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Gap Year Abroad

11 posts categorized "Sonia Pascale"


It's a Funny Thing Coming Home

I have been home for just under five weeks, and I am still having trouble putting my gap year experience into words.  I learned so much this year, more than I could even have imagined before, both in my classes and while living in Spain and travelling to new places.  I came to Spain barely even knowing where Barcelona was (oops!), and I left it able to discuss its economic and political situations with both Spaniards and people from other countries.  Besides learning about Spain and improving my Spanish skills dramatically, I also learned how to appreciate a place for its special charm instead of constantly imagining how it could be better.  I realized that instead I have to change and adapt to fully enjoy any place that is different from what I am used to. 

After leaving Seville I spent a few days in Madrid with my family and then headed off on a six week backpacking trip through seven different European countries (Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and England) with my Eurail pass in tow.  I feel that this trip was the perfect culmination to my gap year.  I explored many new places that were each very different without much prior knowledge of these places, something I did my whole year in Spain.  Over the course of the year, I had learned how to use public transportation in new cities, make myself understood even when there was a language barrier, keep calm during stressful travel situations, and just enjoy myself even when my plans did not work out the way in which I envisioned.  I also became more independent and comfortable being by myself this year, which was helpful as I would be doing half the trip alone.  However, even during that part of my adventure, I was never truly alone between friends from Seville I met up with in France, old family friends, and new friends from the hostels.  For the other half of my trip, I traveled with one of my best friends from high school who had just finished a semester in London.  At just about every stop, I found myself wishing I could take a gap year or gap semester just to get to know each city better.  All of this does not mean that I was not nervous or even scared about the prospect of being responsible for finding my way in a new city or not running out of money or figuring out what was the best way to spend my time in each place (quite the opposite, in fact).  But I did feel more confident knowing I had, in my opinion, successfully adapted to three different Spanish cities and loved my time in each of them.


Visiting Charlotte in Montpellier


Charlotte's flower bracelet and my host siblings' rubber band bracelets


Prague with Jordan




Throwing food at people on the Pont des Arts with Angelique


Hall of Mirrors with Angelique and Ursula


Angelique's Welcome Home Party


Now, I am back home in Arkansas.  I miss Europe.  I miss being able to walk outside my door and wander around and discover something new.  I miss my friends who are all spread out across different time zones.  I miss the excitement of first-time experiences and always having a new site to see.  However, now, I am just trying to enjoy the comfort of being at home since I do not have much time left here until going off to college.  I missed hanging out with my family.  I actually missed my parents a lot more than I was expecting.  I missed my friends whom I had not seen in ten months, and it has been great getting to catch up and pick up right where we had left off.  I missed my favorite restaurants where I almost have the menu memorized.  It seems that after this year, I do not just have one place I am always longing to return to but several.  I guess this is just one of the bittersweet parts of travelling.  Coming to love so many different and wonderful places means I will be filled with great memories of all of them but also always be missing somewhere or someone.

More Traveling

There are a few trips I did not get a chance to write about, so I am including the pictures below.









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La Semana Santa y La Despedida

I was definitely not ready to leave Seville when the time came, even though leaving Seville meant I was going to see my aunts in Madrid and then soon start my backpacking trip with one of my best friends.  Still, I was not ready to say goodbye to walking across my bridge (especially when the sun was setting), Tuesday Tapas Night and the friends that made these so special, or my host family that really incorporated me into their family.

Semana Santa helped distract me from the fact that I would soon have to say goodbye to the place that had become my home over the past few months.  I returned to Seville from a weekend trip on the Monday night of Semana Santa.  I had seen on Facebook earlier that afternoon that my friends were planning on seeing a paso (the central image of a procession or also a common way to refer to the procession) that would be going across the Triana bridge.  I thought that since I was not arriving until much later, the paso would have cleared by the time I had to walk home from the bus stop and had promptly forgotten about it.  After an extremely long travel day between long layovers and a longer bus ride due to the closed off streets, I was ready to go straight home and go to sleep.  However, Semana Santa had other plans for me.  The paso was still going over the bridge about three hours after it had started, and I soon realized that getting across it with a big backpack was going to be less than pleasant.  I finally made it across and home after a lot of pushing and repeated perdons and permisos. This little adventure introduced me to a major part of Semana Santa for the Sevillanos: figuring out how to avoid Semana Santa when one actually has somewhere to be.  Throughout the week, my friends and I figured out new routes to get to our favorite places or even to go see the next paso.  It was like the city telling us, “You’ve lived here for over three months.  Let’s see how well you actually know my winding streets.”  We actually did surprisingly well!

