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Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


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Las Palmas Carnival 2010: Five days of Magical MADNESS

I apologize for the belatedness of this post, but due to the inundation of homework to complete upon my return last week combined with my level of exhaustion from the Carnival festivities, my blog was neglected for a few days. If you have any quandaries about that, I ask that you accept it as a clear indication of the intensity of Las Palmas Carnival. Go next year and see for yourself. I promise you’ll be out of commission for productivity for a few days.

It was that good. It was that crazy. I find myself at a loss for words when describing the festivities to friends or family. To put it simply, in the words of the boy in the wildly popular Youtube vid “David After Dentist,” we spent much of our vacation wondering, “Is this real life?” We spent our days laying lazily in the hot sun, our afternoons observing the holiday festivities from parades to live music, our evenings eating fantastic local food, from über-fresh seafood to authentic Italian dishes, and our late-late-late nights/early mornings in festive costumes, makeup and masks, dancing away to a combination of live salsa-inspired music and some euro-techno house beats. Then we took a nap.

Ryan and I representin´UND in the Canaries!

Zoro (Manuel) and I

The Canary Islands of Spain draw tourists from around the world due to their eternal-spring climate, beautiful beaches, majestic volcanoes and vast deserts. Their nickname, in fact is Las Islas Afortunadas, or “The Fortunate Islands.” Not surprisingly, there is usually a size-able sampling of American tourists on the islands. Last weekend though, it seemed the only Americans in sight were 17 goofball college students visiting from mainland Spain: the USACers. I would imagine that this was a less-than-peak time for Americans to visit due to the fact that 1. We don’t celebrate Carnival in the US (aside from Mardis Gras) and 2. The intensity with which the Europeans there celebrate their holiday would be, for most Americans, an acquired taste. At first glance, it’s a little nuts. The island was bustling with activity constantly, day and night, the entire time we were there. I really found myself wondering when these people actually sleep. From my observations, they couldn’t have slept more than a couple hours at a time a couple times per day. They had places to go, people to see, sun to take in, costumes to wear, and parades to march in. Sleep when you’re dead, right!?

Looking back on the time we spent there, I appreciate that it was a total authentic cultural immersion. We lived among people celebrating a holiday in their culture to the fullest extent. I know I’ve been abroad for over a month now, but something about observing how another culture celebrates gives real insight into their values and customs in a way day-to-day life cannot. It seems that, for them, life stopped for a few days and the focus was shifted to what really matters: spending time with friends and family, letting loose, having fun and making great memories. That’s it. Though many US Americans might criticize Europeans for being too laid back, I think that it can be equally argued that we don’t chill out and have fun quite often enough in our culture. I’m definitely enjoying the increase in emphasis on social interaction here. I’ve come out of my shell and put it in long-term storage, perhaps never to be retrieved.

Un montón de new pics can be found in my Picasa web albums, as well as seven new videos from my time in the Canaries on my Youtube channel. Here is one of those vids:

¡Hasta la próxima!


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¡Vámonos a las Islas Canarias!

Today, twenty of us USACers set off to descend upon the Canary Islands for five fantastic days. The Canary Islands are home to one of the biggest festivals for the world-wide holiday, Carnival (o, en Español, Carnaval). Carnival is celebrated in a small way in the US as “Mardi Gras”, but this doesn’t give an accurate picture of what Carnival is to the rest of the world. Celebrated in almost all of Europe, Carnival is a 10-day (or more!) cultural celebration just before the start of Lent marked by parades, costumes and dancing. The biggest of these festivals takes place far from here in Rio de Janeiro, but many articles say that the Canary Islands are a close second. Since the Islands are a tad bit closer than Rio, we decided to settle for second best 😉
The forecast for the Canaries this weekend is a consistent 70-75 degrees with a few evening showers possible. I think I can handle that. I’m leaving Getxo as a pasty-white “bronde.” No one will recognize the tan, blonde kid I’ll be when I return…so much for not standing out amongst the Spaniards!
Below is a map to show the location of the Canary Islands. Though they are a property of Spain, they are really not very close to Spain at all, as you can see:

Having been very fond of whales and dolphins since childhood, I hope to fulfill my dream to see them in the wild on a whale/dolphin-watching tour while we are there. Here is a picture of a boat for one of the main whale-watching tour companies on our island:

I hope everyone has a fantastic weekend. I’ll try to send some sunshine your way!

Happy Carnival!


