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eat. PRAY. love. Holy Week in Italy

3 Apr


(Originally published 4/12)

PRAY! I knew being in Italy for Easter Week was going to be spectacular; however, what I actually experienced surpassed every expectation.  Being a very Catholic country, I knew I was going to be visiting numerous chapels, basilicas and churches.  In Rome alone, there are over 900 Catholic Churches!  And I thought Madrid had a lot with 500! As a devout Catholic, I knew this was going to be one Holy Week and Easter that I would never forget.    My Italian church experience began on Palm Sunday in Venice.  After winding through narrow street after narrow street following hard to read signs directing us to San Marcos Basilica,  the streets opened up into a huge piazza(plaza) with the Basilica as the centerpiece.   It was so refreshing to be out in open air and see the gorgeous Basilica welcoming the thousands of tourists. Because we were going to Mass, we didn’t have to wait in the visiting line, instead we went in the line for the door that read “prayers only”.  It made me feel more like a local and less like a tourist to be going to Mass in this breathtaking city and church.  As people from the earlier Mass filed out, we were astounded at what they were carrying :Palms, of course, as it was Palm Sunday, however,  it was an entire a palm tree branch taller than many of the  short Italians carrying them!  I knew I was in for a treat.  When we finally filled in, the outstanding architecture stole my breath away.  The Mass was just starting and the choir in perfect harmony carried through the tall stone structure.  Even though Mass was said in Italian, I was able to easily follow along.  There is something special about being able to hear Mass said in different languages, it really makes me realize how universal the Catholic Church is and gives me a new appreciation for what is happening during the service.  

On Good Friday we were in Cinque Terre, a National park boasting the only untouched Italian Riviera.  The hiking and breathtaking mountain views were enough to make me fall in love with this small Italian town.  However, while we were eating dinner that night, we heard someone talking/singing/chanting.  Suddenly our waitress ran to the door, shut off all the lights, and stood outside to watch.  Curious, we joined the crowds to observe what was going on.  As I looked up the hill leading to the local church, I saw a large procession with people carrying a huge cross followed by Jesus and Mary depicted with swords piercing her heart in pain of her son’s death, making me feel an overwhelming sense of grief.  After watching for a while, my friend and I decided to join the procession of the Stations of the Cross through the town. It was such a moving site to see all the locals remember the terrible death of Jesus.  Further, it was amazing how faith can unify cultures.  We couldn’t really understand what was being said, but we were able to join the locals in prayer. No one gave us weird looks for jumping in or for not being able to recite the prayers, we were welcomed into this very local event with open arms.

Our next stop was Rome, as you can imagine this was the highlight of my spiritual experience.  One of the coolest parts of my trip was going to Easter Mass in St. Peters Square at the Vatican.  The amount of people filing into St Peters square at this hour was unreal, but there was such tranquility about it.  Any other situation with such a high volume of people would have been mayhem.  When we filed I was astounded by the shear vastness of the key shaped square. A huge open area surrounds by buildings with 140 saint statues carved by the famous Bernini standing on top looking down over the crowd.  St. Peters Basilica with its famous window in which the Pope appears to give his blessing captures the eyes and hearts of those in its presence. This incredible Basilica designed by Michelangelo and Bramante sits on top of St. Peters grave.  Before this Basilica was built, another Basilica stood in the exact same spot that was built when Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become Christian, built the Basilica here.  The Altar was especially beautiful as it was decorated for Easter with thousands of blooming flowers in various colors.  As people continued filling in, the square was quickly filling up with people from all around the world.   We could see all of the different countries present because it is tradition to bring your home countries flag to wave before Mass to show where you have journeyed from.   As I sat in my chair underneath the blue brisk sky, I couldn’t wait for Mass to start. With 30 minutes left, the procession to the Alter with the countless Swiss Army Guards( the Vatican’s official Army) began with trumpets, drums, and bells.   My anticipation was rising! I couldn’t believe I was standing in the Vatican on Easter about to hear the Holy Father say Mass. With only a few minutes before it was to start, the sky turned dark and it started to sprinkle.  Oh no!  What were we going to do?  However, miraculously, as soon as the service started, the clouds parted.  How perfect!  The joy of Easter Mass was represented perfectly by the Joy the sun brought everyone in the square.  The rain was a quick reminder for me of the sadness of Christ’s passion but the sun then showed me the joy of His resurrection.  Mass was said in Latin, so naturally it was hard to follow, but we were all given booklets with the English translation.  Despite not knowing the Latin language, it was quite the experience to hear Mass said EXACTLY how it was when the church started.  Those precise words were used when Mass had to be said in secret during the early days of Christianity!  The shear idea of being able to share that with the first Christians brings joy to my heart.   The choir echoing through the vast square, the look of awe and joy on many of the audience’s faces, and sun shining down made it a perfect moment.   After Mass, the Pope went up to his famous window to say the Easter Blessing in at least 25 different languages.  Once again, I was amazed at how many people from all over the world had made the pilgrimage to the Holy City to celebrate Christ’s resurrection as each nationality cheered when the Pope spoke in their native tongue!   Because the Vatican was incredibly crowded after Easter Mass, we decided we were going to come back later in the week to actually tour the Basilica and visit the Museums

