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


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what’s up with WhatsApp

It has been five months since Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion, yet it still doesn’t seem to have caught on in the US. Every American I know that uses it (myself included) says they use it almost exclusively for people they’ve met abroad, or foreign friends they’ve made here Stateside. So why does the rest of the world use WhatsApp, yet Americans don’t?

I remember the first time I heard about WhatsApp. “That’s a stupid name for an app,” I thought. It was 2011, and I had just moved to Spain to teach English. My 30€/month plan from Orange España included unlimited data (increíble, I know) and 50 texts/month. After you went over 50, SMS (texts) were 9 cents each, which I figured was reasonable since the data plan was so cheap.

But then my friend Lorena told me about WhatsApp. It sounded trendy and kinda dumb, but I downloaded it. She was my only contact. I didn’t really see the point at first, but I liked that it was saving me some SMS messages. Slowly I gained one contact at a time as I met more Spanish people that used the app. Soon I was telling my friends and family back in the States to download it. It could be used across any of the major mobile platforms  (Android, iOs, Windows, Blackberry,) free of charge, anywhere in the world. I could “text” my loved ones back home FO’ FREE. It was a dream come true.

I became completely dependent on this app during my years in Spain, using it with my friends, family, students and coworkers alike. Since returning to the States, it has been totally weird having to readjust to some people using the antiquated SMS. My American friends and family who used it with me while I was abroad continue to use it with me (most of them with me as their only contact,) and they too scratch their heads as to why it still hasn’t caught on in the US.

So why is WhatsApp better than SMS, you ask? Let me count the ways:

1. Media sharing: It’s very easy and quick to share photos and videos on Whatsapp. The upload progress is shown right on the media, and all the media shared with a specific person or group can be easily accessed and scrolled through within the conversation, like your own personal little photo/video album. Also, there is a “voice recording” feature right next to the text input, so if you’re driving and want to just say your message or want to sing them a song or whatever, you don’t have to “attach” the audio. Just click and hold the mic icon, record your message, release, and it is sent.

2. Conversation-having: WhatsApp is this neat hybrid of texting and instant-messaging. You can see if someone is online,typing, or when they were last online. This is useful for a number of reasons. If they’re online (which means they currently have that app open on their phone,) you know they’ll see your message right away. If they’re typing, you know to stop typing until you see what they’re about to say. If they were last online at 4am on a Sunday, you know they probably had a long night and they probably won’t be up for an early brunch date. You send an SMS to someone? You have no idea if/when they will read it.

3. Platform: The design is simple, it runs seamlessly, and there are no ads. NO ADS. Enough said.

4: GROUP TEXTING!!!: I’m yelling this because it is the most important. I have an HTC One, and it could be some sort of glitch in the specific software for the phone, but group SMS is awful. Clumsy. Inefficient. I can’t see what someone has said in the preview, and when I click on the notification it usually brings me to my own private convo with that person rather than the group convo. So I have to back out of that and select the group convo myself. When I send a message, there’s a delay. WhatsApp group conversations are beautifully designed and run very smoothly. You can name the group something funny or cute (my most beloved group is with 3 girl friends: “almas gemelas”) or name the convo based on the topic/purpose (“birthday party plans”) and then you’ll see it among your individual and group message threads under that name. You can click on a group member to see when they were last online to see if they’ve read your message within the group.

The other day I was discussing these benefits with an American friend who sparingly uses WhatsApp, and he totally agreed but said, “I feel like it’s just an extra effort to go into it and use it. It feels like I’m opening an  app and then my messages rather than my inbox and then my messages. Which in essence isn’t any different…”

Exactly. Americans seem to have this weird mindset about SMS, like it’s a special kind of messaging that we need to hold onto. But if you have a smartphone, why continue to use it? Unless you’re texting someone who doesn’t have one? (In which case, there’s a simple workaround I used while abroad so that I could text anyone back home, smartphone or not, for free from my phone.)

It takes a little while to get used to using WhatsApp, like anything else. Like my friend said, you have to get used to “opening an app” versus opening your messages, but that requires no extra steps. And once you’re in, I promise the experience will be much better.

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people are generally good

I’m currently working for an organization that places foreign students from around the world in US high schools. As their first representative in my region (and brought on board rather late in “placement season”) it has been both an adventure and a struggle to hurriedly find schools that still have open spots and families that are willing to host a student, and then to connect those two dots to a student still waiting to be placed.

passports

Last night, I was set up to do something called “dialer calls,” which I was almost certain would not work. I was told that a few thousand numbers in specific zip code would be called in a matter of two hours. The people called would hear an automated message that I have pre-recorded, and if they pressed “1” to learn more about hosting a student, they’d automatically be connected with my cell phone to talk to me directly.

