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


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Long time, no post! Sorry about that. I hope you’re all enjoying summer and staying relatively cool wherever you are. Europe seems to be completely en fuego lately; I don’t think I’ve stopped sweating since July 1. It has been a fun, busy, very memorable summer thus far. I’ve had a couple awesome visits from friends from back home, attended my second Bilbao BBK Live music festival, enjoyed several beach days and thoroughly enjoyed the company of my “abroad family”: the many amazing friends I have met these past few years.

jammin' to Depeche Mode at BBK Live

jammin’ to Depeche Mode at BBK Live

And the goodbyes have begun. I’ve said goodbye to all but a couple of my private English lesson clients as most of them have headed out on their summer holidays. These people were more than students to me…many of them opened their homes to me, gave me gifts on holidays and invited me to dinners. Many of these people certainly became a part of my aforementioned “abroad family.”

Today I said goodbye to my lovely downtown Bilbao apartment. I can’t believe I’ve been here almost another whole year. This really has become my home, and at the moment I’m not ready to say goodbye.

And I don’t have to…yet. Tomorrow I embark upon a two-week journey through central and eastern Europe. I’m starting in southern Germany, the land of my ancestors, marking my 3rd trip to Germany this year. Then I’ll jet over to Croatia for a few days. I really have no idea what to expect, which I find very exciting. I’ll wrap up with a few days in Venice and just a day in Milan. The only place in Italy I’ve been is Rome, and I wanted to see more of the country on this trip, but if I’ve learned anything in these past few years of Euro-travels, it is to not try to do too much in a short time. I’ll leave the rest of Italy for my next trip.

I’ll be back in Bilbao mid-August just in time for Aste Nagusia, the big yearly summer festival that I’ve never been around to take part in. It will be madness, as you can see in this video from the kickoff to last year’s festival:

Next,  I’ll head west to walk the last 200km of the Camino de Santiago before returning once again to Bilbao to say my goodbyes. I’ll be Stateside in early September.

Again, I hope you’re all enjoying your summer al máximo. Hasta la próxima!

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sacred sundays

fel·low·ship

/ˈfelōˌSHip/
Noun
     1. community of interest, activity, feeling or experience
     2. a company of equals or friends
     3. the quality or state of being comradely
(Definition from Merriam-Webster.com)
I grew up belonging to a fun, friendly church community in which, like in most church communities, there was a social hour following the Sunday morning services called “fellowship time.” It was held in a big gathering space in the church basement appropriately called “Fellowship Hall.” Church members took turns bringing cookies and lemonade, and everyone gathered to get caught up with friends and family. Kids ran around and played while the grownups talked. But fellowship time was understood to be quite finite. After only a half hour or so, families trickled out of Fellowship Hall and off to their separate lives. There were errands to run, sports practices to attend, house chores and yard-work to do.
Spain is a place where fellowship time is understood to be an all-day event. Every Sunday. The idea of Sunday being a sacred day obviously comes from Spain’s very Catholic roots. But while 70% of Spanish people still identify themselves as Catholic, only around 15% attend mass regularly. Nowadays, this tradition of religious origin is so ingrained in Spanish culture that it persists despite having lost much of its religious purpose.
Sunday fellowship time in Plaza Nueva, Bilbao

Sunday fellowship time in Plaza Nueva, Bilbao

One of the main reasons Spain’s Sundays have been able to remain so sacred is that still, in 2013, almost everything is closed on Sundays. Running errands on a Sunday is simply not an option. Apart from a few pharmacies, fruit shops and convenience stores, the only open businesses on Sundays are places of gathering: restaurants, cafes and bars. Like in many European countries, legal restrictions exist in most of Spain that limit businesses’ rights to be open on Sundays. But that’s slowly changing: In 2012, all restrictions were lifted for the entire Madrid metropolitan area and in the most touristic parts of most other Spanish cities. You can read more about European “Sunday shopping” regulations here.

Of course SOME people have to work on Sundays. The people that run the cafes and bars that are open are working, though their work seems mostly enjoyable—many of their clients are long-time friends and neighbors. And obviously some institutions have to run regardless of the day, but many run on a “holiday” schedule every single Sunday. The Bilbao metro system schedule literally lists “domingos y festivos (Sundays and holidays)” as equal. But for now, the majority of Spanish businesses seem to be successfully resisting the Western trend towards making Sunday another day of business and productivity.