Because I had already gone to Easter Mass with the Pope in the Vatican, I was not expecting to be as moved spiritually when I returned.  However, I could not have been more wrong.   Walking up the steps to the entrance, I was in awe that I was standing exactly where the Pope said Easter Mass just a few days ago, directly below the Popes window.  As a gazed out across St. Peters square, the Easter Flowers that framed my view reminded me once again how spectacular Easter Mass had been.   When we entered the grand doors with hundreds of other tourists, I was amazed to find out that daily Mass was currently going on.  Most churches close their doors to tourists during Mass, so I felt a bit of disrespect as hundreds of people chatted casually and snapped photos during the service. Torn between my love for the Mass and my desire to see the entire Basilica, I split my time between the two.  First, I was drawn in by Michelangelo’s Pieta.   A statue he carved when he was only 24 of the Blessed Mother holding the body of her son.  This statue is especially important because Michelangelo decided that instead of depicting Mary in  grief and despair, as she had always been in past art work, he gave her a face full of peace.  This allows those who reflect upon this great piece of art to understand human suffering and teach them how to accept life’s challenges.   This is also the only Statue that Michelangelo signed.  However, he did not sign his name on the piece of cloth strung around Mary’s body until he was not receiving credit for this masterpiece! 

Good FridayAfter observing this masterpiece for some time, the beautiful sounds of Mass drew me back to the center of the church.  I wanted to just sit and participate however; the pews were blocked off to keep tourists from wondering up the aisle and disrupting the service. Longing to join in, I stood in the back just taking in the beautiful church listening to the service.   After a while, I went to visit the other small chapels lining the edge of the church.  Because I didn’t have a guide, I wasn’t exactly sure of what I seeing, but just the beauty was enough for me.  I found a chapel that had a sign that read “for prayers only” so I stepped in and kneeled amongst several other devout Christians who wanted to step away from the normal tourists and really connect with God.  This small act of prayer brought so much joy to my day as I continued wondering.  I came upon another chapel with the Tomb of St. Pius X.  You could actually see his real hand through the glass tomb.  This had significant meaning to me as my home parish is called St. Pius X Catholic Church.  

Again I was overwhelmed; however, I was once again drawn back to the Mass at the center of the church when I heard the beginning of the most important and beautiful part of the Mass:  the transformation of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood.   Surrounded by two Nuns as well as several other devout Catholics, we all kneeled in honor of Christ’s presence.   At this moment, I felt so much joy and happiness that I was moved to tears.  Never before had I witnessed something so beautiful.  I continued participating in Mass, with my joy increasing with every second.  Unfortunately, my friend came to find me to let me know that everyone was ready to go but we just couldn’t manage to pull ourselves away.  Reluctantly, I turned and headed towards the doors, but I just couldn’t leave yet. Everything I looked at in the Basilica brought me so much joy, the beautiful frescoes on the ceilings, the Holy Water Fountain, the sight of so many pilgrims. I could have spent hours in St. Peter’s Basilica praying, learning, and taking in the beauty, but our tight tourist schedule wouldn’t allow for that, so I finally took a deep breath and exited walking out into the sunny St. Peter’s Square.

  I knew the Vatican was going to be a great spiritual experience for me as a devout Catholic, but what I experienced was unreal.  It is unfortunate, due to Mass going on when we visited, that I was not able to visit more of the important areas of the basilica such as St. Peter’s Tomb, the grottoes which hold the tombs of all of the Popes, or the Statue of St. Peter whose foot is worn down from so many pilgrims kissing it upon their arrival. However, what I did see and experience was more than I ever expected. Visiting while Mass was going on, made the experience come to life for me! During my trip, I just got a small taste of the vast beauty of the Catholic Church in Italy. But it has just left me craving more.  Visiting the Vatican was the absolute best part of my entire trip.  I never dreamed it would have such an impact on me.  I hope can someday share this experience with my mom as she is the one who has taught me so much about my faith. 

Being in Italy during  Holy Week certainly allowed me to fulfill the PRAY aspect of my journey.  Coming up next: LOVE in which I describe the love I have developed for the Italian people and retell the countless times they welcomed us foreigners like we were family as well as the love I developed for my travel companions.


Two Lira’s in Madrid

9 Jul

With my time left in Madrid and Europe rapidly coming to a close, I am beginning to realize that there is a high possibility that the term “reverse culture shock” may actually be true. How could I possibly feel out-of-place in my home country? I haven’t really been gone that long, have I? The warnings about this difficulty of re-assimilating into the USA seemed to be a bit silly when our coordinators warned us about it in our re-entry workshop. However, the realization that it is true really hit me when my mom came to visit. This was the first time my mom had ever left the USA, so as you can imagine, everything in Spain was new and exciting to her. Touring her around Spain all week really made me realize just how different our two cultures really are. After being in Spain for so long, things that once seemed so foreign to me now seemed like the norm. But to my mom, some of these cultural experiences were downright weird to her. I didn’t know I had adjusted my perceptions quite so much until I saw my mom’s reactions.

1) Walking on the Street It about drove her crazy that people didn’t walk on the right side of the street, instead it is a haphazard mess of walk-where-you-want-to. It didn’t even phase me, but seeing that it bothered my mom so much I began to realize just how much more effective the US’s system of sidewalk etiquette really is. It really doesn’t surprise me because Spain never scores high in efficiency. People don’t seem to be in as big of hurry here, so having someone walking in front of you is really no big deal.

2) ¿ Lo Siento? Another aspect that really bothered my mom was the fact that very few people apologize for bumping into you. I never really thought about this, however, I could tell every time someone would hit her she would look at the person waiting for them to say something, which of course, they rarely did so. I am sure I was the same way, but I have just gotten used to it. The combination of the Spaniards lack of personal space and being in a big city makes apologizes for bumping into you seem silly and certainly unnecessary. I have often heard that many find Americans to be over apologetic.

