2015: A Year of New Experiences

2015

The end of the year is a time when most of us reflect on what we’ve done in the current year and think about what we would like to do in the upcoming year. When I look back on pictures from 2015, I’m amazed at the amount of different things I accomplished. It’s no wonder the year flew by so fast.

In this post, I’d like to talk about some of the new things I did last year. I’m sure I’ve left a few things out, but these are some of the highlights:

New Years in Granada 

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La Alhambra

I started out 2015 in Granada, a city known for its abundance of free tapas with drinks, hipster vibe and spectacular nightlife. As the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, Granada is also one of the best places to see Moorish architecture in the South. It is the home of La Alhambra, the palace and fortress of the Muslim kings.

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With L and L in Granada

I went with a college friend who was visiting from the U.S. and another American friend who I met in the hostel where I worked for a month. We spent our time relaxing on our hostel’s comfy terrace and enjoying the warm Andalusian sun. Although it was a little cold at nighttime, the colorful sunsets and twinkling starry skies motivated us to leave the hostel and take advantage of the free tapas in the Albayzin district, a part of the city that maintains the narrow winding streets and white houses of its Medieval Moorish past.

Trip to Logroño and Bilbao

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Touring the Ysios winery in La Rioja

Before my friend, L, went back to the States, we decided to take one last trip around Spain and this time, we headed North. I had been to la Rioja three times before, but since it is one of my favorite parts of Spain, I didn’t mind going back one bit. We spent two nights enjoying pintxos in Logroño and visited the famous Ysios winery with my friend from Logroño, L, and one of her friends. Upset to leave Logroño, which apparently charmed my friend L just as much as it had charmed me, we reluctantly headed to Bilbao early on a Sunday morning to explore a city that was new to both of us.

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Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao 2015

Although we only spent a day in Bilbao, I got a pretty good feel for the city. Formerly identified as a boring industrial city, Bilbao has done a fair job at cleaning up its image by bringing in tourist attractions, such as the world-famous Guggenheim Museum. The city’s gastronomy is like no other and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of vegetarian and vegan restaurants to chose from.

French Classes

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Last French class, June 2015 😦

One of the major things I did for myself last year was to start studying French. I had been interested in learning the language ever since I went to Paris at 13, but I ended up focusing on Spanish instead. Since my Spanish had finally reached the level I wanted to attain (C1), I decided to enroll in French classes in Madrid. Little did I know I would end up making two close friends and learning a lot more French than I expected. Since we were such a small group, we focused mainly on conversation, something that has helped me a lot while traveling and talking to people in France. Although I haven’t been able to continue classes here in Ourense, I go to a weekly French conversation group when I can, and I plan on taking up some classes again soon.

A trip to Cáceres, Rural Alentejo (Portugal) and Évora

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A common theme in my travels in 2015 was rural tourism. While most of my travels from 2012-2014 were to major cities, I found myself craving nature in 2015. I bought myself a pair of hiking boots early on in the year and took to the mountains-literally!

After a few hiking trips in the mountains outside of Madrid, two friends from work and I decided to plan a trip on one of our long weekends to go to a remote part of Extremadura (a region in Southwest Spain). We wanted to stay in a bed-and-breakfast where one of them had house-sat in the past. Since we were passing by Cáceres on the way, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to check out Spain’s 2015 gastronomical capital as well.

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Hiking to Marvão

One of the highlights of that trip was definitely our day-long hike to Marvão, a small Portuguese town overlooking the bed-and-breakfast. Getting to the top was like reaching the promised land, so naturally, we celebrated with a beer and then explored its breath-taking castle.

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Capela dos Ossos

We ended that trip with a day in Évora, Portugal, where we explored the walled-in city, enjoyed green wine, and checked out some of its tourist attractions. The most notable of the attractions was definitely the bone chapel, which left all three of us feeling a bit uneasy.

First WWOOF Experience in Alsace, France

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The gîte where I WWOOFed in Alsace

Unfortunately, I am long overdue for a blog post on this one. I spent my last spring break volunteering with WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, France. While I was there, I stayed with a couple that lived autonomously-meaning they created their own electricity, grew (most) of their own food, burnt wood from the surrounding trees for heat, used compost toilets, etc. They tried to live their life in the spirit of permaculture, which is, more or less, a lifestyle which tries to mimic patterns in nature and cause the least amount of disturbance possible to the environment.