So is preserving this tradition a good thing or a bad thing? I’ve been on both sides of this debate. By now, I’ve gotten really used to it and generally think it’s an important and beautiful reflection of the Spanish culture. But I’ve also complained many a time about not being able to get anything productive done on a Sunday, and about the generally unavailability of things on Sundays. I also share the belief of many that, with Spain’s economy suffering as it is, it may do these businesses some good to stay open on Sundays and bring in some extra coin. But to lose the tradition of sacred Sundays would be to lose something at the very heart of Spanish culture.

I try to imagine my life in the US with Sundays as a sacred day, everything closed. What would I do? Go for a long walk with a friend, have coffee with my mom, play piano…sure, these are things I might do on a Sunday in the US anyway, but it would make a huge difference if there weren’t really any other options. If there was a cultural understanding that that’s what Sundays are for.

paseando por la Ría del Nervión, Bilbao

paseando por la Ría del Nervión, Bilbao


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It’s hard to believe we’re well into June! Now that things have slowed down a bit for me, I’ve had more time to reflect. May was a seriously great month. Hands down, it was one of the very best of my life. It started with great travels with my parents and continued to be full of experiences, fun and unforgettable times with friends.

On May 19 in San Sebastian, I ran my sixth half-marathon (third one on this side of the pond, after doing the half at the Bilbao Night Marathon in 2011 and 2012.) I’ve changed to minimalist-style running over the past year, and although the adjustment really took an entire year, it has finally paid off big time. I beat my half-marathon PR by 8 minutes, meaning I knocked almost an entire minute off each mile. It was a beautiful race in a beautiful place, even when the pouring rain and high winds kicked in during the last mile. Maybe you can find a happy/exhausted American girl crossing the finish line in this video.

The weekend after the race was my birthday weekend and it was…the…BEST. I’ve made so many great friends from a variety of circles in these past couple of years, and many of them were able to join me  to help me celebrate with a Mexican-style potluck in my apartment. I put together this GoPro-recorded account of the night:

My main job here as an English auxiliar for the Basque Government ended at the end of May as well. I’m much more sad about that than relieved or anything else. My job was seriously amazing: my boss and coworkers were super friendly and easy-going, and my students were intelligent, creative, engaged and extremely appreciative. There probably aren’t many teachers in the whole world that can say all of those things about their work. Thank you, EOI de Getxo, for EVERYthing.

one of my classes at the EOI, goofing around like they do best ;-)

one of my classes at the EOI, goofing around like they do best 😉

One fabulous month rolled directly into another, and June is off to a great start. I can’t wait to see what more great things this summer has in store.

I hope you are all doing well in your various corners of the world. Let the summer fun begin! 😀


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two months of travels

The past two months of my life have been a cycle of packing and unpacking my suitcase, being home just enough between trips to work a bit and do laundry. Poor me, I know. At the end of March I had a 17-day Easter break, was back for a few weeks to catch my breath, and then my parents came to visit. Over the span of 7 weeks, I traveled to Germany (twice), the Czech Republic, Austria, Portugal, southern Spain. and all around the Basque Country of both Spain and France. It was exhausting, enriching and enlightening.

I started out my 17-day Easter break travels in Berlin (more like BRRRR-lin) where temps were at century record lows and winter was still in full swing. The ground was completely covered in snow and ice, which I found out the hard way upon having a full-sprawl wipe-out my first day there. I guess after two years away from the snowy Midwest winters I have lost all my winter-coping skills. Anyway, I had a lot of fun with new friends and old, drank a lot of good hefeweizen and ate plenty of good food. Berlin is such an international hub and also very modern and hip, so you can find just about any kind of food you’re in the mood for. I opted for mostly Mexican food because it’s my favorite and, contrary to popular belief, Spain is quite lacking in that department. I’ve been deprived. Anyway, I made sure to try Berlin’s best currywurst a couple times too:

currywurst? More like curryBEST!

currywurst? More like curryBEST!

After Berlin was a short trip to Prague. The temps were equally bitter, but nothing can get in the way of Prague’s beauty. With it’s colorful buildings lined with gold, spires and more spires and a huge castle overlooking the city from across the river, it takes you in immediately. It’s like everyone says–you just have to see it.

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Approaching Prague’s main square

After a few days to warm up, re-pack and re-charge back in Bilbao, I headed to Europe’s westernmost city: Lisbon, Portugal. WOW. Maybe it was just the contrast effect from the huge temperature upgrade from my previous trip, but Lisbon just seemed so warm, so alive and colorful. It’s a beautiful, friendly city with tons of character. I can see why so many travel bloggers rave about it. I don’t fall in love with every place I go to the point of saying “I could live here,” but I did feel that way about Lisbon.