3) Ok, I was ready to order 15 minutes ago… Perhaps one of the hardest things for my mom to adjust to was the lack of service at restaurants. Americans are used to being able to sit down at a restaurant and have a waiter waiting on them hand and foot for the duration of the meal. Waiting for even ten minutes to be served is a guarantee for a reduced tip. However, because tipping is not a norm in Spain, waiters have no real desire to do an excellent job, as their pay will not be effected based on the customer opinion. This combined with the relaxed lifestyle of the Spaniards leads to rather slow table service. I remember my first meal. It lasted over 2 hours, so I knew my mom was going to be in for some culture shock, but what astounded me was how much of a difference there was between the two of us in patience with waiting for service. In the US, I never would have said I was more patient than my mom, in fact, I would have said the opposite. However, after living the Spanish Lifestyle for five months, I couldn’t believe how impatient my mom seemed. But it wasn’t her that changed, it was me!

4) Don’t you know smoking kills? We all know that smoking is much more common in Europe that in the US. Almost everyone is lighting up when they have the opportunity. I would compare it to the 50’s in the States in which it was the cool thing to do. However, smoking is fairly rare in the US and luckily we are not around cigarette smoke very often due to new laws preventing smoking in many public areas. I hate cigarette smoke, but apparently not as much as I used to. The smell that once gave me a headache is now just another part of my life. It still bothers me, but not nearly to the extent it did in the US. My mom, however, often found the smoky smell to be downright awful. We would be eating dinner and she would pick up on the smell of smoke and comment on it when it hadn’t even really crossed my mind to be bothersome.

5) My meal is staring me in the eye… And the food. To an American much of the food eaten in Spain is appalling. But not to an American who has lived in Spain for some time. I never thought of my Mom as a picky eater, but I was shockingly surprised at what she wouldn’t try. She had her heart set on getting Paella( a typical Spanish rice and seafood/meat dish) until she saw a picture with large shrimp with heads still attached and mussels in their shells. Suddenly she decided that pasta seemed a whole lot more appealing. I ended getting the paella and she did try some of it, but still didn’t have the desire to sample the more exotic seafood. But she did indeed give it a shot and liked the rice part at least. Perhaps one of the funniest expressions she made was when she ordered sea bass and it was served as a whole fish. Not even the head, tail, or bones were removed. When it was set in front of her, my reaction, was “Wow that looks great! I kind of wish I had ordered that.” Expecting my mom to be just as excited as me, I was a little confused when her face turned to horror as she realized a dead fish that was staring back at her was her meal. I gave her some tips on how to eat it and she reluctantly dove in. She said it was good, but I think that gross fish head sitting on her plate kind of ruined the meal for her.

010  6) That’s all the coffee I get? Yes mom, coffee here is really, really small. No Venti sizes here(unless of course, you break down and go to Starbucks). Although it was small, she couldn’t get enough of the café con leches( espresso with steamed milk). And because they were so small, she encouraged getting one multiple times throughout the day. One day, I did treat her to a very American grande sized Starbucks coffee.

I don’t mean to be hard on my mom and peg her as someone uncultured or ignorant. Her being here helped me see the Spanish culture as I most likely saw it when I first arrived. Although my mom’s reactions to some aspects of the culture surprised me, I really couldn’t expect her to act differently. My five month absence did not make her extra sensitive to people being rude, extra picky about food, or impatient. She was the same person. It was me that has changed. I guess since my mom and I were always so similar to each other I expected her to still be just like me, but there is something about living abroad that changes a person. I am not the same Mandi Lira as when I left. Spain has changed me. Reverse culture shock is going to happen. I got small whiff of it by having my mom around, I can only imagine how much stronger it will be when I get home.

Having a whole week to show my mom my life in Madrid was perhaps one of the best weeks of the whole experience. This was the first time that my mom and I had really spent so much quality alone time. It was great having a buddy constantly with me to talk to and share my feelings. And I had so much pride in welcoming her to my city. Never before have I lived somewhere that was all mine. Not even at Purdue as both of my parents went there, so the university is just as much theirs as mine. I got to show her how I had not only survived, but thrived in this huge metropolitan city. And not to mention that it was quite fun showing off my new Spanish skills.

Despite the challenge of assimilating to some aspects of the culture this is what my mom said she loved about the country:

“the neat tidy streets, the lack of litter, the fresh pastries, the feeling of nice china with every cup of cafe, the warm embraces when you meet someone, the elderly walking tenderly and lovingly hand in hand, the young walking the elderly, the graceful walking in high-heeled shoes, the modest, neat attire of the young, the politeness shown to the elderly on the metro, the well-behaved dogs wandering around without barking or scaring people, and the children playing ball in the streets and courtyards everywhere( I loved watching the kids and reinforcing that kids are kids wherever we go)”.

The bottom line is that a new culture is just that…new and with something new there are going to be parts that are great and some parts that take time to adjust. Note: Although I am home now, I wrote this blog before I left Spain, but am just now posting it.

La Crisis – Spain’s Economic Nightmare

12 Jun

Crisis!  Oferta(Sale) Anti- Crisis!  The crisis has arrived and looks like it is here to stay.   Europe’s economic crisis is hitting Spain hard. You have probably heard how most of Europe is struggling with their economy.  Although Spain has not been hit as hard as Greece, the effects have been drastic.  Currently the unemployment rate here is a little more than 24 percent[1] !  We think the US is struggling with a rate of 8.2%![2]  This makes the worries of the US look petty.  There has also been talk of Spain possibly getting removed from the European Union.  This would allow them to go back to their old form of currency which would be very weak in comparison to the Euro.  Sometimes it is hard for me to remember the crisis, as Spain is a beautiful, modern, and sophisticated country.  However, I cannot compare this to the pre-crisis time. But the effects are starting to show.  My roommate, a recent graduate from the Architecture School at Complutense University in Madrid, is currently jobless and is currently filling her time by taking English classes in hopes of becoming more marketable.  And another friend from the program has a roommate who had been working as a Dietician for the same company and was just  informed that she had lost her job.   Although the clues of the crisis has been surrounding me my entire time abroad, Spain’s desperate state has really hit me in the past few weeks.

