Saturday, June 22, 2013


Hello readers!

It has been several weeks since I arrived back home from Spain. Sorry it has taken so long to update the blog. Before I flew home, I took a week-long vacation to the South of Spain, or more specifically, the Andalusia region.

I went to Andalusia with my friends Clara and Kenneth. Clara is from Paris, France and Kenneth is from Hong Kong, which as I learned is actually not China. Actually, as he repeated throughout the trip, he's never been to China.

All of our travel plans went off without a hitch. We took a bus from Pamplona to Bilbao, and then flew from Bilbao to Seville. We spent two days in Seville.

The first night we got there, we were wondering around looking for a flamenco show to watch or just somewhere nice to hang out, when I spotted my friend Madison from PC. I knew that there were 5 other students from PC in Seville, but what are the odds of running into one of them? So, we spent the evening with Madison, her boyfriend Seth, who is also from PC, and some of their other friends they met in Seville. I even ran into some of the other people from PC that I didn't know as well. It was one of those really cool things that doesn't happen to me much.

The hostel we stayed in Seville was probably one of our favorites. It was run by an Armenian couple and they were just super nice. What's cool though, is that I have no idea if they spoke any English or not, because we just talked with them in Spanish. There was breakfast included and there was a lovely terrace that looked out onto the street.

While we were in Seville, we went to the Alcazar, which was one of the palaces built by the Moorish royalty in Spain. We also toured the Cathedral of Sevilla which was absolutely gorgeous. It was definitely the biggest cathedral that I've ever been in. There was even a treasure room, which was cool to look at. I wandered around and listened to some of the people's tours if they were in Spanish or English. We even took a tour through Seville's Plaza de Toros, or the bull fighting ring. If we had been in Seville on a Sunday, we'd have been able to actually see a bull fight.

That night, we asked the Armenian guy who owned the hostel where the best place to see a flamenco show is (and that's as cheap as possible) and he told us about a free place. Well, we got a bit of a late start going over there and we got turned around once we got to the area because it was in a section of Seville that looked more like a little pueblo than a city. So by the time we found the place, it was after midnight and the show had ended. We decided that we'd come back on our last night to catch it.

After we'd spent the two days in Sevilla, we went to the train station and bought tickets for Malaga. Malaga is a beach town in Andalusia, and happens to be where Antonio Banderas is from. I had really hoped I could catch a glimpse of him, or one of his relatives, but the odds were not in my favor that time. After the trip, I told Carmen how I had wanted to see Antonio Banderas and she told me that he's always there for Semana Santa (Holy Week). Maybe if I'm feeling stalker-y enough, I'll go to Malaga for Semana Santa.

Anyway. We got to Malaga about midday, so we settled into the hostel and then set off to find somewhere to have lunch. We ended up at a place right by Malaga's Plaza de Toros (hey, it's Spain, remember?). After lunch, we tried to see if there would be a fight there the next day, but it turns out there would be one in a little town outside of Malaga. It was a little too pricey for our college student budget, so we decided to opt out of that trip.

We continued walking towards the central part of Malaga. The area where our hostel was located was absolutely ideal for beach activities. It was right across the street from the beach, but a solid 15-20 minute walk from the central part of the actual city. Not that that was a huge problem, it was a trade-off.

One the way to the center, there was this cool wall/fortress thing. I never found out what exactly it was (it wasn't very well marked), but we climbed it and got this amazing skyline view of the city. We saw the Plaza de Toros and were able to see inside the plaza. It looked a lot like the one in Seville did: a big stadium with sand in the middle. Just like how it's portrayed in the movies. You also had a lovely view of the water and the boats that came into port. Apparently, Malaga is a stopping point on cruises because I saw a couple cruise ships parked.

After we had our fill of looking around, we continued to the center. We found a tourist booth to get a map and found out that we had chosen the perfect weekend to be there. A couple times a year, they have Noches Blancas or something like that where the museums open up for free! I can spend hours in museums, but Clara, living in Paris, has undoubtedly gone to tons and probably the same for Kenneth in Hong Kong. I, however, coming from small town Georgia, think that museums are awesome. But I understand that certain things get old after a while. That's how I feel about zoos. I've gone to tons of zoos, so the novelty has worn off.

My point to that digression, was to say that we ended up going to just one museum. We went to the Picasso museum, because he is also from Malaga so they have a little one in Malaga for him. So I did get to go a Picasso museum after all!

We also found a group of people doing "flamenco," but it wasn't your traditional flamenco. It was the flamenco style, sort of, with the dresses and hand movements, but normally flamenco consists of a singer, a guitar player, and a dancer. This was a group of three women and one man who danced sets along to stereo music. It was cool, but not super authentic.

Before the show started, there was this homeless guy who went around singing really loudly and then asking around for money. It was sad and funny at the same time. Funny because he was singing his heart out and kept reaching at his throat. Now that I describe it, it doesn't sound funny. Maybe it was a you had to be there thing. Another kind of funny thing about him though was that when we were out for a tapas lunch the next day, he came to where we were sitting outside and eating and sang.

I'm now going to take a moment and tell you how our trip came to be. Mom and I had booked my flight back to the states after I had asked a student at the university when exams were over. We had booked it a couple days after exams were supposed to end, to give me time to pack and wrap things up. Well, where I studied, my exams ended almost two weeks before the official end date. Therefore, I had that much time where I had nothing to do. I had been planning for months to go to the South of Spain. A lot of my friends from PC had either studied there or gone there on Maymesters and had told me about it. Then all of the other exchange students and just other people talked about Andalusia. It was definitely a place I had to go before I left. I was kind of planning on going by myself, but then I heard that Clara wanted to go as well so then we decided to go together. Then Kenneth was working on a project with Clara and she told him about the trip and he booked the tickets then and there. I'm not a big planning person, so I let Clara plan the trip. She had been to Andalusia as a kid, you see, so I figured she'd know more about it than I did.

