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.

Dreams, Thanks, and Other Things

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Photo cred Meghan Nolt

Six and a half months. Fourteen countries. Fifty cities. Countless memories.

It’s time to come home, Raya. 

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

***

As I sit here typing on my computer for the first time since I set off on my two-month European tour in June, I can’t help but wonder if all of this has been real. After all, several dreams came true for me this year.

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I studied abroad in Granada, Spain, and four-and-a-half months and a dozens of crazy adventures and fun times later, I came out fluent in Spanish, in love with the beauty and culture of that Andalusian gem of a city and the rest of Spain as a whole, and with a number of strong friendships I know will last for a while.

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I backpacked around Europe for two months, during which I saw, did, and experienced so many amazing things, and met, visited, and traveled with so many truly wonderful people.

And while the days were long, fun, exciting, and full, the time has gone by unnervingly fast. This dream I’ve been living is now coming to an end.

But that’s just how it goes, isn’t it? Life goes on, and so must we. And while at the moment I’m sad to leave and apprehensive and unsure of what to expect from my homecoming, I take so much comfort in the fact that I’m returning to an incredibly loving and positive home in Seattle and Vancouver.

It’s been a comfort that has stayed with me during my travels, especially during the past two months. As much as I was thrilled beyond belief to be living my dream of traveling around Europe, it was so nice to be reminded every once and a while of the fact that I had such a superb place and family and friends to come home to when the time came.

The following quote painted on the wall of this Madrid hostel, the last I’ll be staying in in Europe, says it all, and I couldn’t have found it at a better time:

There is much to explore, experience and discover on this planet, that you need to grasp the chance when it comes along as your true friends and family will still be here when you feel ready to return.

With these thoughts in mind, and gratitude in my heart for the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve shared them with, I will at long last undertake my return journey home.

As they say, don’t cry because it’s over, be happy because it happened. For when one adventure ends, another begins. And now that these dreams of mine have been realized, I get to go find a new dream.

It’s time to come home, Raya.

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***

There are so many people without whom the past six months would not have been possible, nor as amazing and as fulfilling as they were. Words cannot possible express how grateful I am for the following people, but nevertheless they are all most deserving of thanks, so here goes:

Mom, Dad, Madie, and the rest of my dear family, thank you for your unending support, love, and encouragement as I took on Europe and went through the ups and downs of living abroad and traveling solo.

Verónica, Fernando, y Alejo, muchísimas gracias por todo lo que me habéis dado y hecho para mí, siempre os guardaré en mi corazón como otra familia mía; sin vosotros, mi experiencia de intercambio en Granada no habría sido la misma.

The people I met and friends I made in Granada, especially Meg, Sarah, Lisa, Andrea, Maddy, and Ida Marie, thank you for all of the fun times, the memories, and for being there and helping me through some rough patches. I cannot wait until the next time our paths cross.

My friends back home and in Vancouver, thank you for making the effort to stay in touch with me during my long absence. Your support meant so much to me and all those texts, messages, Snap Chats, and Skype calls were such a delight to receive and I absolutely cannot wait to see you all so very soon.

Everyone I met up with, traveled with, and visited (Lauren, Gabo, Lena, Britta, Mika, Maddy, Andrea, and Chris), thank you for spending time with me and in some cases showing me around places you’d lived or were living in at the time, you have no idea how much your company meant to me and I am forever grateful for those times we spent and the memories we made.

And all those other lovely folks I met while on the road, especially you gals at the Stay Inn Lisbon Hostel and you Aussies, Canadians, and Americans at Olga’s Place in San Sebastián, thank you for saying hello, for having a chat with me, partying with me, going exploring with me, whatever it was, it was such a pleasure to meet you, if only for a night or a few days. Hope to see you again somewhere in the world!

Europe, thanks for everything. No es un adiós, sino un hasta luego. I know I’ll be seeing you again soon.

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Photo cred Britta Antonsen

A Stint in Slovakia

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The amazing thing about going somewhere you know next to nothing about, somewhere you have done little to no research on, a place where nobody you know has been, is that you have absolutely no idea what to expect; everything has the potential to surprise and awe you.

