A Travellerspoint blog

Segovia y Bilbao

The latest two cities I had the opportunity of exploring in Spain were Segovia and Bilbao. Segovia, a small town nowadays, lies in the mountains just north of the capital of Madrid at an elevation of 3,000 feet. At the turn of the 16th century, Segovia was a booming city during the infancy of the country of Spain, housing kings and queens at its famous Alcazar and was the location of Isabel's coronation as Queen of Castile in 1474, which united the Kingdom of Aragon with Castile essentially creating modern-day Spain. Bilbao, at the same time, serves as an important port city in the province of Basque Country in northern Spain. Close to 1 million people reside in or around the beautiful, green city of Bilbao, making it the fifth largest in Spain. This post is not meant to compare the two but intended only to inform and delve into my latest excursions here in Spain.

Segovia

Today, a meager 60,000 people inhabit Segovia, which had its best days following the Middle Ages when it served as a crucial trade route of cloth and textiles in Spain. As the Spanish Golden Era began to decline so did the prominence of Segovia, along with many other cities in the province of Castile, as a booming economic center. From 1574-1674, Segovia lost more than a third of its population.

However, Segovia's golden era facilitated the construction of several substantial works of Gothic architecture that I had the opportunity of visiting. But, it was the Romans who created Segovia's most well-known tourist attraction to date.

The Roman Aqueduct

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Constructed in the late first century (1 A.D.), the Romans utilized this magnificent structure to bring water to the high altitude city of Segovia when it was just a Roman legion. Today, it is simply a tourist attraction but is a perfect illustration, on one hand, of the complex Roman infrastructure that was created during the Roman Empire and also how scientifically intelligent the Romans were when they created their infrastructure. It is one of the most well preserved Roman aqueducts still in existence today spanning nearly 800 yards outward from the city center.

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El Alcázar

Another famous landmark found in Segovia is the Arab-influenced fortress known as El Alcázar. Originally built by the Muslims as a fort, it was converted into a Christian fortification following the Christian reconquista of Segovia starting at the beginning of the 12th century. It served as both a residence for monarchs and an important fortress for several centuries. However, as Segovia began to decline the monarchy eventually was moved just south to Madrid. On a side note, if you think El Alcázar slightly resembles the castle in Disney World you'd be correct. Before building his Cinderella Castle, Walt Disney and his architect sought inspiration mostly from El Alcázar and the German castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria.

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Overall, Segovia was a quaint, little touristy town with tons of history to go around. The city landscape is beautiful with the intersection of the aqueduct, the Cathedral domineering from the hilltop and the snow-covered mountains brightening the background of every sight. Here are some other sights that show Segovia's unique foothold in the mountains just north of Madrid:

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The Cathedral of Segovia as seen from El Alcázar

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The Cathedral is a prominent work of Gothic architecture

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Bilbao

The city of Bilbao lies eight miles inland from the Bay of Biscay situated around the estuary of Bilbao, the river system that has facilitated the industrialist-port that Bilbao is today. Bilbao certainly can be characterized as an oceanic climate as one is bombarded by the green pastures that blanket this region of Spain. The city rests in a river valley which creates beautiful sights of the surrounding, green foothills. After spending a short weekend there I was impressed by three things:
1. Modern Architecture
2. The Subway
3. The Rain

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Guggenheim

The most well- known sight in Bilbao is its famous contemporary art museum, the Guggenheim. This modern-architectural masterpiece houses some of the most famous art works of the 20th century and today. There are works by Picasso, Matisse, Miró and Dali as well as monthly exhibits of contemporary pieces or historical analysis. Also, there is a pop art room that houses one of Warhol's famous depictions of Marilyn Monroe. Spending an entire day in the museum would be easy as there are works from several different contemporary eras.

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Like in Catalonia, the people in Basque Country also speak a different language along with Spanish known Euskara. All the signs in Bilbao are first in Euskara then Spanish and then English. Honestly, I only heard the Euskara language maybe once as everyone was usually just speaking Spanish. Euskara is like nothing I have ever seen. It looks a bit like German but apparently no one really knows exactly where the language originates, some say Africa others say northern Europe.