Clara planned to go to Malaga to give us some beach time. The South of Spain is famous for it's hot weather. Normally when people think of Spain, Andalusia is what they think. Hot and sunny. Well, of course, when we were in Malaga, it was cloudy and windy, which is not ideal beach weather. There isn't really anything famous to do in Malaga. It's pretty much an attraction for it's beach. So, we had to get creative. On our full day there, we spent most of the morning just relaxing and recuperating from all the travelling. It's really tiring to be moving places every few days. I ended up finishing a book I'd started on the train ride over and reading a good chunk of the sequel that day. (If you're looking for a good book, look for The Selection series, it's excellent if you're a Hunger Games type fan or just into dystopian novels)

I don't have much more interesting to say about Malaga. We spent a lot of time walking around and exploring the city. It was lovely walking along the harbor and beach at night. It was nice and I'm glad I went, but if I'm going back to Spain, I don't think I'd go back there.

Our next stop was Cordoba. Cordoba is famous for La Mezquita. Carmen told me once that she liked Cordoba much more than Grenada. Grenada is the city that has La Alambra, the biggest and most famous Moorish palace in Spain. You have to book your tickets in advance to go there because of all the tourism. I really tried to figure out a good way to get over to Grenada, but it just didn't work out on this trip. Just an excuse to go back to Spain! Anyway, I can't say what my opinion on which is better would be at the moment, but I can tell you that I fell in love with Cordoba.

I don't see myself ever being a big city person (but who knows?), however I can definitely see myself living in a place like Cordoba which is a small-medium city. When we took the bus to the train station, the bus would go from wide, city-like, streets to tiny little alleys that I would imagine being in villages, not a major city like Cordoba. What I loved about it was the mix of the modern and the old. You could tell that they didn't really plan the city, it just kind of expanded as needed. Seville was like that at times as well, but since it housed Spanish and Moorish royalty for decades it was more organized and much larger.

We were crazy busy in Cordoba. There was so much to do! Our hostel was in a great location, pretty close to everything. Well, we walked a ton, but it was in a scenic location anyway. Another stroke of planning luck hit us and we were actually in Cordoba during the Fiesta de los Patios, which is not a patio party, it's a competition that goes on throughout the city where people decorate their patios and people vote to see who has the best.

We went to see several of the patios. Most of them were decorated with tons of beautiful flowers. I don't know how people could pick. The one I remember most, however, was the one that featured the cat. I'm thinking that this couple who owned the patio either didn't have children or their children had grown up and moved on. Or none of the above. Regardless, this couple obviously loved their cat and as you walked in the first thing you saw was pictures of the cat and even a figurine of a cat. Then once you walked into the patio itself, you saw the cat sitting on a chair. It was an orange Persian cat, but super grumpy looking. We called him "Grumpy Gato" because he reminded us of the Grumpy Cat meme, so we decided that this one is the Spanish version.

Cordoba housed Moorish royalty for a few years as well. They liked to move around. Well, and there were the Emirs who were under the Califs. I don't actually know too much about it, we only studied the Moors for a couple classes in my culture class. Definitely not enough to learn about the whole structure and everything about their influence in Andalusia. There was another Alcazar that Clara and I went to visit (Kenneth did his own thing that day). The main attraction for this Alcazar was the gardens. In Sevilla, the inside of the Alcazar was the cool part because of the Moorish architecture  but here there wasn't much to the inside. It was all about the gardens.

La Mezquita was one of the most interesting buildings that I've ever been in. It was originally built as a mosque, but during the Reconquista (Spanish Inquisition) it was converted back into a cathedral--the official name is The Cathedral of Cordoba, but everyone still calls it La Mezquita (mezquita means mosque). The arches in the Mezquita are extremely famous and are from the original mosque. So as you're walking through, the arches are above you, but then you're surrounded by the little chapels that make up a regular cathedral. Then you walk to the middle, past a wall, and you see this sanctuary randomly in there. As you walk around the walls, you pass the little chapels that honor the certain saints and then you reach the one part that of the wall that is from the original mosque. It has that classic Muslim key-shaped structure. If you're ever in Spain, definitely go. It's fascinating.

After we left Cordoba, we went back to Sevilla for a day because our flight back to Bilbao was the next day. We finally made it to that flamenco show we'd tried to go to last time. It was that traditional show and definitely worth seeing. We ordered some Tinto de Verano and watched as the man sang, the guitarist played, and the middle aged woman transformed as she began dancing into a striking and beautiful figure. Clara had said to us earlier something her dad had told her about flamenco dancers, "once they begin to dance, you can see the fire in their eyes." It was definitely true. It's a passionate dance.

Even though this post is quite long, it's only a very short version of the trip. It was a blast and writing this post has made me very nostalgic. Sometime, I will get around to writing about the trip that Carmen took me on to San Sebastian and my flight home. If you're interested, I might even write one on what I've been up to this summer.

Until next time!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Cruise Ship

I'm going to devote a blog post to the cruise ship itself. I feel like if I try to intermedently explain it in my other blog posts it'll get confusing really quickly.

We choose to use MSC, the same cruise line that we used when we lived in Germany and took a spring break cruise trip. This time, however, we stopped in different locations.

Our boat was the MSC Preziosa and we were on it's inaugural voyage. The cool thing about this cruise is that it picks up and drops off people in almost all the cities it goes to. Therefore, when we got on in Barcelona, it was the 7th or 8th day of it's 14 day route. We stayed on it until it went back to Barcelona, which was after seven days. Now that I'm explaining it, it doesn't really make sense how that worked, but nonetheless it did work. 

We noticed a lot of differences between our cruise of six or so years ago and the one of this year. It's possible it's because it was a nicer cruise than the one we went on before, which was a family cruise instead of a luxury one, or just things have changed in six years. Probably both.

Because we'd been on an MSC cruise, we came into it with a certain kind of expectation. I was really looking forward to drinking all the tea and coffee that I wanted. Well, we got to dinner and found out that 1) they don't serve coffee at dinner and 2) no drinks are free at dinner. We were shocked because they wouldn't even serve us tap water. It was really weird. On the last cruise, you'd have to pay for sodas and alcohol, but water, tea, and coffee were always free.

The maitre'd told us that the buffet on the 14th deck (yes, the 14th deck) had free coffee, so after dinner we went straight up there. To our displeasure, the coffee was absolutely disgusting. I mean, how do you mess up coffee? It  had absolutely no taste and I don't really like strong coffee. When we got off at Marseille, Dad went and bought instant coffee to add to it, which helped a lot.

One of our theories about the Preziosa was that it was a more expensive ship. I've noticed that at more expensive hotels you have to pay for more things than you do at cheap hotels. So when I said this, Dad remarked, "Yeah, we need the Hampton Inn cruise." I got a kick out of that.