It really caused an up rise when the Universities decided to double tuition.  I found out I was incorrect in my statement in saying the Universities were free.  However the tuition was only around 500 Euros a year but is now increasing to around 1000 Euros!  Although in comparison to what we pay in the US this seems small and petty, imagine how outraged we would be if the Purdue decided to double their tuition.  Of course, doing this in midst of the crisis, caused extra anger by students as they organized strikes and made it well-known that they were not happy.  Spain in general is much more politically active, or at least they make their political point of views much more public than we do, especially on our campus.  Therefore, it was no surprise to me to see signs everywhere encouraging people to fight this increase and join in the strike.

Another eye-opening event was my witness of an almost comical strike, protesting the increase of the subway prices.  I was waiting for the metro one day, and I saw a group of people dressed “fancy” in way that was clearly meant to be mockery.  They looked like they had just found their childhood dress up box and decided to reminisce on old times. When the train finally pulled in the station I was shocked as the group on the platform starting cheering as hundreds of people dressed just like them flooded out of the train shouting and cheering as they ran on the platform and then ducked into the next car.   They continuously chanted” ¡Pobres No! ¡Pobres No!”  Which is translated as “No poor people!”.  Their whole idea was to show that now the metro was just for the rich.  Take a guess at how much the increase was…it had to be substantial to cause all of this ruckus right?  Well you would be right, if you consider at 2 Euro increase for the monthly unlimited use path a lot of money.  If a monthly price went up that much n the US, people would grumble but just suck it up and pay.  It just goes to show you how precious money is right now.

It is a scary time for Spain.  And things do not seem to be looking up.  My heart melts for this country.  I cannot imagine it falling apart but I have a terrible feeling that the effects are going to start hitting even harder.  I hate to say this but I feel lucky that I get to escape the crisis.  Although I absolutely love love love Spain and want to stay here, I understand that things are just going to get worse.  It is kind of selfish of me to think like this.  In July, I get to pack up my bags and don’t have to be effected by the crisis.  I get to return to the US and live a fairly worry free life and just watch my favorite foreign country slowly crumble.  It pains me to think about all the Spaniards that cannot escape what is coming.  I think of my unemployed roommate.  I think of my friends are probably fearing everyday that their parents are going to lose their job.  I think of the countless beggars on the street who are asking for any little change I have to help them feed their family.  They cannot just pick up and leave like me.  Their entire life is here.  Is it fair that I just get to reap the benefit of their culture and then just pick up leave, escaping the tragedy that is to come?  Spain gave me so much: an appreciation of culture, new friends, a new language. I got to experience the great things about Spain not having to worry about the economy.  But to my Spanish friends the crisis is real and is a constant fear in their lives. Spain future is rocking and I hope when I return someday, it will be back to the thriving, economically stable beautiful country it once was!

“Unemployment Rates by Country.” Trading Economics. n.p. Web. 3 Jun 2012. <;.

[1]“ Unemployment Rates by Country”

[2]“Unemployment Rates by Country”

Spice Up Your Life

18 May

Exotic.  Different. Enthralling. Mystical. Morocco. I just spent our last long weekend in a country, heck a continent, that I never thought I would visit.  I was in Morocco.  I was Africa!  The cultural difference between Spain and Morocco was much greater than between the US and Spain.  Isn’t it ironic that Spain and Morocco are so different, yet they are only separated by a 14km of water?   As soon as we stepped foot off of the ferry we definitely could tell we were no longer in Europe.  First, everything was written in Arabic, a language I couldn’t even begin to pronounce because the letters are so different.  For the first time in my travels, English was not a commonly known language.  As we made our way down the port, we were greeted by an inconceivable number of people trying to sell us their goods and services: taxi rides, food, and offering to carry suitcases.  So many people and we hadn’t even left the port yet!  It was overwhelming.  I had been warned that the street sales men were unbearable in Tangier but I didn’t know the truth of their warnings until I witnessed it myself.  Despite our bad impression of the first Moroccans we dealt with, the rest of the people were some of the nicest people I have met.   At first we were hesitant to their kindness as we were afraid they were going to just try to sell us stuff, but as we found out, even if they were trying to do so, they were still very pleasant and kind-hearted people.

