Once Upon A Dream: Highlights of 2013

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Photo cred Sarah Capdeville

What a crazy year this has been.

From Barcelona to Berlin, Cesky Krumlov to Chester, Lisbon to Ljubljana, Marrakech to Mount Rainier, San Francisco to Sintra, and Venice to Vancouver, I’ve quite literally been all over the place these past twelve months.

My second-to-last semester of my undergraduate has come and gone, and now I find myself precipice of a new year, full with possibilities and uncertainties, and the prospects of many other exciting opportunities on the horizon. But, as it stands, there is nothing decisive yet about my future. And I’m not quite sure if I’m thrilled or scared out of my mind.

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Photo cred Brenda Seymour

But, seeing as it’s New Year’s Eve, the time of year when I tend to get overly intro- and retro-spective, I figured it’d be appropriate to enumerate (in no particular order) some of my favorite experiences of 2013, both abroad and otherwise. Some are singular moments, some are more all-encompassing experiences, but they all are experiences I shall never forget, ones I shall carry with me forever.

1) Sensory overload in Marrakech

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I have never before in my life seen or experienced anything like the Jemaa-el-Fnaa square at night in Marrakech, Morocco.

I couldn’t help raving about this experience in a blog post soon after my trip in late March. The energy of the square is electrifying, once the sun goes down, the food stands open, and street performers begin their various entertainments.

Just recollecting this sole evening we spent in Marrakech’s spectacular square excites me and quickens my heartbeat. I can hardly believe I had the opportunity to have an experience so extraordinary, especially one in the company of family.

2) Frolicking in the Swiss Alps

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The hills were truly alive, and I had the amazing opportunity to frolick and adventure about through them with a dear friend back in June.

Switzerland had been at the top of my list of countries to visit during my trip around Europe, and it still baffles me to say that it exceeded my expectations in every way.

We spent just two days in those “hills,” one on a ridge along a UNESCO-certified glacier, the other, in constant view of one of the world’s most iconic peaks, and it was easily one of the coolest adventures of my life, one I also detailed with great deserved enthusiasm in another blog post.

3) Standing on the Slopes of Teide

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We cable-car’ed up a volcano and stood and walked around at 11,000+ feet for an hour.

It may sound not that impressive, but this short, last-minute venture of ours was perhaps the highlight of our weekend trip to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. It was so surreal to stand on the rocky slopes and see nothing but a vastness of blue skies and dense cloud engulfing the tiny island below.

Even more than that, it was an incredible experience to share with two of my dearest friends from my study abroad experience in Granada. It was an unforgettable weekend, and hanging out at 11,000 feet nearly at the summit of the beloved Teide volcano was simply unreal.

4) Living with a host family

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I did it twice in Ecuador, and I knew from the moment I started contacting my Granada host family that I’d made the right choice to choose living in a homestay again.

I have never met more caring and loving people than my Argentinean host family in Granada. Those three were so good to me during my four and a half month stay, and from the minute I entered their home I felt welcome, loved, and safe.

Without them, my experience studying abroad in Granada would not have been the same. They treated me as their own daughter, as their true family, and I could not be more grateful.

Muchísimas gracias, Vero, Fer, y Alejo; les deseo un buenísimo año nuevo 🙂

5) Falling in love in Venice

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Venice is one of the most romantic cities I’ve ever been to, and I feel like I literally fell in love with that city. There was nothing I didn’t absolutely love about the tight, maze-like cobblestone roads running between crumbling buildings and alongside thin, scenic canals, the bustle of people in the patio restaurants and in flocks scattered about the Piazza San Marco and along the Grand Canal, and the beautiful colors of the fading old houses, especially those on the island of Burano.

And near the end of my very first evening in Venice, as I was trying to capture the picturesque sunset descending over the triumphant Grand Canal, I saw a little Italian girl who was strolling by with her grandparents, and asked her (in a jumble of rudimentary Italian and some English) to take my picture. She nodded, and like a pro, took several shots of me with a childish grin with the sunset behind me, including the one above.

I don’t believe I have ever felt such unbridled joy and infatuation for a city, as I did for Venice in those brief two and a half days. I cannot wait to go back.

6) Blueberry picking in Michelsneukirchen

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Of the three days I spent staying with a German friend of mine I’d met in Granada, perhaps my favorite experience was picking blueberries at sunset near her home in Bavaria.

I’d always enjoyed blackberry picking with my family as a child, so when her kind parents suggested we went blueberry picking my last night there, I jumped at the opportunity. It was such a relaxing evening, and made me realize even more just how lucky I was to have been able to stay and spend time with my friend and her family in their wonderful home.

