering topics such as architecture, energy use and trends, or anything else that I notice that catches my eye. I am traveling with three other UW-Madison students, a few other Americans from various universities, and some Erasmus (a general European study abroad program) students as well.

Today is my fourth day in Spain, but I shall start at the beginning; the day of my flight. Preparing for an experience such as this was interesting to say the least – months ahead applying to the program, the abroad university, and scholarships; arranging the passport, visa, health insurance, plane ticket, cell phone, etc.; packing, unpacking, repacking, and restarting the cycle; and then checking, double-checking, and triple-checking to make sure absolutely everything was set and I would not be stranded in any situation on I got myself into while abroad. All this was quite a chore, especially while taking challenging engineering classes at UW-Madison. So when the day of departure arrived, a whole slew of emotions and thoughts were going through my head – nervousness, great excitement, anxiety, awe, sadness, happiness, prepared, and extremely unprepared. Luckily, I am an adventurer so at the end of the day, I was ready for anything.

The flight was a flight, but it still blows my mind that humans have developed the technology to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in about eight hours. I arrived in Madrid in one of the coolest airports I have ever been in. The architecture was very modern with a wavy wood-slat roof and at the peak of each wave was a glass opening that let in light. A translucent cloud-like fabric hung a bit lower from the opening and also had solar panels with incorporated lights to light the area in the dark. The walls were completely glass letting in even more light and since we arrived at around 7:30AM, we were able to see the sunrise very clear – this definitely made up for how tired we were from the flight. Also, the concrete supports for the roof were at 45 degree angles and colored to look like a rainbow from one end of the airport to the other. Clearly Europe is a bit ahead of the game in the art of combining energy conservation and beauty, but the US is definitely improving.

Onto a bit more of the experience, we flew in to Valencia from Madrid, and then took the subway to a train station to take us to Gandia where our Spanish intensive language course was to be. The train station in Valencia was also a work of art but much less modern than the airport in Madrid. After arrival, we explored a bit of the city (which seemed to be a ghost-town as Gandia is a sort of summer vacation home city) and slept for a long, long time.

I shall move forward to the experience of finding housing in Valencia because this was the first time I was really forced to use my Spanish-speaking skills on the fly and attempt to understand it as well. Speaking with landlord after landlord became exhausting, or maybe it was just because we walked for about seven hours straight. Highlighting my failures (because that is always entertaining), the first was greeting the first woman-landlord. In Spain, for a man to greet a woman, there is an exchange of kisses on both cheeks. Despite being forewarned, I definitely messed that up. How much of a kiss are you supposed to give? Full lips to cheek? A kiss sound with just a brush of cheeks? Which cheek do you kiss first? It was strange… but after a few I think I got it down. My second failure was when a Spanish landlord called me and I attempted to speak and understand, but I realized about a second into the conversation how much harder it is to communicate without facial expressions, hand gestures, and clear speech – I honestly had almost no idea what was said in the conversation. Surely there will be more failures to come, but I am not one to stress over them and am more than willing to share, clearly.

After seeing many places, I was able to settle on one, but even though we walked in the same area for hours, I still was extremely disoriented on my location. It’s funny to see familiar things in different places unexpectedly – thinking you are in one place when really you are somewhere else. In the past this concerned me, but just knowing that I will indeed understand the map and become familiar with everything, I now smile and laugh at the process.

The last thing I will comment on in this post is the food and style of living I have experienced so far in Spain. As my intensive language professor commented today, there are really five meals in a day for Spaniards – breakfast around 8:30AM, small lunch at 11:30AM, big lunch at 2:00PM, snack and coffee at around 5:30 or 6:00PM, and then dinner at around 9:30 or 10:00PM. And between 3:00 or 4:00PM and 6:00PM is siesta – an incorporated nap in the day! Almost every business shuts down and the streets are dead. I think I could really get used to this laid-back lifestyle. It kind of baffles me how companies can make money with this large break in the day (and it is up to the company to re-open or not) but I suppose I will learn a bit about that in my Spanish Economy class I plan to take in Valencia.

I am sure some are familiar of the way tapas work, but it really is a brilliant way to eat. Ordering a number of different plates and splitting them all amongst people – again, I could get used to this. It works well especially if say you ordered something that sounded great but it turned out to be not-so-good. I think this should do it, though for this posting. It might be a bit long, but since all is so new, I must write a lot! Ciao for now!