Bilbao comes off as a very modern and industrial city; however, there is of course a historical part of the city known as Casco Viejo (Old Town). This part is reminiscent of all other Spanish 'old towns' but I enjoyed the dichotomy of seeing Guggenheim and the modern city during the day and then visiting the historical part at night. Bilbao has a certain charm to it. For some, it might be its beautiful green foothills or its Casco Viejo; but, for me it was the contemporary architecture and the modern feel of its newer parts.

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Hasta la proxima.
-Michael

Posted by topmillerm2 11:57 Comments (0)

La Semana Santa

As you know, Spain has been an extremely Catholic country for most of its history. However, for seven hundred years Muslims controlled the Iberian Peninsula which is probably a good reason why today Spain is so preoccupied with making Catholic holidays extremely extravagant. Of course, the two most important holidays in the Catholic calendar are Christmas and Easter. Obviously, I won't be able to experience the Christmas season here in Spain; however, I did get the opportunity to catch a glimpse of how Easter is celebrated here. La Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrates the week that Jesus was crucified, died and then rose from the dead. In Leon, there is a special celebration of Semana Santa famous throughout all of Spain. However, the city of Sevilla supposedly has the most spectacular celebration in all of Spain. Madrid and Barcelona, the most secular cities in Spain, don't have much of a celebration for this week; but, many other small cities and towns have a long tradition of celebrating Semana Santa.

Processions

Processions are the most important part of each of these types of celebrations. Basically, individuals carry enormous statues along different paths in the city with each path and statue symbolizing something important in the Catholic religion, and usually each procession ends at a church or the Cathedral.
During Semana Santa in Leon, there were usually 3 or 4 processions each night, lasting about an hour for each. However, there are really 5 important days during Semana Santa: Palm Sunday (when Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem 5 days before he was crucified), Holy Thursday (Jesus' Last Supper with his Apostles before getting arrested), Good Friday (the day Jesus was crucified), Holy Saturday (Jesus is in his tomb) and Easter Sunday (when Jesus rose from the dead). The processions on these days are the most important, especially Good Friday when there is a nine-hour procession starting in Leon's Plaza Mayor.
These statues are carried by 25-40 individuals because of their weight and each individual is wearing an important Catholic garment. Americans, at first, are usually alarmed by these garments because they were copied by the Ku Klux Klan. Also, each procession is organized by a different brotherhood, a Catholic group of lay people who help with various Catholic events throughout the year. Historically, these groups were strictly designed for men but today there are some brotherhoods that are co-ed. For example, my roommate is a member of a brotherhood and participated in one of these processions in his small town near Leon. One of my professors, as well, is in one and helped with several processions in Leon during Semana Santa. A lot of hard work, money and organization is put into these celebrations and it has been a tradition going on for many, many centuries despite the declining practice of Catholicism in Spain in the past decades.

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The Good Friday Celebration in Plaza Mayor that begins at 8am.

Posted by topmillerm2 08:18 Comments (1)

Galicia

The Northwest of Spain

The Spanish Province of Galicia lies west of the province of Castilla-Leon, where my city is located, and borders Portugal from the north. Historically, Galicia was its own Christian Kingdom, with its own language, from which the Portuguese language and Portugal originated. Today, the Galician language is still spoken in the province and basically is a hybrid of Spanish and Portuguese.

Our final excursion outside of Leon, involved a two day, one night trip to Galicia with a night in Santiago de Compostela. Our main focus was on the two cities of Santiago and A Coruña with other minor stops along the way. By bus, it took about four hours to arrive in Santiago and we arrived around 1 in the afternoon.

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Santiago de Compostela

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Like all the cities in Spain, the cathedral in Santiago is the center piece and one of the most architecturally-pleasing sights I've seen here in Spain. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered to be the burial place of St. James, the apostle of Jesus. Apparently, his remains were transported from Jerusalem to Santiago where he was buried. After the cathedral was completed in 1211, his remains were placed underneath the altar inside the cathedral. Starting during the Middle Ages as a result of St. James' remains migrating to Santiago, Christian pilgrims began migrating to Santiago from all parts of Europe. Over time, the routes that these pilgrims took became known as The Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago). The cathedral itself was built to account for the vast importance of St. James; these pictures only give a glimpse into how spectacular a sight the cathedral is.