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My brief stint in Slovakia has so far been just that. Knowing so little about this place has made every little thing surprise and amaze me.

At first glance, Bratislava, where I’ll have stayed for only two nights, seems to be not much more than a grimy, grungy, and gritty capital city. The two Slovaks I’ve met at my hostel, both from Slovakia’s second largest and supposedly much prettier and more charming city, Kosice, both told me with some disdain that all there is to Bratislava is its old town and city center.

Well, I managed to explore both yesterday, along with the area between the city center and the main train station today, and, pleasantly enough, Bratislava has continued to surprise me.
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First of all, the city center, essentially the area surrounding and almost blending in to the once-walled old town, is quite nice and refreshingly charming compared to the more gritty industrial streets that appear on its periphery . This dynamic of charming versus modern and industrial reminds me a lot of Bern, as if Bratislava were the more rugged, less pristine and uniform cousin of the Swiss capital.

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There is also a lovely foliage-lined promenade just outside the old town, flanked by pedestrian streets lined with cafes and bars, a quieter area I really enjoyed exploring and photographing.

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It also displays one of the weirdest and most eclectic collections of street art I’ve probably ever seen.

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The eclecticism then is mixed with some grime and grit and, my favorite Instagram subject as of late, colors and colors galore, on the sides of the main bridge leading into the city.

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All in all, I feel my choice to come to Bratislava, despite the fact that it doesn’t have the most favorable reputation and is described by Lonely Planet as “lacking charm” and home to “no unmissable sites,” I’d venture to say that Bratislava is a unique and interesting place worth a stop on a trip to Slovakia.

I also managed to go to the nearby town of Trenčín (pronounced Tren-CHEEN) today. The only thing I’d read on Lonely Planet, which was corroborated by my Slovak hostelmates, was that the town is small, relatively charming, and has a medieval castle on a hill. Castle on a hill…well, that was enough for me, I guess.

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Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. After popping into the tourist office, I headed up to the castle, and the student price for the so-called “grand tour” was a mere €3.10; dirt cheap compared to other museums and other historical edifices I’ve visited.

Then, as it turns out, I was the only one to show up for the grand tour offered in English; for €3.10, I got a private and most interesting and entertaining tour of the Trenčín castle. My tour guide, a very friendly young woman with a Bachelor’s degree in politics, and a wealth of interesting information about the castle, wouldn’t even let me tip her at the end.

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She told me a ton of intriguing and several hilarious facts about the castle’s history, details about the various elite families who owned it and lived there, as well as information on where to view the second-century AD (or as we Classical Studies are accustomed to designating as CE, i.e. the Common Era) ROMAN INSCRIPTION, commissioned by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius to commemorate a Roman victory in Trenčínover hostile Germanic tribes. You go to this random hotel and you can view it from a second-story window engraved into the old castle wall.

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As a prospective Classical Studies major, I was delighted to learn about the role of Trenčín castle in Roman history, as small as it might have been.

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Just like I’m pleased I came to Bratislava, I was really happy with my decision to take a short day-trip to Trenčín today.

As I’ve said, Slovakia has been all the more interesting because I knew nothing about it in advance, and had no preconceived notions about what it would be like based on what I’d heard from friends. And I guess, this is how I’d rationalize my visiting less famous or iconic places, especially in the last week, and most likely in the upcoming weeks as well.

I’ve heard so many wonderful things about so many places here on this fabulous European continent, but after much deliberation, I’m now feeling not at all stressed about or hell-bent on visiting “as much of Europe as I can,” as I’ve tended to assert as the purpose of this two-month trip of mine. The fact that I have the time and resources and support-system to be here at all is gratifying enough.

So, from here on out, as I plan the rest of my European sojourn on the go, I’m not interested necessarily in visiting “the BEST of Europe” or that place that everyone tells me I have to go to. I’ll go where I go, when I go there.

And if my upcoming experiences are anything like the ones I’ve had here in Bratislava and Trenčín, Slovakia, then I have all the optimism in the world that things will turn out alright.