The next day, when I was in a much better mood to enjoy Semana Santa, I went to a few different pasos with Charlotte, my Belgian friend, who had fallen in love with Semana Santa.  Perfect for her, her host family lived right off of the main square through which all the pasos passed.  We watched the first one go by from Casa de Pilatos.  Many of the pasos have music, but this one was even more special because in the middle of the procession while the costaleros (the men carrying the paso on their necks/backs) took a break, two Sevillian women started singing flamenco.  This paso was also different because many of the nazarenos were little kids, so all the parents were a part of the procession as well to make sure the kids were doing what they were supposed to or even to push  the strollers of the youngest ones.  



We spent the rest of the afternoon seeing a few more pasos before heading off to Casa Paco for Tuesday Tapas night, which would be Charlotte’s last.  It took us a bit longer to get there since we had to fight through the crowds and find a new route, but that was something we were already starting to get used to by the end of the day.  We ended the day by stumbling upon one more procession. 





I didn’t see that many processions every day, more like one or two a day, but then the night of the Madrugá, I saw six in one night.  The Madrugá is the Friday morning of Semana Santa when pasos start after midnight and run all night, some into midday or the afternoon.  Charlotte and I made it our mission to see all of them, which would require staying up until at least seven the next morning.  We started with El Silencio, a procession in which they turn off all the street lights and, as the name suggests, everyone is completely silent.  From there, we went on to see five more lively ones together and stopped for churros and coffee along the way.  Charlotte had spent her afternoon seeing pasos, so she was ready to head home.  I still had one more paso to see, so around 7 / 8 AM I went to see La Macarena to end my night/start my morning.  After accomplishing my goal of seeing them all, I headed home to get some much needed sleep.  My host family was a little concerned when I slept until 7 that night, but once I explained, they completely understood.  


Sometimes Semana Santa can get unpleasantly crowded.  Many complain of it being very repetitive.  It can make just getting home or getting some sleep difficult, especially if one lives in the center.  And I still don’t understand why the costaleros would sign up to carry those heavy pasos or how the nazarenos are able to walk in the heat for so long.  However, despite all of this, I really enjoyed getting to experience something completely new and so special to Seville.


Easter Mass with my Host Family


Once Semana Santa ended, the distraction was over, and it was time for all the despedidas to commence.  Saying goodbye to all these wonderful people I had met through CIEE and CLIC was one of the most difficult parts of my year. I was a bit taken aback by this as I had only known these people for fourteen weeks or less.  I did not realize I would feel the same way saying goodbye to the friends I had just met months or weeks before as I did during all the high school goodbyes the year before.  It was hard to ignore the fact that we all lived in different parts of the US or Europe, therefore making a reunion in the near future difficult.  Acknowledging this, I decided to make the most of my last few days with the people who had made my experience in Seville so special.  This made getting enough sleep difficult as, although none of my close friends were Spanish, we had all adopted the Spanish later schedule when it came to going out.  But the last fun nights of hanging out in Alameda were definitely worth it. 


Charlotte's Last Night


Angel (our fantastic cultural guide!)


Hazel's amazing artwork out of what was left of her cheesecake


My Last Night

On top of having to say goodbye to these great friends, my quickly approaching departure date meant saying goodbye to my host family.  My last day with them was a very special day in the family as Angelica, my host sister, was having her First Holy Communion, a very important milestone in the Catholic community.  I am so glad I got to be a part of the celebration and spend all day with not only my host family but their extended family as well, which Angelica had established from early on was my family, too.  When introducing her grandmother during one of my first weeks there, she said, “This is my grandmother.  And of course your grandmother as well.”  After the church ceremony, we went out for tapas (of course!), walked around near the Guadalquivir, and then took a river boat cruise.  Along the way, one of the carriage drivers helped Angelica into the carriage so that we could take pictures of her in her pretty white dress.  This despedida was no easier than I had anticipated.  I couldn’t figure out how to put into words how grateful I was to them for making me a part of their family and giving me such a loving home. 


Obviously I can always go back and visit Seville (as I plan on doing), but that's the thing.  It would just be a visit.  It would not be the same as living there with a place to call home or a weekly routine. Who knows?  Maybe at some point in my life, I'll have the opportunity to go back and live there. While this is possible, it is definitely not certain.  If this is the case, I am so happy to have had this opportunity to get to know this gorgeous city with its friendly people and rich culture.  This quote from Winnie the Pooh perfectly sums up my feelings towards saying goodbye to Sevilla: "How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."



Am I Still in Spain?

A cool aspect about our language school is that it plans trips every weekend to different parts of Spain or even other countries like Morocco. These are nice because we don't just see the sites but also learn about the history as the guides (the cultural director at CLIC and usually a CLIC teacher) explain the historical background and relevance of the monuments we see. It is also an opportunity to get to know students who are not in my classes or in CIEE. Our second weekend in Seville, there was a two-day trip to Granada, and CIEE kind of took over the trip as all the new spring semester gap year students went.  Many times while I was there, I had to remind myself that we were still in Spain as the Arabic influence on the city is very prominent in certain areas.  Even while in Sevilla, I have felt I was in another country sometimes just due to the architecture on certain streets or during cultural activities, especially during our visit to Alcazar.