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What’s this “Basque” business all about?

If you’re a meggrblog “regular”, or one of my close friends or family members, you have heard/read my references to the fact that I live the in the “Basque Country”, and that there is a totally different language (besides Spanish) here. Many of you have probably also heard of the controversy here regarding the Basque Separatist terrorist group, the ETA. I would be doing this blog no justice by not addressing this issue that is very pertinent to studying/living in this area. At the same time, I’d like to throw out a disclaimer in regards to the fact that this is an extremely complex and controversial issue that even many natives of this area don’t entirely understand. Add to that the fact that I am by no means an expert in politics or European history, and you will find that my knowledge of the political/cultural situation is entirely experiential and second-hand, though I will say I’ve done a significant amount of research to learn more. I will do my best to highlight some of the most important issues and facts in a concise way, but remember that this is only from the standpoint of a foreign language student (who studies Biology, nonetheless!) So without further ado…..

What is the Basque Country? The entire Basque Country includes a small region of northeastern Spain and southwestern France (see the map above.) The Basque Country, or País Vasco in Spanish, is also one of the 17 autonomous communities of Spain (like tiny versions of our states.) Bilbao is the biggest city in País Vasco, and Vitoria is the capital.

Ok that’s great. So why is it so special? The ancient history of the people of this region is one of great mystery. Not much was recorded until after the 8th century, although there is evidence of human occupation here as early as the Paleolithic period. What is perhaps most mysterious is the origin of the Basque language, Euskara.  This language seems to be in a league of its own, seemingly having no relation to Latin or any other root language.

  • A (very) brief history: The people of this region were probably able to remain quite isolated for many years due to the surrounding mountain ranges, and this added to the purity of their native tongue. For example, during the 500-year occupation of Spain by the Romans beginning in 205 BC, the Basque Country was unaffected. The area was finally conquered by the Muslims from the south and Vikings from north, but not much changed because the area was already quite populated and the people didn’t care to relocate. The Basque people fought for their independence for many years and remained largely successful. Fast forward to 1939, the beginning of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. The oppression of the people of Spain during the dictatorship was strong and widespread, but it was felt in an additional sense in the Basque Country: Franco prohibited the use of the Basque language, and worked hard to create a sense that speakers of this language were low-lifes in society. The combination of fear of legal repercussions and a growing negative feelings toward Basque language use caused a considerable and steady decline in the teaching and use of the language during the entire dictatorship of Franco. After Franco’s death in 1975 and the creation of a democracy in 1978, Basque Nationalism was on the rise, and so was terrorist activity by the ETA. History buffs can find more info here.

ETA, eh? Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (which is Basque/Euskara) basically translates to Basque Freedom and Homeland. Formed in 1959, the group is an offshoot of a pro-separatist group of university students from right here in Bilbao. The group is fighting for the Basque Country to have complete independence from the Spanish government. Since their foundation, they have been responsible for 800 deaths; mostly of Spanish military and police personnel, and also mostly in the 1980s. Today, the ETA is responsible for less than 10 deaths per year and it continues to decline. Their main philosophy is not to kill, but rather to draw attention to their cause by acts of vandalism. More on the ETA here.


What is it like to live in the Basque Country in 2010? There is an overall feeling of slight controversy here, but it is rarely voiced. I do know of several people here that do not consider the Basque Country to be part of Spain, and therefore consider themselves Basque (Vascos) and not Spaniards, but the overall support for the extremist view of the ETA is very little. The main focus seems to be one of cultural preservation, and at the heart of this is preservation of the language, Euskara. Euskara is the only tangible evidence of the Basque culture that can be used as a way to effectively set themselves apart, and therefore the protection of the language is of high importance here. The fact that Euskara has survived many centuries without being influenced by any other language is a rare, incredible thing, and it fascinates me. I will say, however, from a foreign language student’s perspective, dealing with the extra language can be frustrating at times. Things are in Euskara before they are in Spanish, and sometimes signs and ads are only in Euskara. 40% of the population here speaks fluent Euskara (all speak fluent Spanish as well), and interestingly the largest age group of fluent speakers is 16-24 year olds. They have taken the place of the former largest fluent age group: the 65+ year-olds. This is due to a combination of two things–the fact that those entering the 65+ group were the generation affected by the Basque oppression of the Franco dictatorship, and the fact that there is a rising sense of need to preserve the language, so schools here teach most classes in Euskara, with Spanish and some English on the side. In the streets, mostly only Spanish is spoken, however, one very peculiar case is that the people almost always use the Euskara word for goodbye, “agur”. I have yet to hear anyone say “adios” for goodbye, so take that as my advice to avoid one more thing to make you stick out like a sore thumb while you’re here 🙂