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We took the highly-recommended day trip out of Lisbon to the magical wonderland called Sintra. Yes, it’s recommended by every travel book and site you’ll ever see about Lisbon, but it is NOT overrated and is absolutely a must-do if you’re in the area.  A short train ride zips you out to this fairy-tale village, literally filled with castles and gardens. If you do only one thing there, catch a bus from the center of town up to the Pena Palace and spend the day exploring the castle grounds and enjoying the view.

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checking out the view of Lisbon from atop the Pena Palace

After Lisbon, it was southward to the beach town of Lagos, where the views are breathtaking and the fiesta is fantástico. Check out this video I made of a day spent mountain biking and hiking around and outside of the city:

From Lagos we headed back over the border back into Spain and visited Sevilla where my friend Allison is now living and teaching English. It was my third time in Sevilla, but staying with a friend who was very familiar with the city was great to experience the city in a non-touristy way, checking out some really alternative, local hangouts and getting in on lots of live music.

I spent the middle of April  back in Bilbao working and regrouping a bit, and then my fantastic parents arrived! We had the most wonderful 11 days together. Within their first day here, we checked out a Galician seafood festival, had lunch at one of Bilbao’s most legendary restaurants, shopped, met with some of my private lesson students for coffee, checked out some Bilbao Athletic Club fútbol action and went pintxo-hopping. I repeat: that was all within their FIRST DAY here. They are troopers. The next day, we rented a car and embarked upon a Basque Country road trip. We started with lunch in beautiful Biarrtiz, France, stopped for dessert (Grand Marnier crepes!) in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, then back to the Spanish side of the border to spend the night in San Sebastian. As a nice capstone for our road trip, we spent the afternoon hiking out one of my favorite places on earth: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. It was my mom’s second time doing the hike, and my SIXTH!

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lunch and laughter in Biarritz

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe...just can't get enough

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe…just can’t get enough

After our road trip, we spent a couple more days here in Bilbao and my parents even came to work with me one day. They met all of my students and it was such a cool experience for all involved. The next day, we jetted off to Munich, the land of our not-so-distant ancestors. I love Germany. This was my third trip there, and it just keeps getting better. I definitely feel a connection to the place.

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Munich’s main square: Marienplatz

During our time in Munich we also visited a place that has been on my bucket list since I was 16 or so: the site of the former Dachau concentration camp. It was a sobering experience to say the least. If you make it to Munich and want to do the Dachau tour, I highly recommend this company.

The chillingly ironic message on the gate into the Dachau camp: "Arbeit Macht Frei (Work will set you free)"

The chillingly ironic message on the gate into the Dachau camp: “Arbeit Macht Frei (Work will set you free)”

We also took a day trip to Salzburg, Austria and took a countryside “Sound of Music” tour. As the reviews said it would be, it was pretty cheesy but a lot of fun, and a great way to see the countryside outside of Salzburg.

Mom and I outside the famous gazebo from the Sound of Music

Mom and I outside the famous gazebo from The Sound of Music

Salzburg city center

Salzburg city center

My parents and I then headed back to Bilbao for the remainder of their stay and thankfully had some brilliant sunshine (finally!) on their last day in the city.

A beautiful day in Castro, a small seaside village outside of Bilbao

A beautiful day in Castro, a small seaside village outside of Bilbao

The past few weeks that have followed all of these travels have been almost equally busy and fantastic, but those are stories for another day…

Hasta la próxima!


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the techie expat’s guide to smartphones in Spain

I’ve  been referred to as a “techie” person for as long as I can remember. Having a natural knack for all things tech is a great thing in today’s world, but it means you’re often fielding tech questions from less-techie friends, advising people on gadget-buying decisions and helping troubleshoot when dreaded tech snags arise. I truly do enjoy helping my friends and family with any and all of these things, but I find that a lot of times I am answering the same questions over and over.  Most of the questions I’ve been getting more recently since I became an expat deal with the likes of having a smartphone abroad, so I decided I should write some posts that answer some of these questions in a concise, step-by-step manner. So here you have it, the first post in what will be a series of tech-advice related posts from yours truly, @meggr the tech geek (or @meggr la friki, como dicen aquí 🙂 )

Despite the ubiquity of smartphones, there are a handful of expats that still stick to modest flip phones: either because they dig the simplicity and off-the-grid-ness of not having a smart phone, or because they simply aren’t aware of just  how do-able having a smartphone abroad can really be. This post is mostly written for the latter, although I would argue to the former that a nice balance can be struck between reaping the numerous benefits of having a smartphone as an expat while still staying relatively off-grid and low-tech.