Our trip to Granada started Saturday morning with a bus ride that got us there just in time to take advantage of the city's great tapas system for lunch.  There, with every drink you order, a tapa is included. These included tapas are not just olives or potato chips like in many other parts of Spain, but typical dishes like migas, chorizo al Jerez, morcilla, patatas bravas, and a variety of other things depending on the bar.  


We then met up at the main plaza to make our way to the cathedral and the Capilla Real.  I've seen a bunch of cathedrals and chapels this year, but this one was different, not because of the architecture but because of who was buried there: Reina Isabel la Catolica and King Ferdinand, as well as their daughter Juana la Loca (the crazy) and her husband Felipe el Hermoso (the handsome). Last semester in my film class, we learned about the Catholic kings' crazy daughter Juana.  This was just another example of one of my favorite aspects of this year: history that I have learned about through my culture classes last semester being brought to life.  I also love having the historical context to fully appreciate the sites I am seeing. I don't just have to listen to a lecture about the Moorish influence on Andalusia. I get to see it in the architecture, the shops, the food, and the language, especially in Granada.  Afterwards, we walked along the river and then up to the Mirador de San Nicolas for a view of the Alhambra. The Alhambra lit up at night, the snowcapped Sierra Nevada in the background, and the view of the entire city was absolutely breathtaking!



I couldn't wait to see the gorgeous palace up close the next day, and it definitely did not disappoint. The Alhambra is huge, and no detail was left to chance, from the perfectly manicured gardens to the intricate plaster moldings and mosaic patterns that decorate every wall and horseshoe arch.  However, the beauty does not stop with the architecture as all around there are clear views of the city below.  It was also interesting listening to our guides talk about the different legends of this fortress throughout our tour.






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It is hard for me to believe this, but even as much as we saw, a lot of the Alhambra is not open to the public. Every month, however, they open up a different part to the public that is usually closed. While we were there, we were able to go up to a tower from which we saw a field of trees closely associated to the city: pomegranate trees (Granada=Pomegranate in Spanish).  


After all the walking, we were obviously very hungry and went for a another tapas lunch before heading back to Sevilla.

Our group also visited another very famous example of the Arabic architectural influence in Andalusia: Alcazar, which literally translates to "the castle."  Before going I heard it described as a smaller version of the Alhambra, but after visiting, I can say that that does not mean less amazing.  It also has the peaceful gardens, this time including orange trees and peacocks, and the detailed plasterwork decorating just about every surface.  Alcazar is the place where King Juan Carlos and his family stay when visiting Sevilla, so it is still currently a palace.  






After our interesting tour with our fun tour guide, Angel, we had the option to stay and explore the gardens some more. During my extra time, I found the peacocks (pavos reales / royal turkeys) that we had heard about and then just relaxed in the gardens until closing time.


Even though I have been in Spain since September, as I was in the northern and central parts of the country before, the sights and architecture of Andalucía and the history associated with them are all new and exciting for me.  Even though the Moors were forced to leave Spain several centuries ago, it is almost impossible to forget that they did in fact have power over this area for a long period of time just while walking around certain parts of Sevilla or Granada. The main monuments of both cities trace their roots back to the time of Al-Andalus, as even the cathedral of Sevilla is built on the foundations of a mosque and the Giralda (the cathedral’s tower that can be seen from just about every part of the city) was originally a minaret.  It has been truly amazing to see firsthand how the seemingly distant history of a region or city can still have such an impact on the look and modern-day life of the area.  


Cadiz: Dos Maneras

Cadiz is mainly known for two things: Carnaval and the beach. In just one week, I was able to take advantage of both of these attractions through a trip with CLIC and then with CIEE.  During these two day-trips, I experienced the fun and crazy celebrations of Carnaval, learned about the cultural and historical aspects of the city, and enjoyed relaxing on the beach.

Carnaval takes place in many different cities.  Even my neighborhood in Seville celebrated it for a couple of days. However, the one in Cadiz is one of the best known ones in Spain. This takes place just before Lent starts, so this year, it was in the beginning of March. The city of Cadiz spends two weeks celebrating, but the first weekend is usually the most involved. I went the first Sunday with CLIC, the language school, and a few of my friends. As we were pulling up to the city, we noticed one of the main attractions of Carnaval: the costumes. There were many big groups of friends who had coordinated identical costumes and others who just dressed up individually. I went as a devil, and we also had a goddess, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, a cheerleader, and many other costumes in our group. This made the walk to the bus that morning a bit awkward as there were many families all dressed up to go to church, and I was just walking down the street in all my red, including a red wig with horns.  I definitely got a few weird looks, but it was worth it because in Cadiz I fit right in. The streets were filled with people, and it was hard to move from place to place. The costumes definitely helped us make sure we didn't lose anyone.