It was kind of ridiculous all the things you had to pay for. There were specialty shops and restaurants all over the place. We ate at the restaurants or dining halls for all our meals, since our meals were covered by what we'd already paid for, but had we not, we could have easily spend a fortune.

Now, you're probably reading this and thinking that I had a miserable time. Besides the crowds and uncontrolled children, those are my only major complaints and now I can move onto the totally awesome things.

Our cabin was a pretty decent size considering it was on a boat. It got tight at times, but it was fine. There was a guy who would unfold the couch bed for me at night and then put it back up during the day time. When the couch was folded, the cabin was actually very roomy. AND we had a balcony!! It was so nice to be able to stand out on our private balcony and watch the ship pull into harbor in the mornings and simply watch the ocean go by the rest of the time.

We had assigned cruise cards that allowed us off and on the ship and were also to be used for on board purchases. Pretty much the cruise ID card in other words. On the card, every person had an assigned table and dining room for dinner. There were two formal dining rooms. Ours was called La Arabesque, which in my opinion is a much cooler name than The Golden Lobster (the other one). Were they trying to copy Red Lobster? Who knows. But for lunch and breakfast, you were allowed to eat in whichever dining hall because they only checked the cards at dinner. We ate in the dining room every night and for breakfast and lunch we'd eat in either the buffet, the dining hall, or in our designated city (but we always took some food from the buffet--we were paying for it after all!).

The buffet room was enormous. It took up half the top deck pretty much. One end of it was called the Inca and the other was called the Maya. They'd close off the Maya section when it wasn't meal time. There were always all sorts of food options there. I loved all the fruit they had and regularly ate kiwi. I figured out a way to make delicious coffee at breakfast. I'd either go find a Nescafe decaf packet or I'd use some of Dad's Nescafe, add it to my coffee, and then go to the waffle station and mix in whipped cream and caramel syrup. It was delicious! The whipped cream made the coffee have the more frothy taste.

The other half of the top deck consisted of the pools, hot tubs, and sunbathing areas. I learned quickly that's it wasn't feasible to sun bathe or really even swim while the boat was moving because of the wind. However, if we got back on deck a few hours before the ship left, I'd swim/hot tub and then lay out reading by the pool. There was also this awesome water slide that I had every intention of going on, but then I forgot all about it. Whenever I'd walk by it, I was wearing clothes or the one time I had on my bathing suits there were crazy kids at the bottom trying to climb up it. I wasn't feeling that.

I normally really like kids, but the kids on the cruise really got on my nerves. They would run around uncontrolled and just otherwise be really annoying. At breakfast, the buffet was always so packed and it was really hard to navigate with them running around at your feet. I'm really tall and sometimes it's just plain hard for me to see kids.

It was interesting seeing my parents and the few other Americans experience the culture shock. The first few nights, we sat with a couple from North Carolina at dinner (they moved to a private table later on because that's what they had originally requested) and I would listen to them talk about it with my parents. It was mostly the little things, like people pushing you to get by instead of saying "Excuse me" and waiting or pushing past you to get on the elevator instead of letting you off. Europeans can be a bit more aggressive while it comes to moving about than Americans.

It was really easy to get turned around on the ship because it was so big. Picture a giant hotel turned on it's side. I ended up being the one who could navigate us around. I never thought I had a good sense of direction until I arrive here. Good to know! However, on our second to last day, we came into the room and found the ceiling leaking. We had to completely relocate for the rest of the cruise, which got really disorienting because we were on the other side of the ship (at least it wasn't the other end) and our new cabin was the mirror image of our old one, meaning everything was opposite.

After Tunisia, we had a day at sea on our way to Barcelona, meaning we didn't stop anywhere that day.   We basically slept in and then explored the ship some more. We tried to swim, but as I said earlier, it was ridiculously cold. There was an entertainment crew on deck and they were having outdoor activities by the pool. We played a song guessing game and then did aerobics and stretching. It was fun! We also played cards some. All in all, it was a relaxing day.

Speaking of the entertainment crew, there were tons of activities all day, but at night there was always some sort of show. Normally the shows didn't really make much sense, but they always featured really cool acrobatics, dancing, singing, and stunts. For example, there was an Alice in Wonderland themed one as well as an Avatar one. They only resembled those movies by the costumes. Everything else just didn't follow the plot at all. However, they did have to appeal to a multi-lingual audience so it makes sense.

That's about all I got. Sorry about the delay in posting it!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Castles and Cultures

Sorry I haven't posted in a while! I haven't done any major travelling lately, but that isn't to say that I've been idle.

The weekend before last, I decided to take myself to Olite, a small town in Navarra that has an awesome, restored medieval castle. I didn't have plans that Saturday and I'd been wanted to go there, so why not? I decided to live it up while I could.

When people asked me who I went with I responded, "myself!" You may think it was lonely to travel alone, but it wasn't at all. Maybe it's because I'm an introvert or possibly because it was only a day trip, I just had a ball wandering around Olite and seeing the castle. Since I was alone, I was able to go through the castle at my own pace and take my time. I bought an
audioguide and listened to every stop.

Sidenote: I was really surprised at how cheap everything was. The bus ticket was about 6 euros round trip and it was 40 minutes each way. Then, I was able to use my European Youth Card to get into the castle at a discounted price (even thought it was already a low price anyway). I even paid to go into a cathedral next door. I also bought coffee while waiting for my bus back to Pamplona. With all that, I think I didn't even pay 15 euros that whole trip.

Furthermore, I comminicated that whole day in Spanish. Normally when I travel with other people, we talk English with each other. Here, I did everything in Spanish. I even got my audioguide in Spanish, which I think really impressed the ladies working at the counter.

The castle used to house the kings and queens of Navarra. In the 1900s, they decided to restore it. It was neat to see the mix of the old and new stone. The new stone matched the old perfectly, but you could tell it was new. 

I finished touring the castle and then ate the lunch Carmen packed for me. I walked around the town some more, but it was siesta time by then which means everything shuts down. I decided that was time to head to Pamplona.
Olite was probably my most interesting weekend excursion in a while. The other days, I've just walked around Pamplona and enjoyed the outdoors, i.e. the absence of rain.

