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


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the Camino experience

A month ago yesterday, I arrived on foot in Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwestern corner of Spain, after hiking the last 200km of the Camino de Santiago. The experience was, hands down, the most incredible of my life to date. Even a month later I’m finding it really difficult to put it into words. Part of that could be that I went immediately from the Camino to the whirlwhind of moving back to the US, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think I’ll be processing the experience for months, or maybe even years to come.

Maybe you’ve never heard of the Camino and don’t get what all the fuss is about. Maybe you’re curious about it or even considering taking the plunge yourself, and you’re hungry for advice, insight, inspiration. Or maybe you’re a fellow former peregrino (pilgrim) and you know just exactly how I’m feeling. Even though everyone has an entirely different experience on the Camino that is very uniquely their own, there is something that connects every peregrino del Camino.

No matter which category you fall into, I hope I can share a little Camino magic with you today.

So…what IS the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino is a famous pilgrimage of Christian origin that has been around since Medieval times. Legend has it that the remains of St. James were brought from Jerusalem to what is now Santiago de Compostela. For over 1200 years now, people have been making this journey on foot to pay homage to the Saint.  The pilgrimage was recently re-popularized by this 2010 film, which rather accurately portrays the fact that nowadays, the tens of thousands of people who set out to do the Camino each year have widely varying reasons for doing so: some religious and some not at all.

There are several routes one can take to reach Santiago. Traditionally, pilgrims set out for Santiago from their own homes, wherever they might be. There are still some people that do that today, but typically people choose a place to begin along one of several routes, based upon the amount of time they’re able to dedicate to the journey. The most famous route begins on the French-Spanish border in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France and heads down through Pamplona, across north central Spain and up into the mountainous terrain of Galicia in the northwest of Spain for the last 200km stretch. From beginning to end, this route takes most pilgrims about a month. Pressed for time, my friend and I did only the last 200km which are, as many have said, “the most difficult, but the most beautiful.”

Who does the Camino de Santiago?

Anyone. Everyone. According to my guidebook, two-thirds are Spanish people, and among the third that are foreigners, the Germans and French dominate. But I met people from everywhere: Australia, South Africa, Japan, the US, Brazil… Most are in the 25-35-year-old range, but the next biggest group is probably the 50-80-year-olds.

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Why do people do the Camino de Santiago?

As I said before, modern-day pilgrims’ reasons are quite varied. Some are religious, some are looking for an answer to some question they have in their life, some are doing it in honor or memory of a loved one, others are alt-tourists looking for a more adventurous way to spend their holiday. I personally wanted to do a portion of the Camino as a sort of capstone on my experience of living in Spain for over two years. It was a time for reflection and clarification. You can’t go into the Camino knowing exactly what you’ll get out of it, but I can just about guarantee the one thing you won’t feel at the end is regret for having done it.

In our room at an albergue in Palas de Rei: "In our room at an albergue: "Don't run, pilgrim. It doesn't matter how far you go, but rather who you are, how you feel and who you're with."

In our room at an albergue in Palas de Rei: “Don’t run, pilgrim. It doesn’t matter how far you go, but rather how you are, how you feel and who you’re with.”

What does the Camino de Santiago look like?

If you don’t already know, Spain is a land of incredibly varied landscapes. The main route take you from the rocky Pyrenees into the lush green Basque Country, my beloved former home. There’s a flat, dry stretch through the high plains of north-central Spain and the final third of the journey is once again very mountainous, and quite green.

Sometimes you’re walking on the shoulder of a highway, other times you’re walking along a shady, forested path. You’ll pass through big cities, small towns and tiny villages. You’ll see lots of farm animals and have to dodge a lot of manure.

There’s a video at the end of this post that might give you a better idea of what the Camino looks like.

What does the Camino de Santiago sound like?

Mornings are peaceful. Birds chirping. The crunching of your feet on the rugged paths. The other pilgrims you pass along the way wishing you a “buen camino.” You’ll probably be lost in thought, or maybe having an enlightening conversation with your Camino companion(s) or a random peregrino you’ve just met.