After our first day in Tangier, in which we stayed in the touristy beach, we were ready to get some authentic Moroccan city life, so we walked to the ancient medina that had all of the stereotypical markets.  Think of when Aladdin steals the bread in the classic Disney movie.   There were stands of plump olives of all colors that the worker let us sample, spices piled high that let out a great scent of authentic Moroccan food, and lots of raw meat.  We saw entire cow legs just hanging from the ceiling….needless to say, we did not stop and talk to these tenants as we were trying to get as far away as possible from the grotesque sight.  I can honestly say that we were the only tourists in the market at this time.  What a cool experience to finally be in a place that was not dripping with people snapping photos.  As we ventured further into the market, we came across many stores selling beautiful handmade Moroccan art ranging from pottery to rugs to jewelry.  One man invited us into his store that was full of breathtaking art work. He showed us around and laid his hand-woven rugs out of us to see saying, “you girl with sandals, take off your shoes and tell friends how soft camel-hair is”.  Laughing I obeyed!  It was surprisingly smooth!  He then showed us a great view of the city.  We even got to see where Matt Damon ran up the famous red stairs in The Bourne Ultimatum.  After the nice man explained his store to us, he took us to an authentic pharmacy that sells spices and herbs as medicine!  Another nice man took over from here letting us sample some of his natural products. We tried rose oil, Moroccan oil, different cremes, and smelled different herbs used for healing.   It was such a cool experience to learn about all of the different ways they use nature for health and beauty.  No chemicals in this medicine!  That day, it started raining on us so we ducked into a small pastry shop and started making small talk with the worker.  It turned out to be a great decision!  Not only because the sweets were only about 15 cents apiece but because the man we met was incredibly kind to us.  He let us sample different food and even gave us a recipe on how to make some of them!  Eventually, he finally just said, “Oh come on…let’s just go watch women make them” so we ventured in to the actual bakery were we got to see a brick oven and even got to pretend to fish out the bread with the long paddles.  Then he took us up to where the women actually make the candies. There we met one of the masterminds behind the great goodies.  She introduced herself and showed us exactly how to make one of the sweet confections. Where else do people just invite you into their bakery and let you watch them and sample their food? Only in Morocco.   Even though this man was so nice, it was hard to not notice his sexist undertones.  When explaining how to make the candy, he always made sure to say it’s the woman’s job or I’ll show you where the women work.  He didn’t mean anything by it, but it certainly gave me an insight on how women still have a lower role in the society.    

During our day in the medina, it was blatantly obvious that we were in a very different society with everyone dressed in their Islamic clothes, the different foods, the women’s role in society, and especially the prayer five times a day in which the prayers were chanted over the loudspeaker for all to hear all added together gave me more culture shock than I could have imagined

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We also got to know the several taxi drivers who drove us around.  As the Moroccan Dirham is much weaker than the Euro, we were able to use taxis for almost nothing.  Fortunately, the drivers almost all either spoke English or Spanish so we had some great conversations with them ranging from history on the city, explanations of cultural traditions, and the food.  They really gave us an insight on local life in Morocco, at times making me feel guilty about how good we have it. The economic situation in Morocco really hit home with me when our driver explained that in order to get clean water for three months it cost about 8 euro.  I was about to say, wow that’s a good deal. But luckily he beat me by saying, isn’t that soooo expensive?!  Expensive!  Wow! Immediately I was struck with guilt for haggling the taxi price down to a cheaper rate. The money difference was also evident in the price we paid for food and souvenirs.  When we went on a day trip to another small city, we ate at a very local restaurant.  Because the workers spoke no English and very little Spanish, we struggled from the beginning to order.  We finally deduced that they didn’t have a menu so we just got them to give us food for 4.  The food was more like food for an army.  We got bread, salad, soup, and shish-kabobs with potatoes all for 23 Dirhams which equates to about 2.1 Euros!  What a deal.  Even though the food was great, we were in for another cultural shock when we asked for the bathroom and they led us to this small closet with a hole in the ground.  Dumb founded, my friend and I looked at each other, turned, and ran back to our table, half embarrassed and half laughing.   This is when we knew we were not in a tourist area anymore and decided that we probably just ate the most authentic food one could find.  Furthermore, we were able to buy loaves of bread and sweets for about 10 cents, milkshakes for 2 Euros and delicious mint tea for  70 cents.   As far as souvenirs go, we were able to buy beautiful pottery platters for five Euros and gorgeous jewelry for one.  We certainly took advantage of the great exchange rate while in Morocco!

 Morocco was so Moroccan.  That is the best way to explain it.  It wasn’t like you would think Africa would not be like, nor what you would expect a Middle Eastern Muslim country to be like, nor what you would expect a place so close to Spain to be like.  In fact, I would say it was probably a mix of all three making it uniquely Morocco.

The Study in Study Abroad

7 May

With finals around the corner what a better study break than to write a blog about the academic system in Madrid. Maybe a better word would be rant about the academic system. OK that seems a bit too harsh but to put it bluntly I miss Purdue’s classes. Being a high-caliber student in the US, it is very hard for me to come here and being limited by the language. First, for the first time in my life, I feel as if I do not have the same academic potential as I do in the US due to the language barrier. I always have to work hard to get my good grades, but I am confident that if I work hard enough, I can get these good grades because I have access to notes in English, a very clear textbook in English, PowerPoint’s and resources on Blackboard, an American professor who can answer my questions, and lots of English-speaking friends with whom I can study. I may have to do a bit of digging, but I can uncover the resources I need to do well. However, being in Madrid is a whole different story. I sit in class every day trying to understand my professor while taking notes, where I often miss the next point while struggling to decode the previous point. Furthermore, we do not have a specific textbook for class; instead we are given a bibliography of 15-20 books that pertain to our topic, so I do not have a specific resource to look up missed information. Also, PowerPoint’s and outlined notes are rare. When I am really confused and I try to talk to the professor or other students, the language barrier makes it difficult for both of us to understand each other. I always leave wondering if I correctly heard what they were telling me. I can relate this feeling to what I assume it would be like for a student who has a learning disability. I have so much more sympathy for these people now. It is not that they are not putting the effort into their classes; it is just that they simply cannot do well. It is a personal struggle to know that I appear unintelligent to my classmates and professors because of the language barrier. I just want to let them know that I really am smart! I understand now how many autistic children must feel. Many are absolutely brilliant, but are not able to succeed in school due to their inability to interact socially, write clearly, or effectively convey what they are trying to say. How degrading it feels to not be able to prove that you are actually a very intelligent person. This experience has been very valuable for me, as I plan on continuing my education to become an Occupational Therapist working with children with disabilities. My struggles in school in Spain, although not fun to deal with at the moment, really has allowed me to get an inside look at what it is like to have a disability. Even without the language barrier, there is still a good chance that I would still be unsatisfied with my education here in Spain. Even though I attend one of the best known Universities in Spain, one would not know the prestige of the school by the looks of the campus. The buildings are old, graffiti covers almost every wall and sign, and everything is run down. It is even worse in the building that our program is housed in. Classrooms are poorly lit, hardly any rooms have computers, and desk space is at a bare minimal. And don’t even get me started on their computer lab…it has computers that look like they are from the 90’s that are slow and there is not a printer to be found. You have to save your work on a flash drive and take it to the copying store to print your paper. I cannot tell you how many headaches this has caused me when trying to print something right before class and I end up being late because none of the copy machines work and then I have to stand in line, waiting and waiting, for each person to print their paper. Never again will I take for granted the ease of a simple “File. Print.” command.