Another big part of Carnaval is the choirs who are also dressed up and go around the city in trucks singing funny songs. They are hard to understand because they make a lot of cultural references and jokes, but the singing and laughing definitely contributed to the lively atmosphere.





There were so many different groups, so we spent most of the afternoon walking around to see them and picking up food from the different street vendors.  Later, there was supposed to be a parade, but it got delayed, and we couldn’t wait any longer because our bus was leaving.  Still, we had a fantastic day participating in the festivities of Carnaval!


The next Saturday was our day trip to Cadiz with CIEE. It seemed like a very different town with the lack of craziness compared to the week before. Even though Carnaval was technically still going on, the second weekend is usually tamer, and the festivities start later and involve less people. We visited the different historical landmarks and cathedral with our amazing guides, Angel and Dani, and learned about the city's history.




We also visited a fish market, as seafood is a big part of the culture of Cadiz with its being a coastal city. 


We ended the tour on one of Cadiz's beaches. This beach just happens to be where a famous James Bond movie scene was filmed. Even though Die Another Day is set in Havana, it was actually filmed in Cadiz. Most of us spent our free time relaxing and enjoying the sun and also exploring the different tide pools.




It was definitely a different experience from that of Carnaval, but I enjoyed seeing what Cadiz is like without the huge crowds and music.  


Mi Camino de Sevilla

After our fun but exhausting trip to Portugal last weekend, I woke up on Monday not completely ready to get back into the routine of classes.  I definitely could have used a couple hours to sleep in.  However, on my walk to school that morning, I was greeted by the sweet smell of the azahar (orange blossom), one of the typical signs of spring in Seville.  After this pleasant welcome home gift from the city, I continued on down San Jacinto, the main pedestrian street in Triana that is filled with different tapas bars, then over a gorgeous iron bridge (El Puente de Isabel II) with a view of the colorful buildings on Calle Betis and then down a network of small, windy streets, where there are always people starting their morning off with “a relaxing cup of café con leche” and friends.  This morning walk and really just walking in general have become a completely normal part of my life here.


One day in Spanish class, we were talking about stereotypes for countries around the world. I braced myself when we got to ones about the US, as I know Americans do not usually have the best reputation. They were surprisingly not all bad, but one that stuck out to me was that Americans do not like to walk.  I thought about this and realized that while yes, it is normal to see people walking their dogs or going for a walk in the US, walking is not as much of a part of daily life as it has been for me here in Spain where walking has been my main form of transportation.  However, I don't know if this means the stereotype is true. I think it is that many towns and cities in the US are not set up for walking the way they are here. At least in Arkansas, everything is pretty spread out, and it would be impossible to get everything done in a day if I had to go on foot to school or work and to run errands.  Whatever the reason is, walking definitely plays a major role in my daily life here in Seville.

Last semester, there was a running joke with my group that the girls were trying to do the Camino de Barcelona.  One of the first major activities of my other gap year program in Barcelona was a 4-day portion of the Camino de Santiago (Saint James). This is a pilgrimage in the northern part of Spain (although technically one can start it from wherever one would like) that goes back centuries and ends in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.  It involves walking around 20-25 km a day and staying in albergues with other pilgrims.  I definitely underestimated the difficulty level of this before as I thought “It’s only walking.  How bad can it be?”  On the contrary, that much hiking can really take it out of you.  Every day, when we arrived at our new town, our whole group of young and fit teenagers was exhausted and could barely do anything besides walk to a nearby restaurant to eat and then go to sleep. In the end, the experience was definitely worth it as I met people from many different countries and who were doing the Camino for a variety of reasons and I got to see a different part of Spain. 

Once back in Barcelona, we girls continued our camino in a less extreme way by choosing to explore our home for the semester on foot by walking to many of the city's beautiful sights (the beach, Park Guell, Barrio Gotico, etc.) that were much more easily reached by taking the metro or bus.  For us, at that point, a three hour walk was not that extreme and an enjoyable way to pass the afternoon.  I feel that because of this, I was able to see a lot more of the city as I was not always stuck underground in the metro or restricted to the main streets where the bus could go or paying a lot of money for a taxi.  I was actually able to get a feel for each of the neighborhoods and to take advantage of my gorgeous surroundings by taking my time to admire them. Sometimes when I had a break in between classes and activities, I would just wander down a new street or take a new route to get to my next destination.  Some of my favorite days just involved passing through one of my favorite neighborhoods on my way to the beach and then returning home through a different area.