Who would actually answer a call like this? Especially in this day and age?

2,119 numbers were called last night with my automated message. Before the calls began, I estimated what I thought would be the results of these calls: about 1,000 would be unavailable (it would go to voicemail) another 1,000 or so would hang up on the automated message, and of the remaining 100, many would press 1 out of confusion, an equal amount out of anger, and two or three extra-kind-hearted folks would actually speak to me to inquire for more information (you know: “Midwest nice.”)

Boy, was I wrong. My phone rang off the hook for two hours straight with a majority of people who had genuine interest in hosting an international student during the upcoming school year. Other calls were beeping in on call waiting as I visited with prospective host families, and soon my voicemail box was full of messages. Everyone was so friendly and personable.

You could chalk this up to “Midwest nice,” but I have to say that I was expecting the also prevalent “Midwest closed-mindedness” to win out when hosting international students was the matter at hand. I am refreshed to have found out that was not the case.

Something I’ve been saying for awhile, ever since I started traveling a lot, is that there are some bad people everywhere, but people are generally good. I know that this isn’t an original thought, and that lots of people come to the same conclusion after doing some traveling, but I think that last night, I saw firsthand that this is definitely true of my home state: people ARE generally good. They’re even better than I thought, in fact.

But no matter where you go, there are a few bad apples. Of the 40-50 people I spoke with directly last night, only two were examples of this. Here are are the exchanges I had with them. All you can do is chuckle.

“Hi, this is Megan with ICES. How are you this evening?”

—“Well, I’m just trying to figure out what you’re phishing for.”

“Oh, nothing sir. I work for a non-pr–”

—“Can’t you people get a real job? Go to hell!!” *click*

___________________

“Hi, this is Megan with ICES. How are you this evening?”

—“Well I just saw that you called while I was on the other line and I am wondering if there is some kind of issue.”

“Nope, no issue, I’m just calling local families on behalf of the high school’s foreign exchange program to try to find potential host families for one of our international students. Is that something you would like more info on at all?”

—“NO. I am NOT interested in hosting an international student. I mean, who knows, they could be coming from one of those countries like El Salvador or Puerto Rico or whatever and I sure as hell don’t need that.”

“Ok, well I appreciate you taking the time to call m–”

—“Besides, I work at the social service office. If I wanted a damn foreign kid in my house I could just pick one up there.”

________________________

Well, then. :-/

 

Thanks for reading!

 


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is the Spanish siesta under siege?

I recently read a New York Time’s article entitled, “Spain, Land of 10pm Dinners, Asks if it’s Time to Reset the Clock.” It outlines the ongoing debate about whether Spain should scrap its long-held tradition known as the siesta: a topic near and dear to my (former) Spanish expat heart. My immediate reaction to this question is a desperate “Nooooo!” as I long for the days I lived in Spain and enjoyed long lunches and “afternoons” that extended well into what we in the US consider evening, making days seem almost endless. But with Spain’s economy still suffering and unemployment at a whopping 26%, people are starting to question whether a move to a more 9-to-5-like schedule would be a good one.

The origin of the siesta

The word “siesta” comes from the Latin “sexta,” which referred to the sixth hour after sunrise, when the sun was at its highest peak. Historically, people in Spain and other hot European countries would take a break from their work at this hour, the hottest point of the day, and return re-energized to their work later in the afternoon. This tradition has persisted through the years, but this is slowly changing. In big Spanish cities, many businesses now stay open through siesta hours, and the idea that the siesta could be hurting Spain’s already broken economy is gaining strength.

The nap myth

In any discussion of the siesta, I feel the need to dispel this myth, as a service to my Spanish friends and “family.” Contrary to popular belief (and contrary even to what this current NYT article says), the afternoon “siesta” does NOT typically include an all-out nap.  I was asked by many of my students if we foreigners actually believe that they nap during siesta. When I told them that yes, most people do believe that, they were practically offended. They strongly reject the notion that the Spanish are lazy people who sleep the afternoon away. It’s not uncommon to see people taking a quick snooze on a hillside or park bench over the extended lunch hour, but almost no one is going home and crawling under the covers. The long break is to allow time to join with other family members and/or friends, have a nice, big meal (there, lunch is the biggest meal of the day) and have a little time to go for a walk or just relax after eating.