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There is a reason behind this. Because the universities in Spain are public, the students get to go to school for free! Yup that’s right….no student loans or massive bills for the Spaniards. With that being said, I can understand why their facilities are not top quality. I suppose I would trade a dilapidated university for a free education. Americans takes so much more pride in their universities. Even when I visited the oldest university in all of Europe in Bologna, Italia, I was appalled at how ugly and poorly kept it was! However, because education is free in Spain, I find that many students do not take their education seriously. In my mythology class, the Spanish student chit-chat through the entire lecture, paying no respect to our professor. This is not only annoying, but it makes it much harder for me to hear her. And I had no idea that half of our class never came to class until we had an exam and suddenly there were all of these strange faces ready to be tested. I think Americans see college as a privilege. We understand that we are paying an arm and a leg to be sitting in that class, were as many Spaniards just see it as an obligation. If only they knew just how lucky they are.

Furthermore, the entire education systems seem to be taken a whole lot less seriously. My first realization of this was when we got our syllabi. All it had on it was the huge list of books that may be helpful and a brief outline of what we were going to cover. It was seriously lacking in comparison to what we receive at Purdue. No exam dates, no detailed readings or homework assignments, some without the professors email address, and most without grade breakdowns. As a student who likes to write down every exam and assignment for the entire semester in my Mortar Board during syllabi week, this was very hard for me to accept. Trust me, it stresses me when the professor announces out of nowhere that an exam is coming up. Or when I find out that we have to write a paper about a guest lecturer that we had in the first month of class. And then I got my next clue about the lack of seriousness. All but one of my professors show up to class 5, 10, or even 15 minutes late to class…every day! And don’t even ask how long it takes for them to hand back exams. And class participation is almost nonexistent.

Overall the education here is much less structured. I find it alarming when I ask important questions about an assignment or exam to the native Spanish students and their reply is, “I have no idea. Don’t worry”. WHAT? The exam is in a few days…how am I supposed to know what to do it you don’t even know what to do? At times it can be very frustrating, especially when most classes have only one or two exams to make up the entire grade. However, after three months I have come to accept this carefree schooling and am learning how to do well in school despite my disadvantage. I have gotten a tutor, I talk to my professor after class almost every day, and make great use of the internet to look up information that I missed or misunderstood in class. It seems to be working as I did well on my midterms and hope to keep it up as I push through another month and a half of school. Despite the struggles I have faced with this foreign university, it has helped me to take a more relaxed position on school. Back at Purdue, I was so much more uptight about my grades and studies. Not that that is a bad thing, but it has been good for me to learn to accept a less structured lifestyle. Surprise assignments no longer stress me out and I can type up long Spanish papers without much effort. I have learned to love the laid back environment and enjoy being able to go with the flow more easily. Most study abroad programs only have their students take classes with other Americans, so they do not have to deal with the strangeness and differences in the education system of their host country. However, I wouldn’t trade this experience for an easier program. If I am going to study in Spain, I want to study as the Spaniards do…un-buffered and real. It is much more rewarding to know that you came into a foreign class room and are succeeding. I may have to work a lot harder than my fellow classmates, but through my difficulties I gain a better insight of the Spanish culture and have the opportunity to meet more native Spanish students. It is a challenge, but one I am glad to endure. It will be interesting to see how the final month of school goes as crunch time is getting near. I just hope I don’t get too many surprise assignment thrown my way!

No Wonder My Italian Grandpa Is So Nice: eat. pray. LOVE.

20 Apr

LOVE.  As if EAT and PRAY didn’t sum up this trip well enough, LOVE is going to do the trick.  The amount of love I felt this week was unreal.  Love coming from both the local Italians and my travel companions as the entire 12 days were filled with this great virtue.  Let me first start by telling you the numerous stories of how we felt loved and cared for by the many local Italians we met on our journey.  They often say it’s not about what you saw but who you met.  I couldn’t agree with that more as the stories I am about to tell you will always hold a special place in my heart.