Last semester, I was pretty in awe of how much walking had become incorporated into my normal routine, even though there was a useful metro and bus system. However, in Sevilla, other than the bus I take every week to volunteering, my feet have taken me just about everywhere.  Even though I came here with the idea of continuing my Camino de España, the decision was made for me.  Yes, there is a metro, bus, and tram system, but normally it’s not worth it for me to use them.  I love walking for many reasons, such as how I said before, it gives me a chance to get a better sense of the city and to take my time appreciating the beautiful ceramic walls and the smell of the orange blossoms.  Also, it is always fun running into people I know in different parts of the city and having to walk just naturally incorporates exercise into my day.  However, there are also some downsides to not being able to just get in my car and get across town in less than half an hour.  For example, when it is raining, I better hope I have an umbrella or jacket, or I am just out of luck.  The cobblestone streets can take a toll on shoes, and my boots just could not handle it and broke one of my first weeks here.  Also, the most obvious downside, it takes longer to get around.  Although it was a big adjustment at first, it does not seem like as big of a deal now.  In the US, there is no way I would walk forty minutes in the rain to get to a birthday party, but, here, although not the most enjoyable thing in the world, I just sucked it up and decided there was no way I was going to let a little bad weather stop me.    

Plus, how could any of these downsides seem that bad when I get to enjoy this beautiful view every day when walking home. 




A word of advice to potential gap year students: Bring comfortable shoes that will last!  It makes life a lot easier and allows one to focus on the surrounding beauty and not on being in pain. 





Part of the Family

One of my requirements while searching for gap year programs was that wherever I went and whatever I was doing, I would be living with a host family.  My reason for this was the obvious: it is the best living situation for improving my Spanish.  However, besides the great opportunity to practice conversing in Spanish, my host family has provided me with a deeper understanding of the Spanish culture and a feeling of home.

My host family consists of a dad (Miguel), mom (Francisca, but we call her Paqui), Dani (my 12-year-old brother), and Angelica (my 9-year-old sister).  They truly have done an amazing job at making sure I feel like a part of the family.  This has been achieved through small gestures like the dad’s calling me “hija” or making room for me on the couch to watch TV as well as larger ones like inviting me to family gatherings in their hometown.  Whenever I am having trouble with my Spanish, they are quick to help me and make an effort to understand what I am trying to communicate.  They are not afraid to correct my grammar, which I love, or help me find the perfect word for what I want to express.  As soon as I get stuck, Miguel immediately pulls up the app for the Real Academica Española (like the Oxford English Dictionary) and describes the slight nuances between a few different words. 

Our daily routine goes something like this:

I wake up to a breakfast of coffee and tostadas (toasted bread) with an assortment of toppings like tomato, ham, cheese, olive oil, and honey.  Dani has already left by then, so the rest of us have breakfast together before we’re all off to work and school.  Even on mornings when I have to leave early for a trip, Paqui gets up when she hears my alarm and sets out breakfast for me.  I have told her that I can do this myself and, that while I appreciate it, there is no need for her to get up early on a weekend, but she gets up anyway to make sure I know where everything is and that I do not leave the house hungry.  During the week, I come home after school and help Paqui make lunch by fixing the salad as we wait for the others to get home.  We eat around 2:30 PM, which is actually on the early side compared to other host families.  Lunch is the main meal of the day here, and we usually have meat, fish, garbanzos, or lentils with a salad, bread (lots of bread!), and fruit or yogurt for dessert.  Afterwards, it is time for siesta and then a coffee and quick snack before Paqui and Miguel head back to work.  In my house, siesta is normally just a time for relaxing with the family that sometimes includes someone dozing off on the couch.  After whatever afternoon activity I have, I come home and spend some time with Dani and Angelica before dinner, around nine o’clock.  This is lighter like a vegetable dish, sandwich, or tortilla de patatas, one of my favorite Spanish dishes.  My family goes to bed soon after dinner, but I like to stay up a few hours longer.

I am an only child, so it has definitely been an adjustment living with younger siblings.  I had completely forgotten about the struggle it can be to get kids ready for school on time in the morning or to get them to go to bed at a reasonable hour, as well as all the other challenges in between.  It can be frustrating to listen to a temper tantrum about eating vegetables or a sibling disagreement.  Sometimes, though, I just have to laugh because every once and a while I hear an exact phrase my mom used to say to me (“I am not your maid.”) or an excuse I used to use (“Just a second!”), just this time in Spanish.  We also have a lot of good moments together, like singing and dancing together in the living room or just conversations on the way home from mass.  American music is very popular here, even though they do not understand the lyrics, so I will sometimes translate the chorus or explain the meaning of the song to them so that they understand what they are singing.  Also, both of them are learning English at school, so sometimes I help them with their homework.  Finding ways to relate to my siblings has definitely been interesting as I had not been around their age group for an extended period of time for quite a while. 