Carmen did take me to this really neat outdoor flower shop that had a little of everything. Certainly much cooler than Lowe's or Home Depot. On our way there, we came across a medieval fair that was made more legit by the castle themed hotel that it was located around. (The pictures will be later on in the blog, because I don't really have much more to say about it).

I'm done with my classes now. I had my last class the previous Tuesday and my exams started on Thursday. May 1st is the Spanish version of Labor Day and so it was a holiday for everyone. I spent the day at an afternoon tea at my friend Debby's apartment.

As I've hung out with Europeans, I've noticed how hard it is for them to keep up with the different types of English. That day, Debby, who is German, spent the day with me, an American, and a few Australians and British people. It's hard enough for us to sort out the differences, so I have the upmost respect for them sorting out the differences.

I learned a few things myself from the British. The most mindblowing of them was that the letter "Z," in anywhere but the United States, is actually called "Zed." Crazy, huh? If we just said "Zed" we wouldn't have to say "Z as in Zebra." Joking. But still, the random differences are so funny. Oh, Noah Webster and your Americanizing our English. 

I've also become more aware of the American stereotypes. All of Europe watches our movies and TV shows. Almost to the point that it's annoying, because I want to watch their TV shows and movies and they all tell me that theirs are not good. However, their idea of America comes from the TV and media. We all know that our media is a bit nuts, but do they know that? I've been able to see the stereotypes of Americans that Europeans have. It's not pretty. They all think we're fat, stupid, and go around shooting people.

Sometimes, I just want to say, "If you think we're so dumb, stop watching our TV and whatnot!" However, of course, it's not that simple. We do get all up in everyone's business sometimes and so I understand that's it's hard not to have a love/hate relationship with us. It has made me very uncomfortable sometimes.

Anyway, you probably don't want to hear about all that. I'm going home exactly two weeks from now! It's crazy how time flies. I don't want to leave, but I'm also excited to get home and be back in my comfort zone.

I've absolutely loved living with Carmen and her daughter, but living with a family also has it's downsides. For instance, today, I had to go to the library when she was leaving to go get her car fixed. She just won't leave the house for a long period of time with deadlocking it. I miss being able to come and go as I please. Also, it can be a pain having to be home for dinner at 9:00. It would be fine if it were 6:00 and then I could go back out, but after eating at 9:00, I never want to leave to meet back up with my friends. Especially since I have to shower before 11:00 because we live in an apartment building. It's hard to change 20 years of lifestyle and eating habits, after all.

So while living in Spain has been the experience of a lifetime, I thought I'd share a bit of the downsides. In a few years, however, I probably won't even remember them.

My next blog post will either be posted from home or right after my trip to Andalucia. We'll see how much of a writing mood I'm in. I've also yet to write the one about the cruise ship. It's coming! I promise.

Monday, April 22, 2013

End of cruise

After Italy, our next port stop was Tunis, Africa. None of us had been to mainland Africa, so that was really exciting.

Mom was worried about us going around in Tunis by ourselves, we went on an organized excursion by the crew. We chose the one that would take us through Carthage and the Medina, which is the shopping district. We actually thought Medina was a place like Carthage and that's why we chose it because we didn't want to go shopping really. Boy, were we wrong.

We met up with our excursion group in one of the lounges on deck. When a lot of other people were speaking Spanish, my parents got worried that we had signed up for the wrong group. In reality, they had just split our bus into a Spanish speaking section and an English section and our tour had two guides. Each language group did their own thing. However, it was funny whenever both guides would use the microphone to talk to the whole bus because sometimes they'd say different things and I could understand both of them.

Normally, the guides would talk at the same time without using the microphone. The Spanish sat up front, and their guide spoke to them at the front, and ours spoke to use from the middle. It wasn't as confusing as it sounds. Sorry.

Anyway, we first when to the Phoenician Carthage ruins, which were very interesting. Later, we went to the Roman Carthage ruins. The Phoenician Carthage ruins consisted of shrines to Baal and Tanit, the god and goddess that the Phoenicians worshipped. The whole area was really morbid because it was full of baby graves that the people had sacrificed to the gods.

After the Phoenician Carthage, we got back on the bus and went to the Medina. Carthage is a suburb of Tunis, so we had to drive into the city where the Medina is located. Our guide pointed out parts of the city on the way. There are sections where the Christian and Jews live "in harmony," to quote the guide, with the rest of the city. I'm glad that they are able to live peacefully. Our guide also told us a little about the education system. They all speak Arabic, Burbor, and French, but then they also choose at least one other language to learn at a certain age. Being on this side of the ocean really makes me aware of how lazy our American language education is. It really puts us behind the rest of the world.

Once we arrived in the Medina, we were bombarded by vendors trying to sell us stuff by using the "hard sell" technique. In other words, bargaining. It was really abrasive for everyone in the group. No one really ventured out past where the guide took us. He first took us to a perfume shop, where they explained the process of crushing the flowers to get the oil used for the perfume. Mom got me some lavender scented perfume.

It at the shop that we noticed that I am apparently the type of the Arabs. The men who were selling the process wouldn't stop checking me out and afterwards one of them asked to take a picture with me and kept going on about how pretty my eyes are. I was just like, "Uh...I have to go," not only because the group was leaving.

After the perfume shop, we walked through the shopping district to a rug store. I just tried not to make eye contact with anyone, because if you do, they'll try to sell you something and all the men wouldn't stop staring at me. Mom and Dad were muttering about it behind me as we were walking. Moreover, when we entered the rug store, the guide asked me, "Where is your dad? Go sit over there and sit right next to him." So apparently he had noticed as well. I'm not sure what it was about me. There were other young, pretty girls in our group, even a petite blonde girl and I was the one everyone was focusing on. It was really uncomfortable.

The rug store was kind of cool. It was kind of a show. The store keepers brought out rugs one by one and one guy explained how they were made and with what and what type of rug it was. They then pressured us to buy a rug, but they were all really expensive and we don't need more rugs. I, of course, was singled out and asked what my favorite was. Then they tried to sell me that rug we had to argue with him for five minutes that we didn't want the rug. "Hard sell."

This picture on the left was taken on the top of the rug store. We were able to go the top after the rug show thing and then we had a bit of free time to go back in and look around.