Things I Learned From Studying Abroad In Spain

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None of the pre-departure sessions given by my university’s study abroad organization could have prepared me for the experience I’ve had while on exchange for four months.

Most people assume that a study abroad or international exchange will be the experience of a lifetime, full of new and exciting adventures that will forever be looked nostalgically upon as some of the best days of our lives.

But nobody can prepare you for the amount of curveballs that will be thrown at you, the unexpected challenges you’ll encounter, nor the countless lessons you’ll have to learn.

I’ve learned a ton of things in this indubitably exciting but at times overwhelming chapter in my life, and so I thought I’d share the top ten things (from the obvious, the difficult, the random, the philosophical, or otherwise) I’ve learned from studying in Spain this year.

1) The experience of studying abroad is different for everyone.

For some people, six months to a year living in another country isn’t the hugest transition for them; perhaps they traveled to a number of places during their childhood and early adult life, or moved out of state or out of country for university.

For others, their exchange might be the first time they’ve left their parents’ home, or even be the first time they’ve gone somewhere other than their home country.

No matter what your preconceptions are about studying abroad, no matter the things you hear, both spectacular and horrific, from other students or friends who have studied abroad, everybody experiences studying abroad differently.

No one study abroad experience is the same, but neither is a particular study abroad experience better than somebody else’s. There isn’t one way a study abroad experience is supposed to be. The best thing you can do is take advantage of the time you have while you’re abroad and make the most of it, no matter the ups and downs, challenges, or hardships that you face.

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2) You have more free time than you can shake a stick at.

Whether you’re taking just one class or a full course load (five classes), you will most likely find yourself with more free time than you have back home. And in Spain, especially, the university environment is pretty lax. There are no classes on Fridays, and there are constantly festivals and holidays and strikes that result in a day off from school, and many a day where professors just don’t show up.

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There will be plenty of days where you literally have nothing you have to do, which can lend itself to a number of things; an impromptu trip on your own or with friends to a new area of the city or a new site you haven’t been to yet; a tapas or ice cream run; or an afternoon or evening or sometimes even a full day inside, doing just about nothing.

So while some of your free days may end up being spent lounging for far too long in your room exploring social media or catching up on TV shows and movies, luckily, in a place like Granada, there are always things to do

3) Homesickness happens

Anyone who’s packed up their lives and moved into a student residence or an apartment in another city, state, or, in my case, country, will have experienced the phenomenon that is homesickness. Usually, after a brief honeymoon period of being in a new environment surrounded by new people just as scared and as hell-bent on making friends as you are, the euphoria fades, reality sets in, and you find yourself missing home. Missing your parents, missing your friends, missing your home, missing the familiar, the comfortable.

And when you’re abroad, like internationally abroad, somehow homesickness feels worse. Whether it be because you’re farther away, because you’re in a place where the language spoken is not your first language, or because you’re in a place that isn’t your home, and one that you’ve only had a couple weeks or months to adjust to, when homesickness hits it can be really tough. Even to the point where you feel down or low or even depressed and you’re not entirely sure why.

But what I’ve been told, and what I continue to tell myself whenever I find myself nostalgic, is that this is normal. Plus, I find that there are few things more special than being abroad and realizing just how wonderful your home is.

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4) Getting sick sucks.

Even regular colds can seem that much more debilitating when you’re abroad. Both physically and psychologically. Just like going off to college and getting sick for the first time away from home, getting sick when your family’s nowhere near you can be hard. And of course even the most benign of sicknesses often result in bouts of homesickness. See 2).

Also, sometimes, as happened to both me and one of my closest friends Lisa, you catch a bug or a virus that you’ve never had before and you have absolutely NO IDEA what it is, and you’re bedridden for a number of days. So not only are you incapacitated for goodness-knows how many days, there’s really not much you can do other than wait it out. Without family. Without the friends around who would normally come to your aid in a time like this. And yeah, it sucks.

But, just like all adversity in life, you get through it, and you get better. And life goes on.

5) No matter how careful you are, you end up spending more money than you intend to.