After arriving by train to Venice, we had some struggles getting to our hotel.  We had the simple instructions of take bus 10 from right outside the train station all the way to the hotel.  Easy enough right?  Well we waited for the 10 bus for a long time and we finally tried to ask for help but it was hard because we couldn’t speak Italian.  We finally got instructions to walk about 15 minutes to a different bus stop in which when we finally arrived we had to wait almost an hour.  When we finally got on, and thought we were well on our way, the bus driver informed us that we were actually going the wrong direction so we had to get off and wait for the other bus. Finally, we got on the right bus but the driver told us we have to get on another bus in a couple stops…WHAT??  So we asked a guy who knew decent English for help.  He didn’t know where our hotel was but he knew that if we got off in front of another hotel in the town we would be pretty close.   We seemed to be driving out to the boonies. It didn’t help that our new friend mentioned that the literal translation of the town we were staying in meant “place of no laughter” Yikes!  We finally got to the town and were relieved to find it to be a very cute and quaint place to be. However, when we asked for directions at another hotel, the lady was so helpful and made a phone call to  get us directions.  Despite her kindness, she came back with some bad news…we were 5 km away!   So we started our hike.  We didn’t make it very far until we decided we needed better directions so we stopped and asked some guys standing outside of a restaurant.   They were so kind to us and gave us great directions and even drew us a map!  Needless to say we finally arrived.  Despite our struggle getting there, we were truly able to experience how kind-hearted all the Italians were. We had already met three incredible Italians and we had only been in that glorious country for 12 hours!  Little did we know that this would be the first of many times the locals would treat us so kindly.   In fact, later that night we were in for an extra special treatment of Italian kindness.

 If you recall from my EAT part of the blog, in Venice we ate at that small restaurant and got served microwavable meals.   Despite getting not-so-great food, what the place lacked in culinary skills it made up for with good company.  As we walked in, an older lady heard us speaking English and practically leaped from her seat to come greet us and help us order.   At first we were a bit taken aback because she butted right into our conversation and started telling us all kinds of facts about Italy. Needless to say, we ended up sitting down at the table next to her.   After she helped us order our food, we got to talking.  Sandra, or Sandy as her American friends call her, told us all about her life.  As it turns out, she used to live in Florence and worked at a Jewelry Store that had a lot of American customers which explains why her English was almost flawless.  When we informed her that our next destination was Florence she got really excited and started telling all the best places in the city: where she worked, the best gelato, where to get the most delicious pastries, the best places to shop, she went on and on.  She was so excited that we were going to be there that she promised us that if we came back the next day she would prepare a list of everything for us to do in Florence.   We were a bit reluctant to say yes because we had plans of spending the whole day in downtown Venice and we really didn’t want to pay for another microwave meal.  I mean we are in Italy…I could have cooked that meal in 5 minutes at Purdue.  However, we just could not turn down this sweet lady so we promised we would be back.  But before we left, she asked if she could have our address so we could write to each other in the future and bought us all a rose! How sweet!  

After a full day of touring the waterways of Venice, we were all so exhausted but set back out to go find Sandra.  As promised, she was sitting at the same table waiting on us.  She greeted us with a hug and surprised us all when she remembered each of our names.  Of course, she had her long list of unique Florentine places and activities for us to visit.   We stayed and talked to her for a while.  This time the topic mostly concerned cooking.  She told us the secret to making a delicious meat sauce as well as gave us warnings sign for low-quality food.  She even promised to mail us an Italian cookbook so we could cook authentic Italian food at home!  How many random people do you know would be willing to pay international shipping fees to send a book  to group of college students you just met?  Only in Italy!  The only thing I couldn’t figure out is if she was such a food expert why she returned to this bad restaurant night after night.  I think she just liked the people and enjoyed the company.   We said our goodbyes and made a vow to find as many of Sandra’s recommendations as possible.

When we got to Florence, we did just that.  The entire trip was like a giant scavenger hunt trying to find Sandra’s recommendations.  We even went into her jewelry shop and said hi to her old co-workers.  Of course, they all welcomed us with open arms and said how much they all loved working with Sandra.   We took pictures everywhere that we found and are going to print them and send them to her as a thank you. 

In Rome, we were not sure what to expect from the people.  We thought maybe they wouldn’t be quite as friendly seeing as Rome is a huge metropolitan city.  However, to our surprise Rome still had that small town charm that all of the other cities possessed.  Of course, the people there treated us wonderfully, especially on my birthday( yes I was lucky enough to celebrate my 21st birthday in Roma).  When we went out to dinner, the waitress brought me an adorable birthday cake with a candle and everything.  I had no idea they did this outside of the States!  But that was nothing in comparison to what was to come.  After, we went to get gelato (yes I ate two deserts that night…come on it was my birthday and it was Italian desserts.  Why not?)  When my friend mentioned that it was my birthday the worker said,  “It’s your birthday?  You know what that means?  You have to come and scoop your own gelato!”  COOL!!  So I went behind the glass case and pretended I was a local working at a gelateria.  No big deal.  The real workers let me try any flavor I wanted…and there was a lot.  They told me to watch them scoop first so I could “learn”.  I was thinking…pssh how hard can it be?  To my surprise when I finally took the scoop in my hand, I don’t think I could have looked less skilled.  The hazelnut creamy confection was going everywhere besides in my cone.  They noticed I was struggling and thought an employees hat might help, so he gave me his hat.  Unfortunately, the secret was not in the hat and I had to resort to them to help me get my cone to look normal.  When I tried to give the hat back, they told me to keep it!  I now am a proud owner of an authentic Roman gelateria hat. Of course, the next day we went back.  Our same “ gelato friends” were working…hatless I might add.  This time after we sat down with our ice cream they suddenly came out with a little birthday cake and candle and start playing “Happy Birthday” in Italian over the speakers.  It wasn’t even my birthday anymore!  How sweet of them!