During my stay with the couple, I worked alongside two other American WWOOFer’s to help with permaculture gardening projects. We planted all sorts of vegetables and flowers, re-planted strawberry plants, and even helped to design and build a brand-new permaculture garden. Each day we spent about 4 hours outside in the garden and we were given plenty of free time to go out and explore the surrounding forest, homes and farms. We enjoyed three meals a day together and even cooked our own American-style dinner for our hosts one night.

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On top of the Petit Ballon, in the Vosges

One of my fondest memories of the whole trip was probably my second-to-last day, when we climbed to the top of the Petit Ballon together. The two highest mountain peaks near us, the Petit Ballon and the Grand Ballon, were always there looking over us everyday while we were working. After looking up at the peaks for a week, it felt like a huge accomplishment to go to the top. The views were spectacular and we saw some really interesting things along the way as well, such as a World War I German Bunker.

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Colmar at Easter time!

Spending time in Alsace was especially interesting for me because my dad’s ancestors are from this fascinating region of the world that has both French and German ties. I was familiar with a lot of the food, such as sauer kraut and bretzels, because I had grown up eating them in Pennsylvania. I also realized that a lot of the architecture in small Pennsylvania towns and villages was heavily influenced by the traditional Alsacien architecture. It’s a beautiful part of France that I would love to go back and explore further in the future.

Trip to Cataluña

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Girona

Although one of my main reasons for going to Cataluña again was to check out a university that I was interested in, I also wanted to give Barcelona another chance and explore other parts of the autonomous community. Fortunately, I ended up enjoying Barcelona a lot more my second time, thanks to some cool people I met through Couchsurfing and a few restaurant recommendations. This time around, I didn’t go to the typical tourist spots and I allowed myself to properly enjoy Barcelona and lose myself in its magical streets.

However, I would have to say that the highlight of my second trip to Cataluña was Girona, a small city about an hour train ride away from Barcelona Nord station. Although my visit was a short one, I ended up seeing a lot of the city, thanks to a local I met through Couchsurfing. He showed me around his city, took me to a traditional restaurant to try Catalan food and wine, and introduced me to a famous ice cream shop, where I had a delicious violet ice cream. Needless to say, Girona won me over!

First Time in the Canary Islands (Fuerteventura)

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With M in Fuerteventura

Last year, I made my first trip to the Canary Islands with my friend, M, from Madrid. I had always wanted to go to the Canary Islands, but couldn’t decide which island to explore first. M works in the travel industry and found a good deal in Fuerteventura (both flight and 5 nights in an all-inclusive hotel for under 300 EUR!), so we decided to go. It was definitely a change of pace for me since I’m used to the more nomadic-style backpacking way of travel, but it was a great experience nonetheless. We spent our days on the beach, our evenings in the club, and the rest of the time playing bingo and sampling local food. Definitely a trip I will never forget!

Countless Picnics

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Retiro, June 2015

One of my favorite things about living in Madrid in general was going to el Retiro on sunny weekends and having picnics with friends. Some of my happiest memories are of me and my friends, spread out on picnic blankets in the sun, eating finger food and drinking tinto de verano and beer.

Home for the Summer

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Philadelphia, 2015

Although I was initially dreading it, going home for the summer ended up being quite refreshing. It was nice to go back to Pennsylvania for a bit, reconnect with family and friends, and reflect upon my life abroad. It had been a whirlwind year-and-a-half of almost non-stop travel, and I definitely needed a break to reevaluate my life and decide on the next steps to take.

Back to the Classroom and First Time in a Leadership Position

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Art Gallery Field Trip with the Students

While I was home, I went back to an ESL summer immersion program where I had worked the summer after graduating college. I worked as a classroom teacher with the same level and classes that I had that summer, but this time, I was taking on an additional role as one of the dorm leaders. It was one of the first times I assumed a leadership role in a job and while it was definitely a huge challenge, I found it to be a very fun and rewarding experience.

First Time Skydiving

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Skydiving Above the Poconos

Every year, I try to do something new and slightly terrifying that’s on my bucket list. In 2014, I rode in a hot air balloon in Turkey and took in the most beautiful and surreal sunrise of my life. Last year, I decided to do something a little more daring and so I jumped out of an airplane at approximately 10,000 ft (3.048 meters). The experience literally took my breath away, but in the best way possible of course.

