Thursday, June 26, 2014

Adios, Alcoy!

Six weeks flew by, six weeks that I can say without exaggeration were the best of my life. Our 2014 ND Alcoy group has become a family, one that will dearly miss our Spanish RA's Ale and Cristina when we return to the States tomorrow. It is impossible to wrap up in words everything I have learned from this experience other than to say that Alcoy has left its mark on me and lo manteneré
siempre en mi corazón.
Since my last update, we spent our final weekend in Alicante enjoying the beach and the city's annual festival in which large sculptures are created and celebrated in displays and parades until the final day of the festival, in which they are all burned ceremoniously on the beach in order to symbolically expel all the evil things (malditos) that have accumulated in the city over the year.

I attended my first (and probably last) bullfight in Alicante's Plaza de Toros. The first of the six bullfights was extremely difficult to watch, as the fighter was not very good and took several final spear thrusts to kill the bull, which was very clearly suffering at its prolonged, gory death. Though the rest of the fights were much more stylistic and performed by expert toreros so that the bulls died cleanly with a single stroke, I don't like the way in which the bulls were killed, as most of the fight consists of stabbing the bull's back with smaller lances until the fighter performs the final thrust with the larger spear. I can't argue with the fact that all the bull parts were used after death and that the idea behind the fight is to give the bull and fighter (dressed in very cool traditional costumes) honor, but the method of killing is certainly not humane for the bulls, and it was a bit disturbing to hear the crowd cheer when the bulls died. Here is the best torero that we saw, an Alicante native, about to perform the death stroke:

Our final few days in Alcoy consisted of begrudgingly studying for final exams and trying to soak up as much of the city as we could. We got pimientos rellenos (see below), extremely delicious giant peppers stuffed with Spanish rice, veggies, and chicken; and of course, our post-finals celebration was at 100 Montaditos, our favorite Spanish lunch chain that offers bocadillos for 1 euro on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Our last way to say goodbye to Alcoy was to get up at 4am for a final hike to the cross in order to see the sun rise over the city before we had to board the bus at 8am. As the sun approached the eastern mountaintops, the city slowly brightened and we were able to pick out our favorite spots in town: the train station from which we traveled to Valencia and Alicante, the 5-story dorm building, the bridge we traversed everyday to classes, the mall and 100 Montaditos area of town, el Parque Cervantes, the beautiful Via Verde, the La Roja Parque Natural in the mountains facing opposite us, and the plaza mayor where we toured the government building and climbed the castle the first day. It has been very hard to say goodbye to Alcoy, which has truly become my Spanish home, but I hope to come back someday and I am grateful for the amazing experiences and memories I will take with me.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Una Cena Para Recordar

With less than a week left of our Alcoy adventure, the program treated us to a farewell dinner last night at one of Alcoy's nicest restaurants. Here's a sampling our meal in pictures (sans the fish of the main course), starting with tapas and finishing with the vanilla ice cream fudge cake bowl macaroon-topped dessert :

                 1. jamon serrano                                                       2. egg-topped crunchy tapas

     3. a puff pastry with melted cheese inside and jelly on top      4. calamari

5. mushrooms and vegetables                                          6. dessert 
Our wonderful RA's Cristina and Ale and our program director Miguel Angel surprised us with a photo/video slideshow of our experiences on the trip (to the soundtrack of "La La La" of course).
The 6 Chegs in the cavernous restaurant under the stalagtites:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Une Crepe, S'il Vous Plait

"Someone stole my money! I just lost 3,000 euros!" a girl at our hostel front desk told the manager, tears streaming down her face. At 1am after a long day of traveling, those were the first words that welcomed us to our three-day stay in Paris. We were not in Alcoy anymore - we had arrived in a city where none of us spoke the language fluently, where prices were higher than we were used to in Spain, where none of our phones worked, where metro strikes added a layer of difficulty to navigating the city, and where there were many more people (and pickpockets). Perhaps in part because of that sobering reminder at the beginning of our trip of the necessity for extra caution in a big city, we didn't have any mishaps to taint our fabulous Parisian experience.
On our first day, we took a trip out to the countryside to see Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles (entrance above). Walking through the extraordinarily ornate interior, we saw the room where Louis XIV made all his important military decisions, the bedrooms of the king and queen, and the famous Hall of Mirrors which in my opinion would be the best place in the world to have a fancy dinner party. The Sun King and all the royalty that lived in Versailles had very public lives; their bedrooms had viewing areas and the dining room was set up with rows of chairs so that nobility could sit and watch them eat dinner. It seems that whether in the seventeenth century or today, politicians cannot escape the public fascination into their private lives. We spent a few hours in the expansive gardens at the estate, where we ate our first crepes and sat by the river in the hot sun. In the afternoon, we returned to Paris, enjoyed a cruise along the Seine River (complimentary of our Paris Passes!), and climbed the Eiffel Tower to see the entire city as the sun began to set. We watched the Spain-Netherlands game and were thankful not to be in Spain for the decisive 5-1 loss.