It was a simple evening, but a fun and most memorable one, and I will forever be grateful for the hospitality and warmth of her family. And, of course, how yummy those blueberries tasted warmed over ice cream 🙂

7) High tea with family in London

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I loved everything about London. I would absolutely, 100%, live there one day. But, perhaps surprisingly, my favorite London moment was going for tea and lunch with my adorable British great aunts at the Goring Hotel right near Buckingham Palace.

In the two and a half days I spent exploring London, I felt like I saw everything; I walked by Westminster Abbey and Whitehall, saw Buckingham Palace, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, the Tower and the Tower Bridge, and I spent ample time gawking at artwork and other things at several of London’s prestigious museums. But the memory that I hold most dear to my heart was spending those few hours catching up with relatives I hadn’t seen in over ten years.

There was nothing quite so precious on my entire trip abroad than chatting and dining with those two, and I am beyond grateful and honored that they made the time to see their grand niece.

8) Seeing Firenze the right way

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My friends mean the world to me, and to have one of my dearest show me around her Florence for several days was such an incredible gesture.

I wasn’t even supposed to spend five whole days in Florence, but due to some necessary changes to my itinerary, I found myself on minute one in Florence, completely out of sorts, and in a hostel that ended up being the only poor one I would stay at in the entirety of my trip to Europe. But luckily my friend then got back to me that she would still be in Florence for another week or so at the tail end of her own study abroad venture there, and offered to show me around as much as she could during the time I was there!

I can’t imagine having a better experience in that city. It was the first city on my trip that I had arrived at feeling unmotivated and perhaps a little lonely and homesick for the first time, but thankfully my friend was there for me and we enjoyed an amazing few days together as she showed me around the best sites and the best local food joints, as well as a surprise trip to the beach on the coast at Cecina that I never would have been able to experience had it not been for her.

Grazie mille, bella 🙂

9) Hiking in the Mount Rainier wilderness

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Never forget the beauty and wonder you can find within your own home. Well, Mount Rainier isn’t exactly in Seattle, the place where I was raised, but it is the iconic and beloved peak of Washington state, and I had the opportunity to go on a brief hiking trip there with one of my best friends at the end of August.

The weather conditions weren’t exactly in our favor, and we were both struggling with the impeding stress of transitions from the summer back to real life at our respective universities, but in the end we persevered and were able to explore some of the gorgeous wilderness that the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier has to offer.

It was a wonderful bonding experience for the both of us, and it both challenged and excited us throughout its ups and downs.

10) Running the Color Run in Vancouver

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While my commitment to running has fluctuated between all-out obsessed and barely there at all, partaking in this event with some of my closest friends at the beginning of the school year was a great experience.

It was just one of those innocent, random, but exceedingly fun experiences realized in truly wonderful company that was a great way to kick off my fourth and final year of undergrad. It was simply a real good time (a rollicking good one, if you ask me), during which I had absolutely no inhibition nor qualms about being absolutely ridiculous and getting totally dirty (that is, covered in dyed powder).

In my 2013, there were plenty of ups and downs, unbelievable adventures, and difficult personal and family struggles, but in the end, when it came down to it, there was always somebody I could lean on, always somebody I could count on, always somebody I could share or celebrate my experiences with.

While I very much valued traveling for two months basically on my own, and while I’m very much a fan of alone time, there’s nothing quite like the company and comfort of loved ones, in any capacity. My favorite moments of 2013, many of which are not on this list but I still hold near and dear to my heart, were those which I spent and shared with others. 

So as these fireworks start to die out, as 2013 fades away and 2014 begins with a surge, let me just say: Happy New Year’s to all, and to all a good night.

SEA to SFO and Back

(Written 14 January 2012)

As I sat somewhat comfortably in my Economy Plus aisle seat this morning, waiting for the plane to take off, I wrote a little diary entry in commemoration of the journey on which I was about to embark:

Dear Consulate General of Spain in San Francisco:

Please take pity on me, a poor university student eager to obtain her long stay student visa PROMPTLY so she can get to Granada on time.

Yes, I bought my plane tickets already even though your website says I’m not supposed to. And yes, I do plan on getting there on the seventh of February so I can settle in and register for classes at UGR before they begin on February 11th.

So while I understand that processing these darn things generally takes four weeks, I only ask that you take pity on me, and that you make it happen SOONER than four weeks from now, if you please.

Sound good? K thanks.

Sincerely,

Raya Polyak

4:56am

So maybe there’s a reason professional letters or emails shouldn’t be written before five in the morning, especially after less than four hours of sleep…but hey, it ended up being a somewhat comical and ultimately reassuring start to my morning. It reminded me that, once I handed in all the documentation, there was nothing more I could do. The Spanish government will either approve or reject my visa application, and there is nothing I can do about it, other than wait and hope for the best.