1. Acquire a global phone. Most newer smartphones are global, which simply means that they have a GSM radio and a SIM card slot. You can read more about it here. I recommend buying the phone in the US either on eBay or Amazon. Electronics are more expensive in general in Europe, and you’ll have way more options (and much cheaper shipping) buying online in the US. For an even better deal, buy a used or refurbished model. The most I’ve paid for a global phone is $250, and that was a refurbished HTC Droid Incredible 2 just after it was released to the market two years ago. That phone is STILL going for $150+ on eBay. Do your research, find a good phone with good reviews, and if you take good care of it you can get most of your money back selling it on eBay when you decide to move on to a newer gadget.

2. Unlock the phone. You can buy them already unlocked on eBay, but unlocking it yourself is pretty easy (you buy an unlock code for $3-5 on eBay and follow a few simple steps) If you don’t want to mess with the unlocking process and can’t seem to find the phone you want that is also already unlocked, you can go to any number of places that have a sign outside that says “Liberamos moviles! (We unlock phones!)” and they will do it for you for 10-20€ ($13-25.)

3. Decide on a mobile carrier and plan. Pay-as-you-go plans are the rule here, not the exception like in the States. And they are SO CHEAP! I have my phone service with Orange, and my plan is called Tarjeta Tarifa Delfín (Dolphin Plan…adorable, I know.) I pay 4.20€/week ($5/week) for unlimited data and 50 text messages. I have not once used all 50 of my text messages because EVERYone here uses a free texting app called WhatsApp (more on that in an upcoming post.) Calling can get a little spendy (15¢ to connect + 9¢/min), but the beauty of Orange is that every time you add money to your account, they give you a “prize”. The prize is almost always free calling minutes or an extra 5€ added to your account to use towards calling minutes. What US cellphone service gives customers free minutes/money simply for paying their bills? Pretty sure none.

4. Keep the minimum “saldo” (balance) on your account at all times to ensure connectivity. For my plan, this minimum is around 5€ to cover my weekly plan, although they send me a message when it gets below that and give me a few days to add money to the balance before suspending my service. You can add money to your account in a variety of ways: at ATMs, in convenience stores, even in the checkout lane at most supermarkets! I opt for paying by debit card on Orange’s website.

4. Enjoy the numerous ways a smartphone can enhance your life as an expat/traveler/wanderer, but don’t let it control your life and/or keep you from being present in the real world. Leave it at home sometimes. Put it away when you’re dining with friends.

I hope this can offer some help to anyone confused by the world of cell phones in Spain. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and just give up when everything is run differently than you’re used to and also not in your native language, but overall it’s so much cheaper than it is in the US that it’s completely worth the trouble to get it all set up.

Happy connecting!


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AsturiAWESOME.

Last week was Semana Blanca (White Week) in Spain: the vacation week spanning the various Carnival festivals in Europe, named so for the fact that many Spanish people use the extra free days to head to the mountains and hit the slopes. I’ve been wanting to explore some parts of Spain that I’ve not been to yet, and decided to take this opportunity to head west with some friends to Asturias, the region of northern Spain famous for it’s sidra (cider), gorgeous coastline and, most importantly, the Picos de Europa mountain range. I’d been told time and again that Asturias is an enchanting place, the hidden gem of Spain, a place where you can be sitting on the beach and still have a great view of the snow-covered Picos mountains towering in the distance. I had to see this for myself.

My friends and I spent the first night of our weekend getaway in a town called Oviedo, famously the site where most of Woody Allen’s “Vicky Christina Barcelona” was filmed, taking in the Asturian tradition of cider-drinking. One of the coolest things about the  cider tradition is the pouring ritual–you order a bottle, but you’re not supposed to pour any of it yourself. Only a little bit is to be poured at a time, and then immediately consumed. The bartenders work tirelessly going from table to table refilling glasses all night with their special pouring method. For amateurs like myself, trying to refill your own glass just ends with a lot of cider all over yourself and the ground. Watch this expert and learn:

The next day, we got on a bus to an amazing place tucked away far up into the Picos mountains called Covadonga. This is a place is very historically significant as it is the site of the first victory of the Christians over the Moors way back in the year 722: a battle that would mark the very beginning of the 700+ year Spanish Reconquista, or reconquering of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) by Christian rule. It just so happens that it also looks like something straight out of a fairy tale:

An aerial view of this fairy-tale land

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Stunning colors at the Basilica of Covadonga