Day 2: We visited the Louvre (saw so much I can't fit it all here but highlights were Hammurabi's Code, Louis XIV's furniture from Versailles & some cool Guiseppe Arcimboldo pieces) , walked the famous Champs d'Elysees street, and climbed the Arc d'Triomph. This is the view from the top of the Arc, which is essentially the heart of the city, as there are 12 tree-lined streets radiating outward from it to divide the city into what look like slices of a giant crepe. We next visited the Musee d'Orsay to see an incredible Van Gogh exhibit. This is my favorite Van Gogh painting, the Landscape Behind Saint-Paul Hospital:
Saturday night was my favorite memory from the trip. We climbed up Montmartre to visit the Basilica Sacre Couer at the top of the hill, from which you can see incredible views of the city. Then we got dinner in an Irish Pub nearby to watch the World Cup, where we randomly ran into some of my friends from the ND London Engineering program and where I met up with a friend who lives in Paris. We ended the night under the stars at the park below the Eiffel Tower, watching the light shows and eating chocolate and banana crepes. The Eiffel Tower at night:

One of my favorite things about Paris is that they have water fountains all around the city. This may seem random but buying water bottles is expensive in Europe and not many cities that we've been to have had public drinking fountains, which is frustrating in the hot summer. Since it's Paris, their drinking fountains are very stylish:
On Sunday, we went to the Pantheon to see the graves of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Braille, and then went to the Cathedral of Notre Dame for mass and a climb of the towers to see the famous gargoyles. We had to do a ND pose repping the Fighting Irish in front of the famous cathedral:

This is the indescribably delicious ham, cheese, and egg smiley crepe I got for lunch!

We visited the Musee d'Arts et Metiers, a museum of scientific and technological inventions. It was pretty cool to see things like Pascal's calculator and some of the first modern machines. This was my favorite, though - it's a piano/typewriter. The keys of the piano are labeled A-Z so you can play a song while you type up your composition - a very cool blend of art, humanities, and technology invented by George Phelps in the 1800s.

We ended our stay in Paris by watching France defeat Honduras in their first game of this World Cup! It was sad to say Au Revior to Paris, its crepes, and its style, but I'm sure we will find our way back someday. We realized both how comfortable we have become in Spain, knowing the language and our way around, and how much our group of 36 has become like a family, as we missed the rest of our friends who were in Rome or Madrid over the weekend. We have determined to watch Midnight in Paris or Ratatouille in the next few days when we start missing the beautiful city!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Apretando La Naranja

"Listening to a piano concert is like squeezing the juice out of an orange," said the MC to the Alcoyan crowd assembled at the concert we attended last Thursday. "If you clap at the wrong time, you won't get all the juice out because the performer gets distracted!" This guy's reminder to pay attention and have an extra touch of respect and solemnity for the art came back to me at numerous times during the past weekend's adventures. We saw incredibly intricate Arab architecture designs at the grand La Alhambra in Granada (see below but pictures simply can't do it justice);


we marveled at the ornate interior of the Toledo Cathedral (it was easy to see why it took 267 years to build);

we hiked to the top of Don Quijote's windmills in La Mancha and took in the breathtaking view (this is me with Don Quijote);

and we soaked in the mystique of the midnight Granada street parade celebrating the Sacred Heart.