One of the differences between Spanish families and American families is the closeness of extended families.  Every Saturday, Miguel’s parents and his sister’s family come into town to have lunch and spend the afternoon together shopping, going to a museum, or going for a walk before heading back to Huelva.  Sometimes, though, they will switch roles, and my family will go to Huelva for a day.  A few Sundays ago, they invited me to go with them to Almonte, the town my host parents are from, and Rocio, a town nearby that is known for its statue of the Virgin Mary. 





We went to the church with the virgin because it was a special festival and, then, went to their house for a barbecue with the whole family.  When the whole family gets the together, there are not really separations between which kids belong to which parents and the grandmother and aunt act like second mothers.  This even includes me, as the other day, I was about to leave the house without a jacket, and the aunt absolutely insisted that I put on another layer as it was really cold outside.  My host parents then had to explain that what they consider cold in Seville (mid-sixties) is not what I consider cold.  This family dynamic reminds me of my Venezuelan family and how a family unit for them is not just a mother, father, and kids, but a network of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

Other family outings include going for a walk through the center of town, going to mass together, or riding bikes.  The latter has particularly been of interest to me as a few weekends ago, I realized that I had forgotten how to ride a bike.  I thought this was supposed to be impossible...but I guess not.  It just so happened that the next day my family wanted to go to the park to test out Paqui’s new bike.  Paqui was also a bit rusty after not having ridden a bike in many years, so we learned again together. 


I am actually upright and in motion here!

Another day, I went for a bike ride with Miguel and Angelica along the river, and, by the end of the afternoon, I was feeling a lot more comfortable and less like I was on the verge of running into a tree or running over someone.  I also had the chance to see part of Sevilla that would be too far to explore on foot and spend some quality time with my host dad and sister. 

After two months here, I have a better understanding of how their family works and how I fit into their family dynamic.  That being said, no matter how great one’s host family is, it is still not going to be the same as being with one’s actual family.  That type of comfort would be difficult to create in such a short amount of time.  However, I definitely feel at ease with my family here, and I can talk to them about just about anything, ranging from Spanish politics to the new friends I am making here.  We even have a few running jokes now and certain thoughts can be communicated with just a look across the dinner table.  My family in Seville has provided me with a place I can call home, not just as a reference to the physical place but to the people who have created such a kind and caring environment.  


Mi Comunidad

Even though I love Seville, there are definitely days when I wish I were back home or that I could go visit for a few days.  These are few as I know that my time here is limited (less than 2 months! Que pena!), and I will be back before I know it, but I still have my moments.  I find myself missing the bigger things like the comfort of being with family and friends who have known me for years or even my entire life.  However, sometimes it is just the little things, like craving a milkshake from one of my favorite restaurants back home or just simply knowing where the good restaurants are, that make me feel homesick.  Thankfully, I can rely on the support system of other students that has formed over the past two months and the fun experiences I have to ward off these feelings of homesickness.  

With the excitement of new and eye-opening experiences comes the discomfort and stress of not understanding everything that is going on around me.  I am not necessarily referring to the language barrier but more to the difference in the way things work in Spain.  For example, a couple days ago, I had a really stressful experience just signing up to take a Spanish proficiency test that for me embodied a lot of my frustrations with Spain, such as the standard opening hours for banks and most businesses, the inefficiency of how bureaucratic and other processes work, and the unclear or just plain wrong explanations I have received on how something will be done.  I should clarify that this test has nothing to do with CIEE and I am doing it completely voluntarily and separately.  After everything was resolved, I was still pretty upset, so I decided to walk home to calm down instead of taking a taxi, even though it was going to take me about an hour.  Also, I wanted to stop at my favorite ice cream place as there has yet to be a problem in my life that ice cream has not made better.  As I walked out of Rayas (the heladeria) and the ice cream was already starting to take effect, I ran into two friends from CIEE and CLIC who were also heading to get ice cream.  Instead of just heading home alone and relying on my rich, creamy chocolate ice cream to cheer me up, we spent the afternoon just talking (in Spanish!) about random topics that ranged from cool places we had found in Seville to the differences in fashions in the US and Europe to weird sounds in our respective languages.  All in all, it turned out to be a fantastic afternoon, and it didn’t hurt that it was a beautiful, albeit hot, day.  It just reminded me of one of the benefits I have here being part of a program and a language school full of students. I am never alone in my frustration of adapting to the new culture and feelings of homesickness as well as feelings of sheer joy and excitement of living in such a great place.