Covadonga is also famous as the site of the mysterious and beautiful Santa Cueva (Holy Cave). Many Catholic people make a pilgrimage here to visit the shrine inside the cave. Upon entering,  you hear traditional church organ music echoing through the cave. About halfway to the shrine, there is an opening with three crosses in front of a sweeping view of the valley below, and water, considered to be holy, dripping down onto passersby. The shrine itself overlooks a rushing waterfall below. Simply incredible. Check out these quick vids I took in the cave:

After exploring the main attractions of Covadonga, we headed out on our own in search of a nearby mountain to climb. Short on time, we chose a small mountain nearby called Orandi. After hiking up for just an hour, we reached the top and were surprised to find a wide open meadow below on the other side. We followed the sound of rushing water in the distance and discovered yet ANOTHER cave, this one with a big stream rushing into it. With no other tourists in sight, we were like giddy children exploring the awesome, almost untouched nature around us.

Meadow Zen

Meadow Zen

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We wrapped up our Asturian adventure in the lively seaside city of Gijón. Our time was too short though, and the February weather not quite beach-worthy, so I guess that just means I’ll have to return!

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notes on Spanish night life

Feliz año nuevo a todos! Happy New Year, everyone!

I hope you’ve all had a wonderful holiday season and are now hard at work on some good propósitos del año nuevo (New Year’s resolutions) for 2013. Between the unseasonably warm temps and a very alternative Christmas dinner (homemade Italian and American dishes, all vegetarian), it didn’t feel a whole lot like the holidays here, but I cherish the experiences I’ve had. Certainly there will never be others quite like them.

I spent New Year’s in Barcelona, a city that truly never sleeps. You see the slogan “the city that never sleeps” given to cities like NYC and Vegas, but I think the most deserving of this title is any of Spain’s cities. While crazy long nights happen occasionally in many cities around the world, I think it’s safe to say that the regularity of such long nights in Spain goes unrivaled. My Barcelona New Year’s experience really solidified this idea for me.

To talk about Spanish night life, you need to first talk about Spanish day life. People get up at pretty normal times on work days; most people have to be at work around 8:30 or 9. A lot of people work straight through until 3 or so (as in, no lunch break) and many others work a split shift from about 9:00-2:00 and then again from about 4-7. The lunch breaks for split-shifters vary, but are never less than an hour and are sometimes almost 3 full hours. This speaks to the priority made of sitting down to enjoy your food, catch up with friends or family, take a walk, etc. Contrary to popular belief, a vast majority of Spanish people do NOT go home and faceplant into bed during the afternoon siesta.

When everyone finishes work around 7 or 8, it’s still not time for dinner. Most commonly, people are out mingling in the streets, having a glass of wine with friends or going for a walk. Dinner is at 9 at the earliest–an exception being if you have really young kids, in which case 8 or 8:30 is acceptable. Restaurants literally do not commonly serve dinner before 9pm.

For Spaniards, eating is much more about the experience and enjoyment with friends and family than the simple act of putting food in your body, so dinners can (and often do) last for hours. I recently sat down to dinner at 9:30 with some Spanish friends in Madrid, and we didn’t leave the restaurant until after 1:00am. This is completely normal.

This makes for a very different New Year’s Eve experience, as you can probably imagine. Most people are just moving onto dessert when midnight strikes, so the most traditional thing to do here is to bring in the New Year at the dinner table. Others, like myself last year in Madrid and this year in Barcelona, gather in the city’s main square with a big clock tower to count down and eat the traditional “12 lucky grapes.”

So now that it’s almost 1:00am, is it time to go home? Maybe for kids or elderly people (although it’s not uncommon to see people of any age out and about well into the wee hours of the morning), but otherwise, heavens no! Bars are packed and overflowing into the streets with people laughing, drinking, digesting, and getting ready for the next stage of Spanish night life: finding a discoteca or salsa hall in which to shake your groove thang. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read in Spain travel guidebooks or websites something along the lines of “don’t even think about going dancing in Spain until at least 2am.” It’s true–the discotecas don’t even open their doors until at least midnight, and they’re empty for the first couple of hours. People are still finishing dinner, after all. The discotecas typically stay open until at least 6, at which point most people head home to try to get started on some z’s before the sun of the new day comes up.

I attended a New Year’s Party at Razzmatazz, Barcelona’s famous indie-fabulous discoteca. Right around 6am, the lights came on, the DJ took a bow, the people cheered and started filtering out into the street. The next day, I was telling my Spanish roommate about my New Year’s Eve in Barcelona. Her shocked reaction could only come from someone who grew up here in the land that never sleeps:

“They closed at 6am?! Why so soon?? It was NEW YEAR’S!!!”