Mom and I did end up buying some scarves from the store. Dad helped us bargain, but they deferred to us for the price,"If the women are happy, then we are happy." Although, later, we found on Mom's scarf a "Made in China" sticker. So much for a hand-made scarf that they spent weeks making. That's what our guide told us: the things in the market are hand-made and that their livelihood depends on it. That their economy would not survive without tourism. So we kind of felt bad not buying anything. Ah well. We contributed.

Everyone was rather relieved to leave the Medina. I think everyone in our group had chosen that tour because they wanted to avoid the heavy-duty shopping because no one was really a bargain hound.

Our last stop was the Roman Carthage ruins. Those were distinctly Roman looking. On the way there, we saw the remains of a Roman aqueduct that the guide said used to stretch for five miles or so to bring water to the city. Incidentally, Pamplona has a very well-preserved Roman aqueduct. Fun fact. Anyway, we hung out around there for a while and had some free time to look around and take pictures.

Then, we got back on the bus and headed back to the cruise ship. We went through the ship terminal as we always did, but this time the ship terminal was full of vendors selling things again. Tons of people were buying things and I got the impression that people go to Tunis to buy things cheaply. In front of our boat, they were giving camel rides. I would have totally done it if I wasn't wearing a skirt and then I didn't want to venture back out and be hassled again. I had had my fill of being hassled.

Now, all this is not to say that I'd never go back. Now that I've had the experience, I know more of what to expect and would get used to it more. For instance, one of my blog posts in January or February talked about how uncomfortable I was when I was approached in Pamplona (Turkish guy--it really is Arab men who love me). Now going around in Pamplona alone is no big deal. I've gotten used to it.

The day after Tunis was what they call "A Day at Sea" and we didn't stop anywhere. I'll leave that day to my blog post about the cruise ship itself.

View from Montjuic
After the day at sea, we were back in Barcelona. My train didn't leave Barcelona until 3:00, so we had all morning to look around. We took a cab back to the hotel where my parents would stay that night and left our bags at the desk. Then we went up to the top of a foothill in the middle of Barcelona called Montjuic. There is a fortress on the top that neither of us had been to yet. It reminded us a lot of the Ciudadela (Citadel) in Pamplona because of how similar the architecture was.

We saw this really cute group of kindergarten-aged kids who looked like they were on a field trip. I could slightly understand what the teacher was talking about, but it was a Catalan school group which is a completely different language than Spanish.

I should say that we took cable cars to the very top of Montjuic, but we were still up on the hill once we came back down. I wanted to show them the Palace on Montjuic, which is now an art museum, because it's gorgeous and I knew Mom would like to take pictures of it. However, on the way there it started raining. I was wearing my scarf from Tunis and found that it made a very nice head shawl, but Mom and Dad didn't have anything. So that was cut short, and we found a restaurant to have some tapas and coffee to dry off a little.

After drying off, we took the metro to La Boqueria and this time it was open. We got some of the delicious smoothies they sell there and I got some snacks for the train ride back. I've discovered that I'm a big fan of figs, so I got a back of those along with some nuts.

Then, it was time to make our way to the train station. We got there with time to spare, so Dad got me a coffee at a McCafe and we sat until it was time for me to go through security. Barcelona is the only train station that I've been to so far that has had security. I guess it's because it's a big city and all.

On the train, I read some more of The Host in Spanish. I actually finished it that weekend when I go back (I arrived in Pamplona on a Friday) and felt very accomplished. That's a pretty big book.

When I got off the train, Carmen was waiting for me, which was a very pleasant surprise. I had to dig up my Spanish because I'd only been reading in Spanish over the break, not speaking it.

It was so nice to see Mom and Dad, and I'm pretty sure I had the coolest Spring Break ever. It was really hard to get back into the swing of things afterwards though. Having almost two weeks with no class will do that.

Well, this is almost the end of my posts about the cruise. I just have one more that I'm working on about the ship itself.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Scattered Anecdotes

Here are some scattered anecdotes to keep you up with the goings on since my spring break trip.

I went to a chorus and orchestra concert the week before. Only in Spain will you have a mass running up to the beginning of the concert. It was the funniest thing. I left the house early to give myself enough time to get there because I couldn't remember exactly how to get to the Cathedral where the concert took place. Well, I got there and walked in on a mass. When I saw people with the flyers for the concert, however, I knew I was in the right place. It was just funny.

So, I've had a cold for a week or so now. Just congestion, nothing serious. Well on one of the first days, Carmen offered to put a piece of an onion in my room, because its supposed to help. It might have, or it was possibly a placebo effect, not sure. Regardless, my room still sometimes smells like onion even though the window has been open a lot of the time. She's funny about home remedies and things like that.

This past Sunday, a group of us wanted to go to Las Bardenas Reales again to have a picnic and look around. We were going to rent a car and drive down. Well, I assumed they had booked the car the day before, I guess, because nothing is open on Sundays. So we went to the rental car place and, sure enough, it was closed. Instead, we took our food to the Cuidadela in Pamplona and had a lovely time walking around Pamplona in the amazing weather.

Yes, it is starting to finally feel like Spring in Pamplona. Although, this week the temperatures really jumped around. It was so hot on Wednesday that I was afraid that I hadn't packed summery enough clothes. Carmen assured me that that weather was more typical for summer than spring and that it was just a random hot day. Whew! Thursday was cooler and felt more like Spring. Friday was just chilly again. The weather this year has jumped around a lot.

This Thursday, we didn't have class in our department because it was the "Día del Patron" of "Filosofia y Letras" (our department). Each department has a patron saint and have a day off each year accordingly. There were events at the university and such for the occasion. I only went to the beginning part of it because we ended up going to Las Bardenas Reales that day instead. It was so much more windier than the last time we went! However, we made the best of it and had a lovely picnic.

At Las Bardenas, aka the James Bond Desert (or that's what I call it), we went into this little canyon area and there were still some spots that had water or were wet. I accidently stepped in a mud puddle and got my Chaco sandals caked with mud. Luckily I wasn't wearing other shoes, because they would have been harder to clean. I ended up taking off my sandals and walking around in that
part barefoot to let the mud dry on my shoes, so as to scrape off easier. I felt like I was literally walking on eggshells because of the cracked ground. Then the muddy parts just felt really cool.