Coming from a school where most of my classmates had known each other since kindergarten or before and after growing up in a town where it seemed I knew everyone, arriving in a place where I would not know a single person definitely seemed daunting.  However, meeting new people has been one of my favorite parts of my gap year.  During my first weekend here, I met the other twenty American students who are a part of the CIEE Gap Year group.   We come from many different parts of the USA and are all going to a variety of colleges next year.  However, we all have a basic understanding of the problems we are all facing as a result of our similar situations in learning Spanish and adapting to a new family and culture.  It has been fun getting to know everyone whether it be through birthday celebrations or CIEE activities.  Birthday celebrations have ranged from getting together at our usual hangout to eating birthday cake on a bench with ice cream spoons in the middle of a pretty plaza to surprising the birthday girl at the end of a treasure hunt.  After seeing a really funny Spanish movie together, we were able to clear up confusions by combining our knowledge of different Spanish slang and humor. Even when we just felt like enjoying the beautiful sunny weather on a Sunday afternoon, some of us got together for a picnic by the river and talked about maintaining friendships with people back home and balancing that with being present and active in Seville.  It is really comforting to have this built-in support system that can help in a variety of ways. 




Another part of my community here in Seville is the group of international students that are studying Spanish with us at CLIC.  I have gotten to know people from Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Switzerland, Japan, Brazil, etc., as well as other American students who are not a part of CIEE.  In this way, I have had the opportunity to learn not only about the Spanish culture but also the cultures of all the people I meet through our discussions of the differences between our countries and Spain.  I am even learning some basic phrases in French that will help during my trip this summer.  I have also been amazed by how some of us are able to communicate despite a language barrier.  Most people speak English and are learning Spanish, but with varying levels, so one day I was having a conversation with three people that involved my speaking English to one person, his speaking French to the other girl, and my speaking Spanish with her.  This has just encouraged my interest in learning new languages to facilitate communicating with more people.  Despite our different cultures and even languages, we are united by mutual experiences of adapting to life in Spain and learning a new language. 


Tapas Night with friends from CLIC


Carnaval in Cadiz with Misako and Charlotte

These interesting people I have met this year are not always part of my life for long, as many times other students are only at CLIC for a couple weeks, and as through traveling, I have met people who I will never see again.  However, I think I may have learned an equally important amount from these short-term relationships as I have from the long-term ones. For example, one night at a hostel in Bilbao, I met a group of Americans who were teaching English in Oviedo as well as some international students. There is an extremely low chance I will ever see any of these people again, but, from that night, I learned about what it is really like to teach English in Spain or be an au pair and how one simple common interest can unite people from a variety of countries, in this case being the Harry Potter series.  I have also come to realize that traveling can bring people closer a lot faster than going through one’s normal daily routine would.  I met a girl who lives in New Zealand, Laura, and our stays in Sevila only overlapped for a few weeks.  However, after a great lunch of paella in Ronda, an interesting weekend in Morocco, and a fun tapas night to say goodbye, I felt that we had known each other for a lot longer than just a few weeks. 


Charlottle and Laura during our trip to Morocco

As beautiful and as interesting as Seville is, I do not think my experience would be nearly as wonderful if it were not for the amazing people who have come into my life here.  Both long-term and short-term relationships have taught me the importance of community.  During my high school years, "community" seemed to be one of the most popular buzzwords as I went to a small school where everyone knew each other.  In this case, “community” referred to people I would spend years getting to know through classes, basketball games, school dances, movie nights, etc.  This year, forming a community for me has drastically changed.  Instead of years, I have a few months.  Instead of football games and dances, I have trips to other cities in southern Spain or even other countries and tapas nights.  However, I have come to realize that even though I do not have an extended period of time to form these relationships, this does not make my community here any less meaningful or valuable in providing support, understanding, and a ton of fun and memorable experiences.  


Flamenco y Sevillanas: Golpes, Tacones, y Pasadas

When I told people I was studying in Seville for a semester, many people reacted by telling me "You have to take flamenco or sevillanas classes!"  As a result, one of my first goals when I got here was to find a dance studio.  Flamenco is a pretty stereotypical part of the Spanish culture, and there are flamenco tablaos all throughout Spain.  However, it originated in Andalusia and is not a typical part of the Spanish culture as a whole.  The three main components of it are the singing, the guitar playing, and the dance.  The dancing part is not required, and many times it just involves the guitar playing and singing.  Sevillanas, as the name suggests, is a typical folklore dance and style of singing from Seville. It is usually danced in pairs and during the Feria in Seville.  As far as the relationship between the two styles of dance, some say that sevillanas is a part of flamenco and others say that they are different due to the folklore aspect of sevillanas. 