Our plane pulled into our gate at SFO almost exactly at 7:20am, and of course I experienced the familiar feeling of anxiety as we all waited for the doors to open, for people to scramble to retrieve their luggage from the overhead compartments, and for them to file clumsily out of the plane, some but not all mustering a “thank you” or a “goodbye” to the flight attendants waiting outside the cockpit.

In a sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated stupor, I wandered around Terminal 3 until I found the airport train line connecting to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station.

The SFO BART station, around 7:30am

The SFO Terminal 3 station, around 7:45am

The BART Blue Line, Powell Street-bound (downtown)

The SFO Blue Line, connecting to Terminal G and BART trains.

With Mumford & Sons on repeat, I took the Blue Line to the BART station, from which I caught the East Bay/Powell Street Bound BART train to the Civic Center Station by the United Nations Plaza. From there, checking dutifully with Google Maps on my mom’s iPhone, I made my way towards the Spanish Consulate, enjoying both the crisp morning air and the marvel of being in a new place, a beautiful city I’d only driven through as a child.

I found the Consulate around 8:45, and, realizing that I should probably get more nourishment in my system than two lattes, stopped in the first cafe I could find. It was called the Pacific Plaza Cafe (if I remember correctly, I didn’t take any more pictures until after my visa appointment), and I had a simple ham and cheese omelette; it reminded me of the giant, scrumptious omelettes from my first year residence, providing me with comfort now that the nervousness preceding my visa appointment was setting in. I gathered myself, and instead of idling around in the cafe, I chose to check in at the Consulate early in the hopes of getting in for my appointment earlier than my 11:30 scheduled time.

My plan worked, and I was in and out by 11:15. The attendant looked through all my forms, circled a few things on some of the documents, said it should take about three weeks, and they’d send my my passport with the visa printed in it as soon as it returned from Spain. It was, quite literally, a piece of cake. Paid the visa fee, he gave me back the forms he didn’t need, and I was out of there. So much stress and anxiety for such a simple process. And now it’s done. Couldn’t be more relieved.

I knew I didn’t have to get back to the airport until around 4pm, and my parents had suggested I check out the Fisherman’s Wharf down by the water if I had time. Luckily, finding transit down there was remarkably simple and straightforward, and while it was no glorified Vancouver Translink bus system, the bus did come on time, and it was CHEAPER than a one-zone, single ticket in VanCity ($2 as opposed to $2.75).

The waterfront air was cool and breezier than the downtown air that morning, but it had warmed up by the time I got down there, making my little perusal of Fisherman’s Wharf that much more enjoyable. The term “beautiful day” is definitely overused, but it truly was a beautiful, cool but pleasantly sunny day in San Francisco.

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The “beach” just past the Fisherman’s Wharf, with the Golden Gate in the distance

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Walking out to this little stretch of a pier, hoping for a better glimpse of the Golden Gate

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Looking back on the beach from the pier

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The Golden Gate Bridge (from the pier), the first thing I used to picture when I thought of San Francisco

After rambling through a bit more of the Wharf, I headed down to Pier 39, an impressive two-storied complex of shops and restaurants upon the massive dock of a pier.

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Pier 39, from one of their designated “Picture Spots”

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The city from Pier 39

I skimmed the menus of the restaurants, hoping to determine the best quality clam chowder (in a sourdough bread bowl, of course; what could be more San Franciscan than that?), and peeked into a few stores, but was most entertained by the collection of docks in a little “harbour” to the northwest side of the pier.

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The sea lions of Pier 39…apparently they’re famous?

They were a lazy but noisy bunch, and every once and a while a several of them would feud over dock space…or perhaps in an argument over potential sea lion suitors? Maybe I’ve been watching too much Planet Earth.

And what capped off my brief but fun little San Franciscan adventure was Chowder’s white clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. So unbelievably filling, so unbelievably delicious. Couldn’t finish it, but still allowed myself a little digestion time before I began my journey back to the BART and then SFO.

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What a yummy way to end my adventure.

Not only was today a fun little solo-traveling experience, it also essentially marks the end of this grueling pre-study abroad process. It’s hard to believe that process started two Septembers ago. I have applied for my long stay student visa, which, when approved by the Spanish government, will allow me to fly to and then LIVE IN the enthralling city of Granada for the next five months. I’ve done almost everything I can do to make this trip happen. Now all I have to do is wait.

And while waiting for things like this to transpire is not one of my fortes, that is, waiting is not something I usually do without some anxiety or nervousness, I’m determined to be patient with myself, while I wait for the Consulate to mail my passport and visa back to me.

Patience. It was the word that came to mind when my current trainer Saiko asked me to come up with a word to focus on during one of our sessions last week. This is out of my hands now, all I can do is wait and let it be, not let it affect me and stress me out or cause me unnecessary anxiety. Everything will work out in the end. It always does. And I’m going to take comfort in that.