This Saturday, I went on a trip organized by the international committee to Biarritz, France, a coastal town popular for vacationing as it has a beach. Carmen was really excited that I went because she had wanted to take me when she thought the bus from Pamplona to Biarritz was running, but it only starts in the summer-- like June or July. It's one of her favorite places to go so she was glad that I went.

Anyway, we took a bus there and they let us off to explore the town. The bus left Pamplona at 12:00 and arrived at 2:00 (so late! But as I've said, most Europeans don't get up early). Over half the group went surfing, but as it was expensive and I don't know how to surf, I opted out of surfing and hung out with two of my German friends Inca and Debby.

We walked around the town looking for a coffee shop that wasn't too expensive . We ended up finding one relatively close to where we started and that was in the sun. We sat outside for a good while enjoying the coffee and each other's company. Then we walked by the waterfront and took lots of pictures. Ate crêpes and laid out on the beach. Drank more coffee. All in all, it was a good day.

Inca and Debby taught me some German/reminded me of words that I knew. Which was fun. When it was time to meet the bus, we walked back and ended up waiting for the bus for an hour and ten they called someone in the group and we had to walk to another spot. Then we had to wait again for the surfers. We pretty much left two hours later than we were supposed to. I wouldn't have minded if we could have gone around the city more. Ah well. Spaniards.

Today, I went to a mass service in the Catedral de Pamplona with Inca, Debby, and Katie (who I went to Grease with later in the day), which was nice. Their mass is the most fancy, or I don't know, that I've been too. There are a bunch of priests and they process in to where they do the service and then they process out. It's been very interesting comparing mass services. Some don't sing at all, and then some sing all the time. The ones that do, don't sing out of hymn books. Instead, they sing by memory or respond to the priest. I like my Presbyterian services where you have a bulletin that you can follow along with and know what to say/sing.

Later that afternoon, I went to see Grease with my Australian friend, Katie. I had chills that were multiplyin.' Everything was in Spanish, which was hard to follow at times, but overall it was really fun. I saw a ton of kids there, but while I was watching it, I thought "I'd never take my kids to see this." It was not only the lyrics, but a few of the actors had this fondness of mooning the audience. In the movie, they only do it once. It this play, it was multiple times. The curtain call was more fun than American ones, however. After everyone did their bows, they did a song medley and had everyone on their feet dancing and clapping.

Well, there you go. Somewhat caught up on the past few weeks!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Three Days in Italia


After Marseille, the next stop on the itinerary was Genoa, or Genova, as the Italians call it and I find easier to say. Before the cruise itself, Mom found out that the infamous Portofino is very close to Genova and very possible to reach in a day trip. Mom had always wanted to see Portofino--it is the vacation island of the rich and famous, so she looked up how to get there before flying over here.

Once we got off in Genova, we found the train station and took the train to a little town called Santa Margarita, which has a ferry that goes to Portofino. We didn't look much around Santa Margarita then because we were franitically looking for where the ferry departed. We got there in the nick of time. They were just starting to pull up the ramp for the ferry when the let us on.

It was a very scenic trip to Portofino. It probably took about five to ten minutes as it was just across the pond a bit. Strangely, it reminded me a lot of being on Lake Murray, where my grandparents live, except that the houses were gorgeous, Italian/Mediterranean styled.

Oh! I should mention that it was Easter Sunday. We saw signs for "Pasqua" (Easter) everywhere. Pascua is Easter in Spanish, so Pasqua is the Italian spelling. Love the many crossovers in Latin languages. Easter in Portofino. How awesome is that?

All right, so once we got there, we walked around a little bit. We stopped at a souvenir shop where I bought a postcard for my friend Sarah, who loves postcards. Then, we decided to climb up one of the hills to get a higher view of the town.

Once we made it to the top, we had gorgeous views of the place. All the pictures we took look like postcards, but it was real life. Very, very picturesque.

Once we'd seen all we wanted to see, we decided to head back to Santa Margarita, as it was a gorgeous town as well and we hadn't been able to see much of it. We caught the 12 o'clock ferry and good thing too because there was another one coming in jam packed with people. Portofino was filling up rapidly. When we were walking around it wasn't bad, but as we could see from our ferry it was very full. We don't like crowds much in our family.

One thing we definitely wanted to get while in Italy is the gelato. It's their version of ice cream, but it's so much more delicious. They just don't make ice cream anywhere else as good as Italy. Helado in Spain and Portugal is good but just can't compare with Italy. However, you don't buy food in Portofino unless you're starving or are swimming in cash, so we waited until we got back to Santa Margarita and had eaten our packed lunches.

Sadly, I didn't take any pictures of Santa Margarita. My brain must have let me. I blame the vacation. Anyway, we found a nice place to sit on the rocks and watch the sea to eat our lunch. I finished before my parents and was restless, so I walked around this outdoor market while they were finishing up. Then we met back up and got our much anticipated gelato. Yum, yum, yum!

After we had walked around some more, it was sadly time to head back to Genova to give ourselves enough time to catch the boat. We got on a train, which was so much nicer than the one that took us there. However, it wasn't making as many stops as the first one that took us there. Mom started worrying that we'd gotten on the wrong train. As it turns out, it was a long-distance train instead of a commuter one that we'd gotten on in the morning. I told her that it would surely stop in Genova, all long-distance trains stop in big cities, but she wanted to be sure. Dad asked this Irish guy and he said he thought so, which didn't reassure Mom at all. So we got off at the next stop and asked a conductor. All was fine.

Then we were back in Genova. We didn't have time to go downtown and look around, but our boat terminal was very beautiful and we saw a Columbus monument near the train station, so we saw a few things. We did have time to go to a café, use the wifi, and drink delicious Italian lattes. I am now a fan of Italian lattes, although my dad prefers the Spanish coffee because it's stronger and cheaper. I can't argue with the cheaper part, but I like my coffee with more milk, which the Italians do.

That night, we went to an Easter mass on board. It was done in Italian, but they handed out a sheet that had the order of mass in six different languages so we could follow along. I understood about 30% of the sermon, also in Italian, based on my knowledge of Spanish. Not bad, if I do say so myself.


Now, I will move on to Naples. Even though all the days were great, if I had to pick a least favorite, Naples would be it. Perhaps not all of Naples is bad, but the port and train station was just gross and really sketchy.