Through CIEE, I was able to find a dance studio with a beginner's course in both flamenco and sevillanas that meets once a week.  So far, I have had two classes, and it is a small class with four girls total. We start the class with some warm ups that involve flamenco footwork and arms. The footwork requires a lot of golpes (or stomps) and toe-heel work.  Right now, we are still learning the basics, but each week, we will add new, more complicated exercises.  A few years ago, I went to a flamenco class with a friend of mine.  In the beginning, I was able to keep up, but later on, the steps and rhythms got so intricate and fast that it became impossible.  It will definitely be interesting to see the progression in the coming weeks.  We also have to work on getting used to the arm, wrist, and finger movements as they are major parts of the expression of the dance.  Afterwards, we have been working on learning the basic steps that comprise the sevillanas (pasos y pasadas), and by next week, we should have learned all the footwork for a typical sevillanas dance. 


My dance teacher and I

Over the holidays, my family and I went to a flamenco tablao in Madrid, and I was in awe of the performance, especially the dancers.  There was so much energy and passion in their movements, and they made the most difficult steps seem easy.  I was amazed that they were able to keep dancing for two hours with this intensity.  I also loved the music they were interpreting.  Although I was already planning on finding a dance studio in Seville, seeing this performance definitely solidified my decision.  I have yet to see another flamenco performance in Seville, which is surprising, especially since I live in Triana, but this will definitely change soon.  With the many bars that host free performances and my personal experience learning this dance, there is no way I can leave Seville without seeing one.  


Mi Vida Cotidiana

Last week was the first week of Spanish classes at the language school, so I am already starting to form my daily routine.  Every morning, I walk to school crossing the Triana Bridge with a beautiful view of the Guadalquivir River. I am really enjoying my classes so far because I am finally beginning to understand the subjunctive, something that utterly confused me before.  One of my favorite parts about our language school is the diversity of students both in age, nationality, and reasons for studying Spanish.  Even though most of the students are college students, there are also some people who are retired and have decided to spend their time learning another language. However, the variety of nationalities has been the most interesting for me as in the past couple of weeks alone, I have met people from Belgium, Australia, Japan, France, China, the Netherlands, Italy, and of course the US. Because the school organizes cultural activities throughout the week, we also get to know each other outside the classroom.


El Museo de Bellas Artes

After classes in the morning, I walk home for lunch with my family, once again across my favorite bridge where now there is an accordion player who plays French songs all afternoon.  I usually arrive just as my parents and my little sister (9 years old) get home from work and school. My little brother finishes school a bit later since he's 12 and is in ESO (secondary school). As we wait, I help my mom make lunch. My job is normally making the salad or different prep work, so I should be an expert in peeling and chopping by the end of this semester.  Also, it is not common to eat the skin on fruit here, so I have been peeling every pear, apple, and persimmon I have eaten.  I have really enjoyed my first week with them as they are all super nice and helpful with my Spanish. They not only give me an opportunity to practice speaking but also help me find the perfect word for what I am trying to express and help me with my homework. The parents are originally from Huelva, a province near Sevilla, but have lived here for about 15 years.

After sleeping a short siesta, I normally head out to do a tour with CLIC (the language school) or CIEE or grab a coffee with some friends and walk around. Last week, I went to the Santa Cruz neighborhood, visited the Museo de Bellas Artes, and went for a walk along the river just after sunset.






Did I mention I love this bridge?

P1229625I've been enjoying orienting myself in the city's windy streets, and I get so excited when I don't have to use a map to get somewhere. I also started an intercambio (a language exchange) with a student in Seville who is trying to improve his English. These intercambios are a great way for me to practice speaking Spanish and to get to know someone from Seville my age, as this obviously wouldn't happen in my Spanish classes.  I also now have my volunteering schedule, and I am aiming to have my sevillanas classes (traditional dance classes that include flamenco) in order soon.


After only a week here, I had already been on two tours of Barrio Santa Cruz, the first as a part of a CLIC orientation tour and the second with CIEE. This was in no way overkill because the neighborhood, one of the oldest, if not the oldest in Sevilla, is known for being a labyrinth with its numerous tiny and curved streets. Some are so small one could outstretch his arms and have a hand touching both sides and have names like Pimienta (pepper) and Calle de la Juderia that refer to the streets’ histories. 


Without a guide, I would most definitely have gotten lost, which means the streets serve their original purpose of preventing a successful attack on the community.  Along the way, we also made a stop at one of Sevilla's many examples of the mix of cultures and the old and the new, but in a different way from the norm.  In this neighborhood, there is a new Italian restaurant where the old Arabic baths used to be.  Thankfully they have kept some of the original building, so the front part still includes the pretty ceiling of stars to let light in. Santa Cruz is full of pretty plazas with azulejos (mosaic) benches and orange trees, so once I am more confident of my navigational skills, I am planning on returning to just relax and read a book.




The cruz (cross) in Barrio Santa Cruz




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