 With long bus rides and much of the weekend on our own schedule without having to worry about details such as transportation and hotels (taken care of by the program directors), there was more time to simply soak in the sights and the scenery in an effort to maximize our "juice" output. After seeing the biggest bell in Spain, Sophie and I somehow got locked into the tower at the Toledo Cathedral, so we were forced to wait and appreciate the hilarity of the moment:

The days are flying by and it is alarming that we only have 2 weeks left in the trip! We are heading off to Paris tomorrow and by the next update I should have some good stories about 7 non-French-speaking Americans navigating the Paris streets and the first few World Cup games for France and Spain!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Saltar Como los Delfines

Last weekend began with a bang, as we visited Oceanografic, the largest aquarium in Europe, situated in the center of Valencia. Amidst an energetic crowd of mostly 12-and-unders dancing to the Macarena and Waka Waka, I saw my first ever dolphin show. I was impressed by the seeming ease with which these graceful and powerful animals performed synchronized tricks, jumps, and twists. After exploring Valencia for the rest of the day, climbing up the 200 steps to the bell tower in la Catedral, lunching next to a dirt soccer field that could have been in a Nike commercial, and seeing chicken feet for sale in the Mercado Central, we left the larger group and set off on our own to take the train to Barcelona. It was the first time we had been "alone" in Spain, without chaperones or activities planned by the program. We arrived close to midnight in Barcelona and, without wifi or a map, somehow we successfully made our way to the hostel in what was then a dark and unfamiliar city. Leaping into the unknown of Barcelona, we were definitely not as graceful as the dolphins, but it was just as exciting!

Barcelona is an extraordinary, funky, hip, busy city rich with culture and history. We saw incredible sights, ate great food, and walked around everywhere. We dipped our toes in the Mediterranean, navigated the famous main street Las Ramblas, visited the Picasso Museum, and went to mass in the Barcelona Cathedral. My favorite moments were: (1) holding up the Champions League Cup at Camp Nou, the FC Barcelona stadium (see above - Mes Que Un Club!), (2) sitting on the balcony at Gaudi's Parc Guell overlooking the city and the ocean, (3) hiking up Montjuic, and (4) standing in La Sagrada Familia in awe of the genius of Gaudi, an architect way ahead of his time.

(the view from Gauid's Parc Guell)

This gives some indication of what it feels like to stand in La Sagrada Familia, looking up the giant columns that are modeled after trees and staring into the vast canopy of the ceiling, through which the sun shines in a giant skylight above the altar. Gaudi modeled the entire work from designs found in nature, such as honeycomb hexagons, concave and convex tree knobs, sunflower faces, fanned leaves, shell spirals, and hyperbolic twists. As the great architect himself once said, "The great book, always open and which we should make an effort to read, is that of Nature" ~ Antoni Gaudi.

On our last night in Barcelona, we treated ourselves to some absolutely incredible paella - this one is called Paella de Mar y Montana. Izzy and I proudly scarfed down the entire thing, which included some excellent seafood (crayfish, shrimp, mussels, and calamari), vegetables (peas, peppers, beans), and of course the famed Spanish seasoned rice. Our weekend in Barcelona was incredible but exhausting, as we had to walk around everywhere and deal with some of the more unpleasant parts about being in a big city (two of the group had money stolen). We were all happy to get back to our home in beautiful, tranquil Alcoy on Monday night, though I definitely plan to return to Barcelona someday - seeing an FC Barca game at Camp Nou and going to mass in the finished La Sagrada Familia (which has been under construction for over a century and is expected to finish around 2026) have been added to my bucket list!

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Frenar: To brake, slow down. With multi-hour lunches, siestas, and 10pm dinners, the Spanish way of life places more importance on taking one's time than on rushing through a tight schedule.  Even the way the city of Alcoy is set up, with densely packed buildings and not much room for cars to park, facilitates a meandering walk through its streets rather than a rushed car ride from one stop to the next. According to our Statistics & Probability professor Elena, the Spanish believe in taking their time during meals to chat because "talking helps the digestion," but this does not mean they do not work hard - it is simply a different style. As my hamstring injury has been limiting my ability to hike and run in this beautiful setting, I have also experienced this week a type of braking, which has come with its challenges and insights.

Universidad Politecnica de Valencia en Alcoy: The "study" part of "study abroad." Though 4 consecutive hours of class a day can be challenging, especially with the sunny weather enticing us to enjoy the outdoors, the university is a beautiful setting with modern classrooms and its own neat plaza. This is the view from our classroom window.

Tapas: Small portions of food; appetizers. We found a great little lunch place that gives 1 euro tapas on Wednesdays and will probably become a weekly tradition. My favorite tapas so far have been bocadillos (sandwiches) with tomatoes, mozzarella, and prosciutto.