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Don't worry, that's just wood painted gold

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View of Santiago from the rooftop of the cathedral

It would have taken me all day to capture each part of this grandiose cathedral. Aside from the main altar, there are at least 5-10 separate chapels which essentially are the size of a church. In the 19th century, the outside facade was restored to account for the deterioration over the centuries. The cathedral is surrounded by four huge plazas where city dwellers can stare in awe at its magnificence. The cathedral is the central part of the city of Santiago and is a huge tourist attraction for hundreds of thousands each year.

El Camino de Santiago

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There are hundreds of routes throughout Europe, stretching all the way to Russia, that are apart of the Camino. Part of the tradition at the cathedral in Santiago involves La Puerta Santa (The Holy Door), which only opens for pilgrims when July 25 falls on a Sunday (when this occurs it is called a Holy Year). Holy Years occur every 5 or 6 years (the last in 2010) which attract at least a hundred thousand more pilgrims that year.

Today, hundreds of thousands still take the pilgrimage to Santiago; in fact, a route of the Camino passes through my city of Leon. Often times, I see individuals pass through Leon with hiking gear who have stayed or are going to stay the night in Leon. I, myself, would like to do a small portion of the Camino during my time here for a weekend or so. There are plenty of routes just in Spain alone for the Camino.

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A sign for the Camino in Leon that I walk by every day. My route to class each day actually is a part of the Camino

Pilgrims obviously do plenty of hiking but most often times they sleep in small towns in which hostals exist solely for them. In Santiago, we stayed overnight in a hotel just like that. Outside my hotel window I could see a route of the Camino.

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The sign of the Camino (the Conch)

Fun fact: During the American Revolution, John Adams was asked to travel to Paris; however, his ship broke down off the coast of Galicia and he actually walked the Camino all the way to Paris from the northwest coast of Spain with his two sons.

Castro de Baroña

Sunday morning, we left Santiago and first traveled west to a small coastal region on the Atlantic Coast. Although it was spectacular to see Santiago and very interesting to learn about all the Catholic tradition surrounding that city and the Camino, I was so happy that we were able to see the coast in Galicia and learn about Castro culture, a civilization that predates the Roman presence in Galicia.

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The Castro de Baroña is an archaeological site that shows the ancient civilization of the Castro culture. It's known for its circular constructions and this particular one was built on the water to protect it from potential invaders. It was a different but beautiful sight that branched out from all the Catholic tradition that fills Spanish history.

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An example of the Galician language as well as the sign of the Camino. In Spanish, usually it says "Gracias por su visita"

A Coruña

Our final stop was to the northern, coastal town of A Coruña (Spaniards say La Coruña, in Galician they drop the "L"). We only had the late afternoon to visit a few places but the beach with the 21 (70) degree weather was amazing. Fun fact: The third richest person in the world, Amancio Ortego Gaona resides in A Coruña where he first started Zara, the famous Spanish clothing store.

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Amancio Ortego Gaona

Here, we visited La Torre de Hercules (The Tower of Hercules) which served as an important coastal lighthouse for thousands of years, dating back to the 2nd century. Obviously, it wasn't a lighthouse as we know today but a large fire was kept ablaze at the top of the tower to serve as a coastal marker for passing ships. It is the second tallest tower in Spain and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Lastly, we visited the beach and city center of A Coruña, the plaza mayor.

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Hast la proxima.
-Michael

Posted by topmillerm2 10:57 Comments (1)

Asturias-Covadonga

Part of my program here in Spain involves several different excursions within León as well as outside the city in places in the northwest of Spain. Last week, we traveled to the Spanish province of Asturias, the province just north of León, in the northern most part of Spain. Leaving León at 830 a.m., we visited several places throughout the day within Asturias and arrived back in León at 10 p.m. An important aspect underlying each of these excursions is the historical framework and background of each location (our guide is a history professor) and Asturias is extremely important in Spanish history.

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León is about 30 minutes south of the province of Asturias

Iglesia de Santa Cristina de Lena

Our first stop was a small town right off the highway known as Lena. Here we hiked to the top of a small hill to see La Iglesia de Santa Cristina de Lena, a Catholic church no bigger than a small house. Visiting this church was quite the contrast with the massive Cathedrals and Iglesias we had been visiting on other excursions. The church was built in 850, one hundred years since the Muslims had begun conquering the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, the size and simplicity of the church was due in large part to the lack of resources and money the Catholic church in Spain had during this time. As our guide pointed out, this church serves as a way to demonstrate the difference between the Christian kingdoms' prominence during and after Muslim rule. Obviously, this church shows how little resources the Church in Spain had in 850. The Muslim presence eliminated the Catholic Church's aid to this region for over 700 years.