Before going to Naples, we didn't know much about it, like what there is to see and whatnot. The last time we went, we went on an excursion to Pompeii. This time, we went to Sorrento, a part of the Amalfi Coast because Mom had heard of it and we saw it in my Rick Steves' book. I was more interested in seeing Herculanum, the other town buried in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. We planned to go there on the way back from Sorrento.

Once we arrived in Sorrento, we looked at the map outside the train station and headed in the direction of things that looked interesting. I really had to go to the bathroom, so we looked around for a place and ended up going to a place and bought coffee so we could go to the bathroom. It was really pricey coffee, but quite good. Again, I like the coffee/milk ratio of Italian coffee.

After that, we looked around for a place to eat our lunch. We ended up sitting in a little square on a park bench and watched the town go by. We didn't see a whole lot because a big bus was impeding our view. As it turned out, the bus was an excursion bus from MSC. Moreover, when the bus had left, another one pulled up. We kind of thought about hopping on the bus, but we supposed they wouldn't have taken too kindly to that.

Once we'd finished up lunch, we went to the point where you can see the coastline and ocean. Unfortunately, that's when it decided to rain, so we had to run back and catch the train (like my rhyme?). Besides, I wanted to have time to see Herculanum.

For those of you who I talked to right after getting back from the trip, I probably gave the impression that I hate Italy because of Naples. I was still feeling annoyed about that experience, so you got my negative emotions. Now that I've had time to blog and reflect, I really don't at all, but I am not a fan of the public transportation at all. You see, they don't run enough trains and so if it starts to rain or if it's rush hour, the trains are jam packed. On the way back from Sorrento, we had to shove our way onto the train and then be crammed into the train like sardines for an hour and a half. It took longer to get back than it did coming. Since it took so long and it was impossibly crowded, we didn't make it to Herculanum, which I was really disappointed about because I had loved Pompeii and Herculanum is supposed to be even better preserved. Guess, I'll have to go back, huh? Maybe give the rest of Naples another chance.

As it was, we barely made it back to the port in time to catch the cruise.

Messina, Sicilia

A lot of days during the trip, we were able to watch the ship pull into harbor. When we woke up the day of arriving in Messina, Sicily (an Italian coastal island), we had already parked (probably not the correct nautical term) and ready to disembark. Upon opening the curtains to our balcony, we could see that we had literally parallel parked to the street. We kind of felt bad for the people who lived right by where we parked because their normally lovely view of the sea was now blocked by our giant ship.
To emphasis this, I've included two pictures. One from our balcony (top-right) and another from the streets (lower-right). I think this second picture is great because it shows just how tall the boat was. These are several story apartment buildings and the ship kind of looks like another building behind it. Again, I feel bad for the people who have their view obstructed every other week by this ship.

After disembarking, we dodged the taxi drivers and tour people heckling us, and headed inland.  First thing we saw was a rustic church, kind of lower in the ground. It was very quaint and kind of a different style than most churches/cathedrals. It was nice.

Once we'd taken a look at the church, we decided to try and find the cathedral that we could see up on a hill from our boat (like we did in Marseille). Therefore, we headed uphill.

We walked through beautiful squares, avoided crazy Italian/island drivers, and huffed our way up. On the way, we saw a really cool looking building that kind of looked like it would lead through to the top, so we went in. When we entered, there was this really friendly Italian guy who greeted us and told us that it was a pawn shop. A pawn shop! Imagine this building in the next picture on Pawn Stars. Unfortunately, they weren't open, so we couldn't see what an Italian pawn shop sells, but nonetheless it was really cool. They let us go to the back part and look around (see picture).

The Italian guy was interesting because he was taking data from all the people who entered for some kind of statistics. He asked where we were from and how we had come to Messina. So he was probably seeing where tourism came from.

After the pawn shop, we continued on up. There were too high points that we wanted to see. The first was a hill-top cathedral. Before going in, we just sat on a bench and had a very peaceful view of the town. I enjoyed the view a lot. Then, we went into the cathedral. Like I've said before, I just love sitting and looking at all the symbols and comparing them with others--seeing new ones and seeing the constant ones (Jesus, Mary, etc).

Then, we walked across the way to the next point. I'm not exactly sure what it was because it wasn't open. It was a cool, old-looking building from the outside. Then there was another view of the city. Randomly, there was this guy dressed up as Mickey Mouse mooching for pictures. I kind of wanted a picture with him, but Dad pointed out that he had a money pouch around his neck and would want to be paid. When we were in Rome, these gladiators charged us for getting pictures. It's just a big hassle and we weren't feeling like it. Too bad. It would have been cool to have a picture with Mickey.

Anyway, after that, we headed back down. Since we were so close to the ship, we decided to go back there and have lunch. We'd pretty much seen all of the city. One thing that was interesting is that they had things representing Pope John Paul all over the place. Apparently, he had come to visit during his papacy or something. There was even a Pope John Paul basketball court.

Well, this concludes my very large segment on our time in Italy. The next blog post will be about going to Tunisia and finishing up the cruise. I'm also working on one about the cruise ship itself and our time spent on it.

To be continued...

Monday, April 15, 2013

Barcelona and Beginning of Cruise

This segment of my spring break begins with the train ride to Barcelona. There really isn't much to say about the train ride. It was fairly uneventful. The only thing that was kind of a disappointment was the lack of a dining car. Back when we lived in Germany, we took a high-speed train (the ICE train) to Berlin and had lunch in a dining car. It was really cool and more fun than sitting in the regular seats.

Moreover, there were no compartments on this train, so we sat in regular rowed seating. Mine was nice because it was just one seat by the window. For you to get a picture, it was three seats per row with an aisle down the middle. Just one seat is the way to go in my opinion. You have the benefits of both the aisle and window spots and you don't have to talk to anybody, which is a benefit for me anyway. I like to read while on a train, plane, or bus and having an alone seat eliminates the problem of appearing rude. The signs of an introvert.

Once we arrived in Barcelona, we took a cab to our hotel. My parents had giant suitcases for the cruise so that's why we didn't take public transport. The reason for the giant suitcases is that there were several formal nights and such on the cruise so they had to bring several changes of clothes. Luckily sundresses roll up really easy so I just had my backpack and duffel bag. My mom brought me a couple formal dresses, but I could have been fine for both nights with the black dress I brought. Still, it was nice to have that variety. But I'm getting ahead of myself again.