Bocairente: Small town with rich Moorish tradition and lots of staircase-roads. On a day-long excursion, we climbed (literally - the network of tunnels and caverns was like a thousand-year-old McDonald's Play Place)  through the old Moorish caves on the outskirts of the town that were used for storing grain. I saw these two boys playing soccer in the streets and had to capture this typical Spanish scene, as we interrupted their game and filed past. As a side note, the topic of this post is futbol, as it is a happily inescapable part of life here. Virtually every park or open lot has a soccer field marked off, often with metal frames as goals. Many of the kids walk around kicking the soccer ball on the streets, and our own dorm has pick-up games on our court at least once a day. I even saw a sign in front of a garden in Xativa stating "no futbol" - not "no sports" or "no play" but specifically "no futbol" because futbol is The Sport here.

Observando: Observing. We visited El Castillo de Xativa, an impressive and imposing centuries-old fortress that overlooks the entire surrounding area. Standing on the battlements and observing the surrounding terrain, filled with mountains, greenery, and civilization, made me think of the millions of people throughout the ages - royalty, soldiers, servants, tourists, travelers - who had stood in that spot and beheld such a view.

Liga de Campeones: The Champions League, the most prestigious soccer tournament in Europe. We went to a joint bar called La Biblioteca (one room was library-themed) and El Autobus  (the other had a giant bus facade) to watch the final match between two Spanish teams, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. Not only was it a very exciting game (Real took it into overtime with Ramos' header goal with 2 minutes left in stoppage time) but the town of Alcoy, as I'm sure was the case in the rest of Spain, was abuzz with chanting, honking, flag-waving, and celebrating in the bars and in the plazas. We will also be lucky enough to be in Spain for 2 World Cup games, which I'm sure will be even more festive.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Paella, Castillas y Montanas... iDios Mio!

Minimal mishaps, intermittent sleep, our first Spanish breakfast (on the plane - complete with a Kit Kat bar! I guess the Spanish enjoy sweets in the morning) and the picturesque rolling hills of the Spanish countryside (see below) characterized the 2-day journey from Pasadena to Alcoy. It was basically Pasadena - car - LAX - plane - O'Hare - plane - Madrid - bus - Alcoy!

The first day, we warded off the jet lag by exploring the city. Alcoy is a small town of about 60,000 people (half the size of South Bend) nestled in a valley ringed by beautiful green mountains. It's filled with historic bridges (puentes) because of the mountain-valley dynamic; the city has expanded since it became the first industrial center in Valencia (perfect for us engineers!). It has rich traditions such as the annual Moors & Christians Festival in April that commemorates the battles during the Reconquista. We unfortunately missed it by a few weeks, but the city is still decorated with overhanging lights, banners, and a large black castle erected in the plaza mayor. Tradition is that St. George, the patron saint of Alcoy, helped the Christians to a victory by jumping on his horse from one mountain to the next, shooting down arrows into the battle. We got to go inside the castle today, which is remarkable as it is built during May and only remains for about a month until they take it down, but it is extremely intricate and richly decorated. This is us at the castle:

We also toured an art museum underground beneath the plaza mayor - we were all quite surprised when we heard loud beeping and a large circular metal grating slowly rose up from the ground, revealing an underground passage! We also had our first real Spanish meal, complete with tapas (appetizers), delicious paella, and fresh fruit for dessert. The meal schedule is quite different from the US - lunch is around 2, followed by a siesta (so awesome!), and dinner around 9:30 or 10, which coincides with a larger, heavier lunch and a lighter dinner. It's definitely something I'm still getting used to! Our next activity of the day (after the siesta - very important) was to hike up to La Cruz, a giant cross on top of the mountain St. George supposedly leapt to. A group of 14 of us ventured out, and we had to ask some of the locals for directions along the way because there are virtually no street or trail signs. The hike was amazingly beautiful with breathtaking views of the city. After 2 hours, we finally reached the top and found the cross! This is me with the view of Alcoy in the background & the view of the cross:

The dining hall food here is also pretty good, and the fish is excellent! Apparently Alcoy is renowned for its food, so we are all very excited to go to lunch tomorrow after the first day of classes. Another cool thing about Alcoy is that it is littered with parks, the perfect place to play, have a picnic, or just sit and enjoy the scenery. The "Dios Mio" part of this post is to reflect the sense of wonder and excitement that has accompanied getting to know this place and my fantastic group of fellow travelers! Can't wait for the next few days, which will be classes in the morning and free time afterwards, then an excursion to nearby Xativa on Saturday followed by the Champions League Final on Saturday night!