Food costs money. Lodging costs money, whether it be with a homestay family, in a shared student apartment, in student residence, or in a hostel. Transportation costs money. Cell phone plans cost money. International calling and postcard-sending cost money.

And when you’re going on day or weekend trips, unexpected expenses always arise. You were really tired that morning so you ordered that coffee at that train station. You forgot your water bottle, and the water here isn’t potable, so you had to spend that 1-2 euro on a liter of water. And then there’s the ever-so-occasional (or perhaps frequent) morning where you wake up and think to yourself, where the heck did that 30 euro go…and then you remember you were at a tapas bar or regular bar or discoteca (or a combination of these) the night before.

Long story short, whether you’re studying or traveling abroad, just like in real life, stuff costs money. And it’s all about budgeting, learning how to budget, and continuing to distinguish between a worth-it versus not-worth-it purchase. A cheap flight to the Canary Islands for a weekend? Worth it.

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A 30+ euro night out at a discoteca, buying shots for you and your friends and dancin’ it up like fools? YOLO, right? Maybe once or twice, sure, why not. But every other night? Probably not.

6) You sometimes lose almost if not all motivation to study and go to class.

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Here in Granada, we exchange students already have the luxury of three day weekends, with there being no classes on Fridays (at least in most faculties at UGR). Those three-day weekends are also so very easily extendable into four or even five-day weekends, if a trip seems timely at that point in time. Hence your four-day school week sometimes becomes a two to three day school week, and suddenly you’ve lost all focus as you find yourself in class flight-, hostel-, bus-, Lonely Planet- and blog- (in my case) searching, and then you look up and the prof’s done talking and your class is over and OH MY GOSH WHERE DID THE TIME GO?

(Note: I am not suggesting in any way that this is the scenario for every international exchange student studying here, I’ve just found this has been the case for me…on several occasions).

And then of course there are countless Erasmus events going on NIGHTLY, with enticing prices at popular places, and as you’re in Spain, these parties rage till the wee hours of the morning and then who the heck would want to go to a 9am or even 10am class when you don’t even get home from a night out until 6 in the morning?

While we are here for the purpose of studying, there is so much other stuff going on, so many opportunities to travel and sightsee and meet new people that at least for me, the actual “studying” and “going to school” hasn’t been at the top of my priorities list (for the first time in my life, I might add.)

7) The concept of being on time does not exist everywhere.

The concept of time in Spain is drastically different than what I’m used to in Vancouver and Seattle. Busses are often late. Class doesn’t really start right on the hour. Students show up late. Professors show up late. Actually, professors showing up 15-30 minutes late to lecture is normal…and it’s just as normal for them to carry on well past the class end time to make up for their being late.

Being on time for a social outing, whether it be for tapas, at a house party, or meeting up at a bar or discoteca, usually means arriving between a forty-five minutes to three hours late. There is a wide time frame during which it is acceptable to show up for things. And I’m the girl who’s always on time (in first year university they called me a keener…), so this whole “show up whenever” thing and “hope the party’s still going and hasn’t moved somewhere else” thing is new to me.

So let’s just say I’ve gotten used to the plans I make not actually happening or starting until a good deal later than the originally agreed upon time. And so it goes.

8) Keeping in touch with people back home can be difficult, and not always desirable.

Some friends will want to keep in touch with you regularly while you’re abroad, others won’t. You’ll want to keep in touch with certain people regularly, and you won’t want to with others. Whether it’s iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, SnapChat, Skype, or email, there certainly are easy and convenient ways to communicate with friends and family while you’re abroad. But the reality is we all have lives and sometimes someone’s first priority isn’t responding to that witty text, that long-drawn-out, dramatic Facebook message, or that supposedly hilarious SnapChat.

Furthermore, I have found that taking break from all methods of phone or online communication with people back home can be liberating. While updating your family or close friends on upcoming travels or new, exciting experiences can be gratifying, sometimes it’s nice to unplug and just live without the constant nag of technology.

When it comes down to it, if you’re on a study abroad, you won’t be gone forever. You will at one point in time return to your home, to your family and to those friends you wish you had stayed in better contact with. Nevertheless, more often than not, from that first hug after months apart, a lot of relationships revert comfortably to where they were, as if it had only been yesterday that you’d seen them last.

9) Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.

Yes, that’s a quote from the Seattle rapper Macklemore. But it has indubitably been the most important lesson I’ve learned over and over during the course of this trip.

My experience with the University of Granada, for example, was nothing like I expected it would be. With its massive size, its integral role in the city, and its illustrious history, I thought for sure my chance to study in its hallowed halls would be a momentous, irreplaceable one.

However, from the clerical problems I encountered in applying here, to the frustratingly slow registration process and dysfunctional bureaucratic system, to the sometimes lackadaisical classroom atmosphere, for me, UGR did not live up to its favorable reputation. And I’ve spent far too much time letting myself be disappointed about this. If I take a step back and realize at least I ended up in one class I thoroughly enjoy, from the lectures to the required reading to (surprisingly enough) re-reading the material and composing an open-ended essay on it for my final exam, then the unmet expectation I had of the supposedly stellar experience I’d have at UGR doesn’t result in as much as a resentment or disappointment.

An example of an instance where I benefited from this lesson learned would be my trip to Paris. I idealistically assumed that the second I got there I would instantly fall in love with the iconic French city. And you know what? I didn’t. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy myself there, but it took me until my last day there to realize just how dynamic of a city Paris is, to realize that I did indeed want to spend more time there to see if the city would charm me more. I kept an open mind, gave the city a chance, made the most of my experience there, and everything turned out alright.

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Which brings me to the last and sort of all-encompassing lesson I learned from four months studying abroad in Europe:

10) One of the best things you can do to make the most of your study abroad experience is to keep an open mind.

One of my dear friends Mika, who studied abroad this past semester in Florence, mentioned this in one of her blog posts, and I agree 100%. Being open, keeping an open mind, is the best thing to do in almost every situation. Whether it comes to meeting new people, visiting new places, trying out new tapas restaurants in new neighborhoods, checking out a new bar or discoteca, or figuring out where to go on your next trip, the single best thing I’ve done for myself in these situations has been keeping an open mind.

When it comes to people, no matter where they’re from, what their beliefs are, or what their cultural background is, more often than not they will surprise you, and you will surprise yourself with the diversity of people you end up meeting, getting to know, and even making long-lasting friendships with.

When it comes to seeing new things, you’ll never truly know how dynamic or interesting a sight is until you get there. And with an open mind, you’ll be surprised just what you take from each an every new sight you visit.

When it comes to seeking out new food and drink, well, that’s sort of a no-brainer. The more places you try, the more likely you’ll find the tastiest tapas and most refreshing and tipsiness-inducing drinks. From croquetas to berenjenas con miel and from the classic tinto de verano, the various Alhambra brand-drafts, to my new favorite, the tinto version of beer, clara con limón, Granada in particular has so much to offer in terms of food and drink, and some of the best things I’ve had in the past four months have been when I open-mindedly sought out new places or was brought somewhere new by a friend (stay tuned on a post all about FOOD!).

And last but not least, when it comes to traveling to a new place or a new country, no matter how much Lonely Planet researching you do or how many blog posts or new articles you read on things to do or can’t-miss spots in that new place or country, you’ll do yourself a great favor if you keep an open mind and rid yourself of any expectations prior to taking the trip. You’ll enjoy everything that much more, or experience less (or no) disappointment in the event that you aren’t blown away by or in love with everywhere you go (which will certainly be the case). 

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Photo cred Meghan Nolt

Granada was unlike any other experience I’ve had. I am endlessly grateful for every person I’ve met and every friend I’ve made, every place I got to see and new country I got to visit, and for the lessons I’ve learned and changes and improvements I’ve made for myself and my own life.

But I’m ready for a new adventure, a new journey to experience fully, live and learn openly, and embrace without any expectation, prejudice, or preconception. I hope at the very least to take these lessons with me, and always remember, when in a new country, a new continent, or a new environment, one in which you don’t always have control over how things will go:

when you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life

– Eckhart Tolle

With this thought in mind, along with all my other favorite quotes about life and happiness, I can’t help but add a number 11) to the list.