Afternoons are more challenging. You might be noticing the sound of your breath more and thinking you sound tired. Maybe you turn on your iPod to block that out for awhile.

Evenings are joyful and then peaceful once again. You’ll talk and laugh with the other pilgrims over dinner and vino, then face-plant into your pillow at the albergue.

What does the Camino de Santiago smell like?

Manure, mostly. Sometimes flowers.

What does the Camino de Santiago taste like?

Espresso and fresh fruit in the morning. More espresso and Spanish tortilla in later morning. Tuna empanadas or salami bocadillos for lunch. Cold beer pick-me-ups. Three home-cooked courses for dinner, washed down with fantastic Rioja wine.

before bedtime ritual: journaling and wine

before bedtime ritual: journaling and wine

What does the Camino de Santiago feel like?

The Camino feels like an analogy to life. There are peaks and valleys, easy stretches and treacherous ones. There are times when you feel like you can’t go on and a friend picks you up, and times when you’re the one offering a shoulder to lean on. There are times to be serious and times to laugh and realize life can’t be taken too seriously.

The Camino feels like freedom. Freedom from the modern-day construction of what life is “supposed” to be. A blast to the past, a much simpler time. No responsibilities except putting one foot in front of the other, all day, every day.

The Camino feels like unfettered emotion. The usual day-to-day emotional hindrances are gone, and you’re left to really feel your feelings. You might get really sad about the heart-breaking things of the world and then look up at the landscape around you and cry tears of joy at the beauty of it all.

In the mountains of gorgeous Galicia

In the mountains of gorgeous Galicia

I leave you with a video I compiled of my footage of the journey. Here you’ll get a sense of the sights and sounds of the Camino. Your sensory imagination will have to fill in the rest.


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El Camino de Santiago

Tomorrow morning I am getting on a bus to a little village in the northwestern part of Spain called Villafranca del Bierzo. It is there that a dear friend of mine and I will begin a 200km (125 miles for my fellow Guiris) to Santiago de Compostela: the last stage of a famous pilgrimage known as The Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James.) I’ve been throwing the idea around in my head for over a year now, and finally I decided I have to do it. I’ve heard so many great things about it from friends of mine who have done it. There was also a movie recently made about it that has made the pilgrimage much more famous. I highly recommend it; it’s called “The Way“, and it tells a story of one man who completed the Camino in it’s entirety in honor of his son. We’re only going for a week, but the original routes begin in France and can take more than a month to complete on foot.

I finally arrived at the decision to embark on this journey as a nice capstone to the two hugely impacting years of life I have spent in this wonderful country that now really feels like my home. Hiking for miles and miles day in and day out gives you lots of time to think, reflect, evaluate, reminisce and consider what lies ahead. I can’t think of a better way to make the transition from my life in my adopted home back to my life in my native home. I’ll be Stateside in just 11 days.

One thing that becoming an increasingly seasoned traveler has taught me (only took a few years :-p) is how to pack light (yes, ladies, it CAN be done.) I’ll be carrying nothing but this 18-liter pack:

pack

This week is going to be challenging, sweaty, feet-blistering and exhausting. But more importantly, it’s going to be an incomparable adventure: a chance to meet people from all over the world and all walks of life while hiking through beautiful landscapes. A chance to get away from the normal hustle bustle and life to stop and think. A chance to see what you’re really made of.

To all my fellow peregrinos out there: ¡BUEN CAMINO!


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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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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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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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round 3

I’m about to board a plane to Spain for the THIRD time. I’ve had the most wonderful seven weeks at home visiting friends and family. In fact, these past couple of months have highlighted the importance of supportive and loving family and friends more than ever for me. I’m very, very fortunate. I can’t thank all of you (you know who you are!) for all you’ve done to make my extended visit to the US so great. THANK YOU! Goodbyes are always tough, but I know they’re really just “see you laters.”

I’m very excited and ready to get on the plane today. It will be so great to be back in Bilbao, and this year will be even better than last. I’ve got some exciting new challenges lined up.

I threw together a video of random clips from my past year in Spain. Enjoy!