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History

Asturias is considered to be the only part of the Iberian Peninsula that remained Christian throughout all of history. More importantly, however, Asturias was where the Reconquista began following the important Christian victory at Covadonga. The Muslims, of course, invaded Asturias but were never able to fully reach the northern coast or set up a stable presence in the region due in large part to the natural barrier, Picos de Europa. This beautiful mountain range within Asturias allowed Christian forces to combat the Muslims or hide away without being conquered. Naturally, fighting a war in the mountains is never conducive to winning and the Christians were able to capitalize on this fact.
The important battle of Covadonga in a northern portion of the Picos de Europa is believed to be the sight of the first Christian victory against the Muslims and thus initiated the Reconquista.

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Charles Martel's victory for Christianity in Tours in 732 is considered by most historians as the decisive battle that stopped Islam from spreading throughout Europe; but, the victory by Pelayo in 722 in Covadonga, Asturias is the Christian victory that stopped Islam from conquering the entire Iberian Peninsula. Even today, Asturias is considered to be the most authentic and pure Spanish region due in large part to the lack of Islamic influence in the region. It would take Christian forces over 700 years from Pelayo's victory to completely eradicate the Muslims; however, the Battle of Covadonga plays a huge part in Spanish history.

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Covadonga

As the legend goes, prior to his victory, Pelayo retreated to a small cave in Covadonga (today known as La Cueva de Santa Marina) where a hermit had hid a statue of the Virgin Mary. Pelayo apparently prayed to this statue for divine intervention and subsequently his forces defeated the Muslims at Covadonga. Today, there is a shrine at this cave to commemorate this historic divine intervention.

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La Cueva de Santa Marina

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Our Lady of Covadonga

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On a more historical basis, the Muslims were fighting on two fronts at this point and had devoted more troops to the front in France. In addition, the mountainous terrain of Covadonga allowed Christian forces to hide away and ambush the Muslim forces. In the end this sight is visited quite frequently as a crucial part of Spanish history and even Pope John Paul II visited the sight to bless the Lady of Covadonga during his Papal reign.

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Statue of Pelayo

And in 1886, a beautiful Cathedral was built to commemorate the importance of Covadonga. Today, the word Covadonga is used for many military units in the Spanish army and is also a very popular name for girls in Asturias.

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Picos de Europa

Traveling through Asturias, we immediately were confronted with these beautiful, snow-covered mountains. In fact, in the city of León you can actually see the southern most portion of this mountain range from a distance. However, once you drive through the region it's a completely different experience. I visited Yosemite National Park in California this past summer and was in awe of those mountains; and, the Picos de Europa produced the same surreal feeling. The following pictures won't do them any justice but enjoy!

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Costa Verde (Bay of Biscay)

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Hasta la proxima.
-Michael

Posted by topmillerm2 10:30 Comments (1)

Que Me Gusta y No Me Gusta

I have spent the last four weeks of my life in the splendid country of Spain, and as I reflect on this time I ponder the similarities and differences of where I come from and more importantly how much I've assimilated to the Spanish culture, customs and language. Certainly, when you go abroad, you are faced with several different decisions about how you are going to adapt to your new world. One response is to reject the new world completely, consequently creating a fervent desire for your homeland's customs and culture. Initially, this is the feeling caused by culture shock when first arriving in this new world and culture. However, some individuals can never get beyond this initial feeling either because they aren't abroad long enough or they are afraid to try to assimilate to the new world because the customs are too different. Other individuals experience the initial culture shock and in time adopt certain aspects from the new culture but always remain detached in some way from assimilating completely into the new culture. Next, other individuals overcome the initial culture shock and assimilate quickly into the culture but at the end of the day still need a small connection with their homeland. Lastly, fully assimilated individuals waste no time in their new world and assimilate completely. Most importantly, however, these individuals completely discard the customs and culture from their homeland and solely participate in the new culture's ways.
For me, I fall somewhere in the middle of these approaching more of the latter two categories. At the end of the day, I tend to resort back to different customs from where I come from. Linguistically, I usually return to my native English when I am alone in order to read the news or think. Complete assimilation would require me to discard English completely and without being fluent this becomes unattainable at this moment. Furthermore, what I cook at my apartment tends to be concoctions from my homeland solely for the reason that I don't know enough about Spanish cooking yet. However, I have assimilated to the hours in which food is eaten in Spain (2 or 2:30 for lunch, 9:30 or 10 for dinner). When I first arrived in Spain, I experienced the initial culture shock and felt overwhelmed with the situation I put myself in; however, after a week or two I had adjusted. And now after a month, I feel I am moving more and more towards the direction of complete assimilation and immersion. To accentuate this point, I've compiled a brief list of what I like and don't like after spending a month in Spain. Enjoy:

Que Me Gusta (What I Like)

1. Architecture

Europe is the cradle of history and Spain is certainly no exception. As someone who comes from a country whose history doesn't span more than 300 years, trying to fathom 2000+ years of history in Europe seems so daunting. Of course, one of the most influential forces in European history was Christianity, a force that has dotted the European map with thousands upon thousands of churches and cathedrals. And Spain is home to some of the most jaw-dropping cathedrals, each complete with its own unique and aesthetic features. Without a doubt, Spain is extremely Catholic and has been throughout history, but once you get beyond all the Catholic symbolism associated with the cathedrals and ignore that many of these immense cathedrals reek of money and slave labor, the architectural prowess really comes to light when you stand like an ant staring up at one. I've been outside of my city to a couple other smaller towns and the cathedrals still always dominate the cityscape. For me, one of the most pleasing sights is still to look up at Leon Cathedral, especially at night as the lights illuminates its grand presence and beautiful facade.

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Leon Cathedral at night

The beautiful architecture doesn't end here; however, Leon holds several other pleasing sights including the Casa de Botines, a masterful creation by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, San Isidoro Cathedral and Plaza San Marcos. In addition, Leon as well as other towns have that old time facade to their buildings and streets, a product of Spain's interest in preserving its history. And of course, Spain wouldn't be complete without its many castles and fortresses that are products of the wars that abound Spanish history.

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Casa de Botines

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Plaza de San Marcos

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Castillo de Montealegre

2. Tapear

This pre-meal socializing activity has become a favorite of mine. Instead of just eating an appetizer before your dinner, tapear (yes, it's a verb) involves drinking small amounts of alcohol alongside tapas (the actual appetizer). For me, it's such a great way to arrive at dinner. True tapear involves visiting several different bars who each have their own special tapas. Many times, tapas can just be meat and bread, but more palatable tapas consist of potato bits drenched in special garlic or cheese sauce, potato chips with ham and eggs, olives and peppers with seafood or chicken wings and small hamburgers. A good tapear session lasts close to two hours and gets you sufficiently primed for dinner.

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3. Dining

It's safe to say that the U.S. doesn't have a culture well-versed in fine dining, especially given the utilitarian design of its society. Spain, on the other hand, along with Italy understands the art of fine dining and I can't get enough. Here, lunch is the most important meal of the day and all restaurants go all out to make it feel that way. Typically, you pay a flat rate of 12 or 13 euros (no more than 20 euro) and receive your choice of two filling plates and a desert. In addition, you can order a full bottle of wine or a beer for the meal and if the conversation goes beyond that last drop of wine, don't hesitate to order another bottle for no extra charge. It's a process so enjoyable because the meal is an event to be enjoyed through and through not just to satiate your hunger. The second plate awaits your completion of the first whether it takes you 5 minutes or 25 minutes. It's a process of eating that is meant to be thoroughly enjoyed each step of the way. After my first dining experience in Spain after a week or so that I had been here, I concluded that this was my first meal in Spain, all ones before that moment didn't count.

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4. Wine and Bread

Both elements of dining, the wine and bread here in Spain is phenomenal. First, wine is a huge industry in Spain and a big export product. The northwest of Spain, itself, is known for its production of wine which in turn makes wine cheaper than milk here. Obviously, some wines are better than others but most of the Spanish wine I've had goes perfectly with the right meal. In addition, there is the bread. Shops called panaderias that specialize in making bread ("pan" is Spanish for bread) can be found on nearly every corner. There are several different varieties and shapes of the bread but its taste compliments nearly every meal. It's the perfect instrument to scoop up that last bit of food and the best partner to all the fine wine.