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The Italians were so nice to all of us.  I understand now why my Italian Grandpa is so giving and kind(and why he is always trying to feed us).  It’s his Italian genes!  Although this trip allowed me to LOVE all Italian people, it also gave me time to LOVE my travel companions.  Spending 12 days with any one group of people can be tough especially if there are any strong personalities in the group.   However, instead of getting on each other nerves as time went on, we all got a lot closer.   I cannot tell you the number of times we had really deep conversations about each other lives over dinner or on our balcony overlooking Florence.   Every conversation led me to love these people I was spending time with more and more!  I especially was grateful for how they all treated me on my birthday.  I was sad that I couldn’t talk to my family for the first time on my birthday but they did everything they could to make my day perfect.  First they all chipped in and bought me a gorgeous shirt that I had been eyeing when we were in Venice but couldn’t afford it.   They bought it when I wasn’t around and carried it with them all week!  How sneaky!   Then they took me out for dinner and paid for everything!  I really have some great friends.  I have heard you never know who your true friends are until you travel with them…well I would say all of my friends passed the test with flying colors. 

LOVE….what a great way to describe my Italian trip.  I LOVED the people. I LOVED the sights. But most of all I LOVED the experience.    Italy was everything I imagined plus more.  EAT. PRAY. LOVE. ITALY 2012!

 What do you think?  Next big Academy Award winner?

EAT PRAY LOVE (Arrivaderci Italia)

13 Apr

Eat. Pray. Love.  Although the character in this famous movie and book had to travel to three countries to accomplish these three tasks, I completed them all during my short time in Italy.  I may not have a movie-worthy story, but what I experienced is pretty outstanding. In my first excursion out of Spain, I was able to double the amount of countries, cities, and cultures I had previously experienced.  The gondolas and waterways in Venice; the Tuscan Sun, Medici Family Palace, and Vineyards of Florence; the hiking the untouched Italian Riviera in Cinque Terre; the tower in Pisa; and the Colosseum, Vatican , and mopeds of Roma made this trip unforgettable. However, the story does not lie in what I saw and did, but rather what I experienced.

Being of Italian descent, I was on a mission to connect with the Italian culture and learn about the place my great-grandparents lived.  It is hard to explain, but I felt such a connection with the culture.  It was part of me.  Although the only clues that I am Italian are my dark skin and my last name, I still felt like I was going back to my roots.  This is where my family started years ago.  Italian and proud, I was ready to explore my homeland.

EAT…Let me start with the most cliché part of Italy: the food!   Let me tell you, it puts Olive Garden to shame.  I never have eaten so many great plates of food in such a concentrated amount of time.  Our first meal during our layover in Bologna was unreal.  Known as the food capital of Italy, we knew we were in for a treat.  That restaurant is when I fell head over heels in love with Italy.   My 5 Euro pizza shocked us all when it was served.  It was the size of a dominos XL pizza…granted the crust was thinner, but still!  As I dug in I knew there was no way I was going to go back to Spain weighing the same.  Every time I sat down, I gained a new appreciation for the miraculous cooking methods of these Italian chefs.  Every time we were served, our group would take a bite of our own meal and then play “pass the plate” in which we literally sent our food around the table so we could all get a taste. Some of my favorites were Fettuccine with Asparagus and Bacon,  Tortellini with Prosciutto and Cream,  Eggplant and Pecorino Cheese Panini, Risotto con cream y vino,  and Pesto on Pasta in the town in which this basil sauce was invented.  Of course my curious mind had to try some of the strange specialties of the area.  I tried Florentine Tripa( Cow Stomach stew), Ox Tail, Wild Boar, Cuttle Fish Pasta that was black from the squids ink, anchovies, zucchini flowers, and Roman Artichokes and Polenta(a corn meal mush with meat and tomato sauce).  The polenta had a special significance to me because it is my dad’s favorite food. He comes from an Italian family and when my great grandma made polenta he would act like a little kid on Christmas.  I never liked it when I was younger, but decided I should give it a try, in honor of my Italian heritage.  As it turns out it was one of my favorite meals!  I guess my dad’s family wasn’t so crazy after all.  To my surprise some of the most common Italian food was not really part of the Italian meal…just an American twist on the classic.  For example I did not see one breadstick the entire time, nor did any menu have fettuccine with grilled chicken, and the only time we saw spaghetti and meatballs was on the English menu at one restaurant…when we compared the English and Italian menus we discovered that this wasn’t even offered on the Italian version, they were just trying to please their American customers.

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 Despite being in Italy, we did have two not-so-great meals.  The first night, we got to our hostel late and were staying in a small town and we ended up eating at small bar run by a Chinese lady.  We ordered and our jaws about dropped when the food came out in microwavable trays…we payed five euro for a lean cuisine meal!  What? In Italy? No Way!  The other funny story was from the night I ordered duck.  I was excited to try a new meat but was once again shocked when the waiter brought out two hotdogs and a lemon.  Confused, I asked her about it and she assured me that I was eating duck.   Trust me lady, I’m an American, I know a hot dog when I see one.   However, every other meal was leaps and bounds beyond our expectations.  Italian food blows all other cuisines out of the world.  I bet you are salivating as I tell you this and I haven’t even started with the sweets.  Hello GELATO- the best invention ever.  America’s ice cream falls in the shadows of this great culinary masterpiece.  Hazelnut, cookies, nutella, mango, peach, mint, caramel cream, mascarpone, pistachio….I could go on forever.  With a gelateria on every street, it was hard to resist, which is why we didn’t. The marvelous colors of this creamy confection were piled high and calling our names though the crystal clear glass display cases.  Topping of a day of touring with a cone of gelato equals la dolce vita(the sweet life).  Italy certainly has some amazing culinary inventions.   Back in Spain, I am already going through pasta, pizza, and gelato withdrawal.

Now that I have completed the EAT part of my journey, let’s move on to the PRAY.  Stay tuned for my next blog in which I recreate my spiritual journey while spending Holy Week and Easter in this very Catholic country.