When an opportunity comes, seize it. Live in the moment and make the most of the moment you’re in. Life is short but sweet for certain, so live every day like it’s your last and reach for the sky because tomorrow may never come. The time is now. Chulla vida. 

Oh, the Places I’ll Go (Part Two)

Four months have sure gone by fast. It’s crazy to think my time living and studying in Granada is soon coming to an end.

It’s been almost nothing like I’d expected it would be, but in a lot of ways it’s been more than I could have imagined.

Photo cred Sarah Capdeville

Photo cred Sarah Capdeville

=> First of all, it was a dream come true.

Studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country had been a dream of mine since I was 12 years old.

In my sixth grade Introduction to World Languages class, Spanish was by far my favorite. While I found French and Japanese to be very confusing and extremely difficult to pronounce without feeling foolish, Spanish was easy. I could totally handle this!

I was sure I sounded like a legit Spanish speaker when I ran through the following phrase, over and over again, oh-so-proud of my pronunciation and the way the words just rolled off my tongue:

Quiero presentarte a mi amiga, Carmen.

I’d like you to introduce you to my friend, Carmen. Well, the facility with which I pronounced that phrase, on that day some nine years ago, sold me. I could totally see myself studying abroad in Spain or another Spanish-speaking country one day, and (hopefully) becoming fluent in Spanish in the process. I thought to myself, let’s do it!

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Fast forward to 2011, when I spent six weeks studying in Ecuador, followed by a week of traveling around Peru.

And by 2013, eight years of Spanish classes later (including AP Spanish and AP Spanish Literature at Roosevelt High School), I’m 90% of the way through my Spanish major at the University of British Columbia, AND I’ve spent a semester studying at the University of Granada in southern Spain.

I still find it incredible that the dream I first envisioned as a twelve-year-old has now come true for me twice.

 => Second of all, despite all the ups and downs and the occasional frustration or setback, there are so many positive things I’ve gained from this study abroad experience:

I’m basically fluent in Spanish; I have no problem ordering in restaurants, asking for, or even giving directions, and understanding my professors in class.

Photo cred Sarah Capdeville

Photo cred Sarah Capdeville

I’ve gotten to live in a place that is utterly surrounded by amazingness; the Sierra Nevada’s my backyard, I can see the Alhambra from my balcony window, and I’m no more than a 20-minute walk away from the quaint Albayzín, the stunningly-graffiti’ed Realejo, a number of hopping and oh-so-cosmopolitan plazas and cobblestoned-sidestreets lined with churrerías (yes, churro-restaurants) and eclectic tapas bars, and, of course, and endless amount of churches and other historic buildings.

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I’ve met people from all over the world; my homestay parents are Argentinean, my friends and other people I’ve met in hostels hail from the States, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, France, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, to name a few.

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Photo cred Lisa Thomson

And I’ve gotten to travel…a lot. In Spain, I’ve been to Córdoba, Sevilla (three times), Barcelona, and Madrid. Around Granada, I’ve been to Ronda, the Alpujarras, Salobreña, and Nerja. Outside of Spain, I’ve been to Morocco, the Canary Islands, Portugal, and France.

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Photo cred Meghan Nolt

It all sounds pretty picture-perfect, eh? And I essentially do nothing but rave about it all in my blog posts.

Ultimately, while there have been a fair amount of ups and downs, highs and lows, disappointments and lessons learned (not to mention my recurrent frustration with the University of Granada’s administration), this trip has been a rewarding one, full of awesome memories and fun times, and most importantly, one from which I have made several lifelong friendships.

 => Last but not least, this trip has provided me with a starting point for an upcoming two-month adventure around Europe!

Starting Monday, June 24th, after ditching my giant suitcase in Madrid, with just my trusty backpack (thanks Mom and Dad!) I’ll be off to:

Central and Northern Spain

Original image found through a Google Image search.

Toledo; Original image found through a Google Image search.