My Cousin’s Wedding

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Cousins picture

The best part of being home in summer 2015 was seeing my family. My cousin’s wedding was one of the first times in years that we were all together. Now that we’re “all grown-up,” it’s fun to share stories about what we’ve been up to in the past few years and what kinds of plans we have for the future. We had a great time eating, drinking, dancing and making memories together at the wedding. It’s always tough to reconnect with people when you’ve been away for a while, but I’m glad to say that I always feel welcomed back into my family, no matter how many years I’ve been away.

The Move to a New City, Ourense (Galicia)

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In El Tapa Negra, in front of Ourense’s cathedral

Moving to a new city where you don’t know a single person is always a challenge. My first couple moves after high school (Philadelphia, D.C., Madrid) were not too difficult because I had been anticipating them for a while and I was more or less excited about them. Ourense, however, was another story. The city intrigued me a little bit, but I felt very comfortable in Madrid and wasn’t ready to give up my life there. The first week in Ourense was difficult. I’ll admit that I was a tiny bit depressed and may or may not have cried a few times. However, once I started to meet people-expats and locals alike-I felt more at home in my new city.

A Minor Change in Diet

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Polbo á feira (pulpo a la gallega)

Those of you who know me well may find it shocking to hear this, but as of October 2015, I am a “flexitarian,” if you want to define it. I had been thinking of gradually introducing meat, fish and seafood into my diet for years and last year was the one for me. Polbo á feira is pretty much the specialty of my city (besides chestnuts), and I didn’t want to miss out on trying it. So, my first piece of seafood was Galician-style octopus, cooked with olive oil, salt, paprika, and served with potatoes. I still can’t bring myself to eat the tentacles, but I do enjoy the white meaty part. The texture is similar to some cheeses and tofu I’ve tried before. Since converting, I’ve tried langoustines, shrimp, salmon, caviar, bacalao, butter fish, beef, and the prized jamón ibérico de bellota (Spanish cured ham made from acorn-fed pigs). I still cook 100% vegetarian (and sometimes vegan) at home, but when I’m out with friends, or most recently at family dinners over Christmas, I try everything that is put on my plate- whether or not it has eyes.

Running!

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After finishing my first 10 K with M and N in Ourense

I’ve always enjoyed running but would never have called myself “a runner” before this summer. I used to run once a week or once every two weeks on average, when I felt that my body needed it. It wasn’t anything that I found to be entertaining or even that enjoyable. I preferred milder activities or just simply walking. For some reason, all of that changed this summer.

I guess with the stress of my job and the reverse culture shock, I needed some sort of physical outlet and I ended up turning to running because it was the easiest and cheapest activity I could do. I thought about joining the YMCA to go swimming, but it would have required me to wake up at 5:30 AM and walk about 30 minutes there and 30 minutes back. No thanks! So, I started to run a little bit every day and eventually got myself up to 7-8 kilometers (4.3-5 miles) a day. I guess you could say I became an addict.

Naturally, when I got to Ourense, I looked for a place to go running and kept up my pace. I found some friends who were interested in running, and decided to enter my first 10 kilometer (6.21 mile) race in November. My goal was to finish the race, and if I could do so in under an hour, great. If not, no problem. In the end, I finished in 59 minutes and developed an even stronger addiction to running, something that I will carry with me into this new year.

2016: Year of Change. Some Resolutions:

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New Years Eve with M and her family in Soto del Real (Madrid)

2015 was a spectacular year and it is going to be hard to top. When I look back on last year, I’d say it was a year of new things. Looking forward, I think it’s time for some change(s) in my life, so I’d like to deem 2016 the year of change. Although I’m obviously not capable of predicting the future, I can definitely influence it in some ways. Some of my resolutions are very private, but I’ll share the others:

  1. Run in my first half-marathon
  2. Visit more of Galicia and Northern Spain
  3. Be more organized
  4. Learn more French and start classes again when I have a chance
  5. Maintain my level of Spanish and learn at least one new word every day
  6. Write more in English and Spanish
  7. Be more diligent about posting on my blog
  8. Start a new hobby (maybe yoga?) and stick with it!
  9. Make some changes to my professional life (whether that mean here in Spain or back in the U.S.)
  10. Travel to at least one new country

And while I know it’s almost a month late and all… HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE! 🙂

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