“Longer” work days

One point in favor of doing away with the siesta schedule is that it would give families more time together in the evenings. A standard Spanish work timetable is one of two options:

1. La “jornada continua/intensiva” (8:30ish-3:30ish, no lunch break) The people I knew with this schedule were teachers and a few dentists and specialist doctors. They do take a short mid-morning coffee break for a quick snack, but basically these people don’t sit down to a full meal until what we in the US would consider “late afternoon.” This is the less common of the two schedules, but the preferred one for most people. There is a slight pay cut, in most cases, for those who have this schedule, as they are working only  35 hrs/week.

2. La “jornada completa” (8:30ish-2ish, break for “siesta,” 4ish-7ish) The exact hours vary by business/profession, but the moral of the story is that most employed Spanish people don’t return home for the day until around 8pm, and most businesses (except for restaurants/cafes) have both mañana (morning) and tarde (afternoon/evening) hours, but are totally closed for business from 2pm until 4pm or 5pm.

Living on Spanish time

The Spanish timetable really is a striking feature of their culture, unlike any other in the world. A Spanish banker interviewed in the aforementioned article puts it this way: “It is the Spanish identity, to eat in another time, to sleep in another time.” This feature of Spanish identity and culture is something I was absolutely enchanted by living there as an expat. Obviously the midday break was fabulous, and another feature I really enjoyed about their shifted timetable is that they consider it to be “afternoon” until about 9pm. This makes each day seem so much longer, especially in summer. There is no hurry to get home and be in for the night. On the contrary: you’re encouraged to squeeze out every last drop of every day that you possibly can. That is a beautiful thing. On weekends and in summer, this almost endless day slides easily into an extended night, with late dinners that can stretch on past the bewitching hour.

 

Post-lunch relaxing under the siesta sun

Post-lunch relaxing under the siesta sun

 

Long lunches: excessive or essential?

Brazil recently released new food-based dietary guidelines, and 3 of the 10 guidelines (#s 4, 5 and 8) talk about the importance of taking your time eating, being with others and being present (i.e. not eating while working, driving, etc.) The siesta allows for this. This stands in stark contrast to the US, where most people race through their lunch break with just 30-minutes allotted, and many just eat at their desks or on the run while still working. All you have to do is compare the overall health of the population in countries where long, drawn-out family meals are the norms and compare it with that of countries where efficiency and convenience rules in all arenas (including dining) and you can see that this need for speed is really detrimental to the population. I would be sad to see Spain pushed over to that side.

The “night owl” culture

A common exercise with lower-level EFL students is to have them tell you their daily routine (I usually get up at ____, then I ____. After that I ___. I go to bed at about ____., etc.) so I became quite familiar with the “norm” of a daily routine for a typical Spaniard. My students were of a variety of professions, from engineers to dentists to teachers, and they almost all reported their “bedtime” as 11:00 or later on work nights. I also lived with two young Spanish professionals–a lawyer and a med student in residency, so I can confirm these norms first-hand. As the NYT article points out, the “prime time” hours for TV are 10pm-1am, and 12 million Spaniards are still watching TV at 1am. Families with young kids do tend to eat dinner earlier, around 8, and put the kids to bed by 9. But on weekends, it’s not unusual to see entire families (young kids and all) out to dinner past 10pm, and keeping kids up that late on weekends is certainly not looked down on like it is in the US.

So I guess my answer is this: they sleep about the same amount that we do, but seem to be much more resilient in flip-flopping their sleep schedule from week to weekend. During the week, they do go to bed later on average than Americans do, and maybe get up slightly later than the average American worker. On weekends, they stay up and out MUCH later than most Americans do, as the bar nightlife doesn’t even really get going until about midnight, and goes strong until as late (early?) as 6am. Those who go out do then, of course, sleep much later than the average American does on the weekend.

An uncertain fate

It’s hard to say whether the siesta will continue to be phased out as it already seems to be in the larger Spanish cities. I can’t even begin to hypothesize on potential solutions to fix Spain’s broken economy, but I’d like to think that getting rid of something so ingrained in Spanish culture isn’t the way to do it. It is these cultural differences that allow us to learn from each other, see things in new ways and reconsider our own way of doing things. Would the world really be a better place if everyone adapted to the model of the 9-5 grind? I think not.

¡Viva la siesta!


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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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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!!!”