I’m finally getting the chance to hit up the ToledoSalamancaSegovia triangle! There was an Erasmus trip to these destinations earlier this year, but as I’ve learned I prefer to travel solo or in a small group, I decided to hold off. Luckily I managed to work these three cities into my post-Granada itinerary! I am so looking forward to treading the cobblestone streets through three of Spain’s most iconic and historic cities! As you may know, I’m a HUGE architecture fan, and the architecture of these three cities appears to be simply oozing with…well, awesomeness.

Original image found through a Google Image search.

Original image found through a Google Image search.

From there I’ll head to San Sebastián, the most famous and well-loved destination in País Vasco (Basque Country), to indulge in some of if not the best tapas (called pinxtos in Basque), in Spain, luxuriate on the gorgeous beaches in the scenic Playa de la Concha, and wander the friendly old town and perhaps…attempt some Basque? We shall see.

From this point on, I may not return to Spain again until mid-August when I return to Madrid for my flight home to the States. I could easily spend the whole summer in this wonderful country, but there’s also so much more of Europe I’m dying to see.

From País Vasco, I jet off to…

Switzerland

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Original image found through a Google Image search.

The land of the Matterhorn, chocolate, melting cheese, skiing, and the United Nations headquarters. I’ll be meeting one of my dearest UBC friends in Geneva, and we’ll be spending a short jaunt in the towns of Fiescheralp and Zermatt. The former is just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from the huge and famous Aletsch Glacier, which, weather-permitting, we’ll hike along and spend some time marveling at the Swiss landscape; and the latter is close to the Matterhorn (pictured above), which we hope to marvel at at on one of the many trails in the area.

After we part ways I’ll spend a night in the capital city, Bern, a UNESCO World Heritage site and, from the looks of it as I’ve gathered from my Lonely Planet, a insanely cute, quaint, and charming little town.

My time in Suiza (I prefer the Spanish name than the boring old English Switzerland) will be short (and, unfortunately, really expensive), but I cannot even BEGIN to express how excited I am to be there!

Northern Italy

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Original image found through a Google Image search.

A full-fledged, first-time-solo-traveling EuroTrip wouldn’t really be complete without at least a brief tour in Italy, now would it? Having spent two weeks in Rome five years ago, I thought I’d go somewhere new! I’ll be making stops in Milan, Florence, Bologna, and Venice, and oh my GOODNESS am I stoked!

The Balkans 

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Original image found through a Google Image search.

The last region I’ve got more or less worked into the itinerary of the first leg of my adventure is the Balkans. Ever since becoming an avid reader of the solo female travel blog Adventurous Kate, I’ve been DYING to go to Croatia. Also it just so happens the capital city Dubrovnik (pictured above) is where they filmed King’s Landing scenes in Season Two of Game of Thrones…I have to admit, that makes me giddily and childlishly ecstatic!

I also hope to pay SloveniaMontenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina a visit, again as per my inspiration from reading Adventurous Kate and other travel bloggers. From Plitvice Lakes National Park, the idyllic Lake Bled, the breathtaking scenery of Kotor, and the not-so-long-ago war-wrought towns of Mostar and Sarajevo, I am equal parts intrigued and THRILLED to be venturing to this fascinating region.

And from there on out…

Western or Central Europe…TBD

Switzerland, Italy, and Croatia were at the top of my list of places I had to see within the two months I have to travel around Europe. The list is dreadfully long, however, and so that’s why I’d like to ask for your feedback on where I should go next!

The list of countries I’d like to see in central (slash eastern) Europe are as follows: Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, and Germany.

As for western Europe, I’d really like to visit Ireland, England, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and (southern) France. But obviously I won’t have enough time or money to visit all of these countries. So I thought I’d enlist your help!

 => Have you been to any of the countries I’ve mentioned in this post?

 => Was there one you enjoyed the most? 

 => What do you think are the must-do’s and must-see’s in that country (or any of the ones mentioned in this post, for that matter!)?

I would be beyond grateful for any input you may have! 🙂

It’s been four months full of exciting experiences, but I think I’m ready for a new journey, a new challenge. Granada, it’s been real, but boy am I stoked to embark upon what will no doubt be an exhilarating adventure!

Photo cred Meghan Nolt

Photo cred Meghan Nolt