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5. Zumo de Naranja (Orange Juice)

Last but certainly not least, there is the orange juice. My palate was in heaven when I first tasted the orange juice here. Perhaps, it's a smaller amount of sugar that is used or its the quality of oranges themselves, but every taste seems like it was just squeezed. Fresh. Tasty. But only sold in 1 liter cartons. It's the best way to start the morning or just to quench your thirst. I just can't get enough of it.

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Que No Me Gusta (What I Don't Like)

1. Internet/Wifi

If the internet is something you have to fish out of the air, then you need a special net to catch anything in Spain. The wifi here is unbelievably patchy and unreliable. It's as bad as dial-up or 90s internet. At this point I haven't found a great way to alleviate this problem but I'm looking into finding something "high-speed," an adjective solely used to describe the Spanish language and absolutely nothing else in this culture. I suppose, part of the problem is that I live in a small city but some days I feel like I'm living a decade behind with the internet capability here.

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2. The Size of Things

Certainly, I had anticipated the size of things being drastically different from the grand American way but the size of things here sometimes just doesn't make sense. Cups are smaller as well as refrigerators, freezers and trash cans. The trash cans, for example, aren't taller than a two liter bottle so every three days it seems like you have to run to the dumpster and put a new garbage bag in; therefore, I don't think having a smaller trash can can really makes one less wasteful. In addition, smaller cups make dinner sometimes problematic because you have to keep getting up to get a refill. I'm the first to admit that I love to drink a lot of water during a meal, but in restaurants now I've trained myself to not drink as much. Right now, the cup size seems inconvenient but I will adjust.

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3. No Dryer

Yes, in true antiquated fashion, Spain doesn't use dryers. After washing my clothes, I have to hang my clothes on a clothesline or lay them out in my room. This custom, along with the size of the washer, has certainly made me reevaluate how much laundry is truly necessary. Honestly, I have only done two loads of laundry here, which might sound disgusting but evaluating what is "truly dirty" is a good lesson to learn. In the U.S., it's common to do some sort of laundry every three days or so. Forget that idea in Spain, given the space factor and the lack of a dryer, convenience is thrown out the door as learning how to re-wear clothes and reinvent outfits becomes essential. It seems dirty as first but at the end of the day two questions should be asked in terms of laundry: Are your clothes actually dirty? Why waste time doing laundry all day, every day?

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Yes, the washer is in the kitchen

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My all-natural dryer

4. Euro-change

As someone previously accustomed to just swiping a card to pay, the emergence of euro-change in my pockets has been met with my resistance. I hate change in America, but here they have even more with .01, .05, .10, .20, .50, 1 dollar and 2 dollar coins. When I pay with a euro bill and get a bunch of change back I feel like I've lost something. On the plus side; however, I do appreciate coins more now, and actually like the one and two dollar coins. Carrying all these coins around, though, still becomes a hassle.

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5. Leche

Milk will taste different anywhere you go in the world but unfortunately Spain's isn't a good taste. I enjoy a bowl of cereal every morning (along with that orange juice) but when I first tasted the milk here I thought I might have to reconsider this daily routine. However, once the flavor of the cereal mixes into the milk I can handle it, so I still partake in my daily cereal bowl. However, I might demand payment if I am asked to drink the milk here on its own.

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The Iron Curtain

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Fascist and communist puns aside, this gem came in at a close sixth in the "likes" column. My nickname for this retractable window shutter, it works wonders when trying to sleep during the daytime or when a streetlight blazes into your room at night (my apartment is right at streetlight level). My first experience with using the iron curtain resulted in me sleeping until 1 in the afternoon because daylight didn't exist. I woke up thinking it was like 9 a.m. and then was blinded by daylight when I opened the iron curtain. Nowadays, I always put it down right after I lay in bed making the room so dark you can't see your hand in front of your face. This gem works wonders.

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Hasta la proxima.
-Michael

Posted by topmillerm2 14:53 Comments (1)

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