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16 and Spanish

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to go along with two other teachers at my school to accompany our 4 ESO (high school sophomore) students on their Viaje de Estudios, or class trip. This gave me some extra insight into the lives of Spanish teenagers, and I’d like to share with you some of the differences I’ve observed. I may be getting old (24 next week!!!), but I don’t think I’m so far removed from my teenage years that I can’t remember what it was like. As far as I can tell, being a teen here is VERY different from my experience at that age.

Difference #1: The Thrill Factor

We kicked off the trip with an action-packed couple of days in the Pyrenees Mountains on the France-Spain border: white water rafting, paint-balling and “canyoning,” which is essentially descending a long, cascading waterfall using a variety of techniques including rappelling, jumping, swimming and climbing.

This brings me to Difference #1: Spanish (or maybe specifically Basque) teens are overall, for lack of a better term, more badass than American teens. Tell me: if you went on a HS class trip, what sort of activities did you and your classmates do? I’m guessing it probably didn’t involve any extreme sports. You know, with wet suits, helmets, carabiners, cables and plunges into icy pools at the bases of several waterfall drops. I suppose it helps a lot that the teens here are just generally more active, thus in better shape, than most American teens. The fact that the people of this country don’t have an obsession with liability lawsuits like in the US probably helps facilitate these opportunities as well.

white water rafting with my students in the Pyrenees

one of my students inside one of the many cascade drops of the waterfall we descended

the whole crew at the last drop

Difference #2: The Fiesta Factor

The second half of the trip was spent in Salou, a beachy resort town and notorious teen party capital of Spain’s Mediterranean coast. When I told anyone we were going to Salou, the unanimous response was “Ooooh…mucha fiesta!” It made me wonder, and still sorta does, why a school would willingly put a notorious party town on their high schoolers’ class trip itinerary. My school wasn’t alone in that decision either. In our beachfront hotel alone there were two other high school student groups from other parts of Spain on their class trip. On the nights in Salou, the kids would scurry down to our 9pm dinner, scarf down some food and head out on the town. The other chaperones and I hung out and had a few drinks before meeting up with the kids around 1am at whatever club they may be at. Just to do a headcount. To make sure everyone was still upright. And they were! All 35 of them could handle a night of partying better than a majority of American college freshmen. Their final curfew, around 4am (early by Spanish clubbing standards) was obeyed by every last one of them. That’s more than can be said for the average American teen, my former teen self included.

Sunny Salou

Difference #3: The Apathy Factor

Teenagers across the globe are known to have attitudes of apathy and angst unmatched by any other age group, but I think this attitude is stronger here than in the US. When I was in high school, most of the “cool kids” were also the smart, academically achieving kids. Though this may not be the case in the US as a whole, I’m pretty confident in saying that the relationship between high academic achievement and level of “cool-ness” is a lot more inversely related here than it is back home. For these teens, failing and repeating classes is the norm, not the exception. They talk about failing classes really openly and joke about it.

School performance isn’t the only place I’ve seen this attitude. To use an example from the class trip: we spent an afternoon touring Barcelona, and though the tour guide we had wasn’t stellar, I was appalled by how little the students paid attention during the tour. They slept when she was talking to us on the bus and wandered off when we were walking around with her. For many of them, it was their first time in Barcelona, and they just acted like it was the lamest thing they’ve ever done. I couldn’t figure it out. I remember going to Chicago and NYC for school music trips and being completely enthralled with the experience of seeing a new city. And don’t think I was the lone travel dork–my classmates were right along with me.

I’ve made a lot of generalizations here, and it is of course important to consider that my personal HS experience could be quite different from someone who grew up in a totally different corner of our vast land mass that is the US of A. And even though Spain isn’t geographically all that large, there are regional differences galore here too.

What do you think? Are Spanish teens better off than American ones? Does the significantly lower drinking age help them adopt a healthier attitude towards drinking and socializing in a party environment? How does their attitude of apathy and angst compare with that of American teens? I’d love to hear any of your thoughts–feel free to leave a comment!

I’ll leave you with a tune that’s very popular with the kids these days (one that I got to hear on repeat on our bus trip :-D):