So, wait…the Basque Country ISN’T dangerous? NO! A thousand times, no! Spread the word! I recall that one of the first reactions I got to my decision to study here was, “Bilbao? Why there? There’s a terrorist group there. It’s not safe!” The irony is that the Basque Country of Spain is one of the safest places not only in Spain, but in Europe in its entirety! The crime rates here are some of the very lowest in Europe. Don’t believe me? Read this. I will go as far as to say that I actually feel much safer here than I do in North Dakota. Ridiculous, you say? Bear with me. Recall that I’ve said the culture here is astoundingly more social here, and that the people here do their socializing outdoors and at all hours of the day and night. When you are in the streets, it would be rare for you not to be in the company of a variety of people ranging from small children kicking around a soccer ball to young adults sipping some vino to grandparents laughing and walking with their children and grandchildren. Of course it might not be wise to walk down a dark alley alone at night in a rough part of the city, but couldn’t you say that about ANYwhere in the whole world!?? The gigantic misconception that this is an unsafe place is very disheartening because it means that so many people are missing out on all it has to offer in fear that they are jeopardizing their safety. This is simply not the truth.

*Phew!* This really barely scratches the surface. There is so much that could be said, explained and expanded upon. I hope that if you have any questions or would like anything clarified, I hope you will email me at: meganrenae@gmail.com

I will leave you today with a sample of current popular Basque music which was shared with me by my Basque intercambio (conversation partner) Aritz. The song is in Euskara, and this video has a Spanish translation on top with the Euskara transcription on the bottom.  I hope you enjoy it. ¡Agur!


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Let’s go for a walk

Greetings from my newly relocated position in Getxo! …..Relocated? What’s that all about? Well, for a variety of reasons, my living situation in Algorta was much less than ideal. I was dealing with it alright, but when I learned of a 5-bedroom flat with only 3 USACers (members of my program, USAC) in it, I had to see if a move would be feasible. I asked the housing coordinator, and found out that a move would be much smoother than I anticipated. And BOOM! Two days later I was all settled into my new home in Las Arenas, a section of the city that is about 40 minutes walking distance away from my original apartment in Algorta. I am further from the picturesque beaches of Algorta (but still only a 10-minute metro ride.) The upsides of the move, however, are many. Las Arenas is where most of the “action” is. It is where must of us students come to hang out, get coffee, drinks, etc. It is also much easier to navigate as it is at the base of the mountains, thus very flat, and it is set up in more of a grid-format like I am used to from home. My bus stop is now an easy 2-minute walk around the corner; a stark contrast from my 15-minute uphill trek to the bus in Algorta. I am a block away from one of the most famous and historical sites in Getxo, Puente Colgante, a transporter bride that links Getxo with the town across the river, Portugalete. The move was a bit of a hassle, and having to relearn bus schedules and stops, market locations, etc. took a few days, but all in all, vale la pena (it was worth it.)

a new home

After moving, I was struck down with what has been dubbed “The USAC Plague” (since almost all 30 students have been sick) in the form of strep throat, an ear infection and pink eye. I was in an out of a seemingly comatose state for two days. I received some antibiotics after a visit to the doctor, and when I awoke yesterday and the sun was shining, I felt like a new person. Cheesy, but true. So after school, I went for a long walk from my new apartment all the way to the main marina/port, which is basically in Algorta. It was a fantastic walk, so I thought I’d bring you along:

You will also find a new album called Paseo por Las Arenas in my Picasa web albums with the photos from this video as well as some additional photos (I will be adding pics of the inside of the new apt here soon.) I have also added a few new random pics to the album Various Pics that you might enjoy.

This weekend, a few of our friends from San Sebastian (we met them on the Madrid tour) are coming to Getxo. We’re going to be busy showing them a good time. Sunday is supposed to be beautiful, so the tentative plans are to sunbathe in the afternoon, go out for dinner for Bri’s birthday in the evening, and watch the Superbowl in the wee hours of the morning (it starts at midnight for us!). I better start catching up on sleep now!

In the upcoming days look for a post about the Basque Country: the controversy and culture of the region in which I live.

¡Disfruta del fin de semana! (Enjoy the weekend!)