We didn't really do anything after the hotel. We arrived at 11 or something so we pretty much went to bed after checking in with the wifi.

One thing I feel that I need to establish that I forgot to mention in my Pamplona post, is that my Spring break was also my Easter break. While we were in Pamplona, it was Maundy Thursday and so EVERYTHING was closed. Same in Barcelona surprisingly enough. It was Black Friday and a lot of things were closed. We tried to go to La Boqueria, a famous outdoor market in Barcelona, but it was depressingly empty. I mean, it's nice that people took the day off, but we really wanted to buy some food at La Boqueria. Ah well.

Even though La Boqueria didn't work out, we were able to see La Sagrada Familia. If you ever go to Barcelona, you definitely want to see La Sagrada Familia. However, make sure you buy your tickets online. The line for that is always so long. If you buy the tickets online, you can go right in. We also got a tour so we knew what we were looking at. I also recommend that.

The tour was cool because the guide spoke into a microphone and we had headsets so we could hear her. That way, you not only can hear her and have a person giving the tour, but it's not as loud in the cathedral. For a little info, La Sagrada Familia was designed by an architect by the name of Gaudi in the early 1900s. He died a while back, but La Sagrada Familia is still under construction. The reason you have to buy tickets is because all the money goes toward the completion of the cathedral. It's very modern and different looking than your average cathedral.

We tried to go to La Boqueria after our tour of La Sagrada Familia, but as I've said it was closed. So instead for lunch, I wanted to find a place that had a "Menu del Dia" or Menu of the Day. You have to have one of those if you're in Spain. We went a little off of Las Ramblas and found a Middle Eastern restaurant with a Menu del Dia. I had wanted a Spanish "Menu del Dia" but we were hungry and it all turned out really tasty anyway. A Menu del Dia is a preset menu with several choices for your first and second course and then desert. It's normally a good deal.

After our lunch, we headed back to the hotel to go to the port. We took a cab right up to our boat. We weren't sure were it was, but I told the driver that it was an MSC cruise (she didn't really speak English). When we pulled up to harbor, it was obvious which one was ours because it was a giant boat with MSC on top. It was a good thing we took a cab because it was pretty far away from the nearest metro stop. With all the baggage, it would have taken forever.

I'm going to skip talking about the cruise ship part as I'm devoting a blog post to just the ship and moving on to our first stop in Marseille, France.

They parked the cruise kilometers away from civilization, so we had to walk until we could catch a bus that would take us into the town central. On the last MSC cruise we went on, back when we lived in Germany, if the boat parked far away from the nice part of town, there would be a complimentary shuttle to take you in. This round, however, there was a shuttle, but it cost 15 euros a person to use it. So not worth it. Therefore, we walked.

Once we got to the bus stop, there were a bunch of other people from the cruise getting on it as well. Finally the driver just let us on without making us pay and drove us to a spot somewhat near the town central where we could catch another bus to take us to the sailboat harbor/city center. It was an adventure for me to try to understand French using my limited French ability and understanding of Spanish. I found, as I did in Paris, that I was able to ask something in French but inevitably I'd respond in Spanish. For instance, "Sí" instead of "Oui." Ah well. Luckily there were nice French people who took sympathy on us and explained to us in English what we had to do.

None of us really knew much about Marseille before going. We didn't really have an agenda and my Rick Steves' Europe book didn't say anything about Marseille. However, we saw from our balcony (yes, balcony!) this gorgeous cathedral on a hill, so we decided we'd like to get up there and see it. So we took a bus to the center, then caught another one up the hill. It was crazy steep, so we were glad we took the bus.

As it turns out, Marseille has it's own Notre Dame. The hill-top cathedral is called Notre-Dame de la Garde. I had an epiphany on the way up: "Notre Dame" means "Our Lady" and if I'm not mistaken we have cathedrals/churches called Our Lady of blah de blah as well. "Garde" means what it sounds like, "guard." Since we didn't have a guide, most of what I know about it is assumption or deduction, but the cathedral was set up as a fortress as well. It had walls, a draw-bridge, and, of course, an excellent view of the port and city which all serve excellently for attacks--by both land and sea.

Since there were no invaders as of that day, we peacefully walked around the fort/cathedral and took lots of pictures and looked around the place. When we entered the sanctuary, we just sat in pews in awe for a while, taking it all in. While I can't help but think cathedrals are often too ornate, I do understand more now the concept of sanctuary. You almost enter a whole new world while in a cathedral. You can forget where you are and just be in the cathedral, looking at all the religious symbols. I'd like to learn more about the symbology so as to understand cathedrals better.

Once we had our fill exploring, we took a bus back down the hill to the city center/harbor. When I say harbor, I mean a small, sailboat harbor. The harbor for big boats was in the middle of nowhere, like I said earlier. We ended up going to a little café and ordering "café au lait" (France's version of a latte) and using the free wifi to check in a bit. I ordered a crepe because I hadn't packed a sandwich like my parents did for lunch (they made sandwiches from stuff at breakfast). It was a delicious Nutella crepe.

After sitting at the café for a while and people watching, we went out by the harbor and had a picnic. I ate some fruit I'd brought and they ate their sandwiches. While we were eating, my dad asked me, "Is that the Pokemon theme song?" I paused to listen, and sure enough it was. There was a group of musicians performing not too far from where we were and the song they started was the Pokemon theme song. It cracked me up and so I went to investigate. It was this group of drunk, French band nerds playing various instruments for a crowd of people. Some were in their underwear. It was the strangest, funniest thing. I watched them for a little bit, until one of them started walking around with a hat heckling for money. I was not feeling like being heckled, so I went back and sat with my parents to enjoy the music from a distance.

After walking around a bit more, it was getting to be the time to head back to the ship. We caught the bus back to the bus stop that would take us to the other bus stop by the harbor. Yes, complicated, I know. Anyway, once we were out of the city center area, Dad wanted to find a supermarket where he could buy some Nescafe to take on board. I talk more about this in my cruise blog post, but I'll just say that the coffee was nasty on the cruise so Dad wanted to see if Nescafe would help. We found a little hole in the wall store and bought a thing of Nescafe. After that, we caught the bus back to the main harbor area and walked the 2 kilometers or so back to our ship.

Thus concludes the beginning of the cruise. Next up, Italy!