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

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a “family” reunion

Yesterday, I was fortunate to be reunited with my study abroad family: the directors of USAC Bilbao. I went along with them and the current USACers on a day long excursión to Gernika and Lekeitio, two little towns here in the Basque Country.

First we went to Gernika (Guernica), a town that is a symbol of Basque culture and is of great significance due to the bombing that occurred there during the Spanish Civil War, causing widespread death and destruction. The bombing, which was ordered by the former Spanish dictator Franco, is widely viewed as an example of terror bombing, inspired by Franco’s hatred for the Basque people and culture. The fact that many of the victims were innocent civilians has made the bombing a significant anti-war symbol, and was even the subject of Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, Guernica.

There was a large oak tree in the center of town under which Basque officials would assemble for meetings. Astoundingly, it was not destroyed in the bombing and is now viewed as a symbol of Basque freedom.

Ibon and I in front of the newest Tree of Gernika

The original Tree of Gernika

After visiting Gernika, we traveled to a txakoli (Basque white wine) vineyard up in the mountains overlooking the vast Atlantic. Our adorable tour guide, Ángel, was also the vineyard owner. Listen to him here as he explains why their wine received a 91/100 Robert Parker rating in 2010:

Lys (current USACer) and myself (USAC alum), both of ND!

Beeeeautiful view!

Txakoli tasting time!

We finished up the day with a traditional 3-course Basque meal and brief tour of Lekeitio, a quaint but gorgeous coastal village. We took a somewhat treacherous hike through a hillside forest up to a lookout. The view was worth it!

An bird's eye view of Lekeitio

My Basque "mom", Arantxa!

I was so happy to be reunited with the people that made my last experience in the Basque Country so special.

Here’s to many more memories with the USAC crew!


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The “study” part of Study Abroad

I’ve hardly said a word about school here in Spain, partially because I don’t want to bore anyone and partially because it really is only a fraction of the entire experience itself. The most tangible goals of studying abroad are to earn college credit (in my case, for a Spanish minor) and to beef up your résumé, but as anyone who has studied abroad knows, that goal is almost secondary to the learning and discovering that comes from the experience in its entirety.

That said, I AM attending college courses at la Univerisdad del Pais Vasco (University of the Basque Country), and I’d like to tell you a little bit about it… 🙂

My classes are part of USAC‘s program, so they’re specially designed for foreign students and not part of UPV’s “normal” curriculum. That is how most study abroad programs work, I assume. This program has four “tracks”, or levels, and I was (somehow) placed in the highest track. I can say now, halfway through the semester, that being in the highest track has really been bittersweet. I feel like it’s a good challenge, but at the same time I could really use the review of some of the basics of grammar and verbs, etc. that I didn’t learn very well the first time around. It takes being in another country to realize how little of their language you really know! I need to do a better job of brushing up on some of my basics in my free time.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, I start at 11am with a conversation class. I ended up being the only student in the Track 4 conversation class, so it’s just my teacher and I, and I really don’t mind that it turned out that way. There’s certainly no room for slacking off or zoning out, but I just view it as an hour-long private Spanish lesson. Not bad at all. At noon, I head to my Civilization and Culture class (there’s a whopping TWO students in that one!), which I really enjoy too because I’m learning so much about Spain’s history, customs and traditions WHILE living here. That comes in quite handy on several occasions. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have two classes starting at 10am with the same professor, Juan. My friends and I lovingly refer to him (amongst ourselves!) as our Spanish grandpa. He is always teasing us about the amount of chocolate and coffee we consume, accusing us of chasing boys, and telling us to lay off the kalimotxo on the weekends. After arriving late to two of his classes in a row, Juan now refers to me as: Megan…My favorite disaster. I have two classes with him back to back: Stylistics, which is largely an advanced grammar/usage class, and Spanish Literature. Taking a literature class, for me, is like pulling teeth. I always want to and try to enjoy Literature, but at the end of the day I’m just a science geek…I have a hard time slowing down to the pace of literature interpretation, though I do think it is valuable and meaningful in its own right. The lit class I’m taking here is growing on me, though. I appreciate that it’s teaching me more about Spanish history, giving me practice with reading comprehension and maybe even making me more reflective and other profound things like that :-p …Thanks for that, Juan 🙂

I find that, when it comes to studying, I have a bit of study-abroad-induced attention deficit. Knowing that such an exciting new world is literally out my front door, it’s hard to stay in and study. Needless to say, I get a lot more homework done on rainy days than on sunny ones.

I haven’t posted any pics of the campus of UPV because, well…there’s truly nothing to see. And I wouldn’t just say that. There are two campuses–one homely-looking one in Leioa where all the Spanish classes are and one more handsome-looking one in the center of Bilbao. Since I’m only taking Spanish classes, I only experience the unaesthetic one. One big difference between campuses in the US and campuses here is that here, there is no emphasis whatsoever on “campus life” like in the US. In the States, we’re encouraged to hang out with friends on campus, meet up for study groups on campus, eat on campus and even spend our leisure time at on-campus activities. And a lot of us do most of those things. Most of us live on or very near campus for at least a part of our time in college, whereas here there is no on-campus housing. Most students in Spain live at home with their parents at least until they graduate college, and if they don’t live at home there is no dorm-style housing, so they just live in off-campus flats. Moral of the story: the need for a campus to be visually appealing is a lot less, since students simply come here for class and maybe a coffee or lunch, and then they leave.

Now, having said all of that, the people at UPV would probably appreciate if I mention that the campus IS under a lot of renovation right now, and within a couple of years will probably look a lot less disheveled. I do have one nice picture, taken from one of my classroom windows looking out into the open center courtyard inside the main building on campus:

UPV Biblioteca Central

UPV Biblioteca Central

Speaking of school, I have a couple of presentations tomorrow so I really should be getting around to preparing them.

¡Que pases una buena semana!


Holy Toledo! Welcome to the Basque Country!

**Be sure to check out my Youtube channel for 8 new videos as well as my Picasa albums for many, many newly uploaded pictures!**

Where to begin. The last several days have been so packed with activity that I just can’t cover it all! I left off writing to you from my hotel in Madrid. We traveled on Saturday to the monumentally historical city of Toledo. Toledo was built on a hill…you could even say a mountain, maybe. From the gates and walls to the city to the river surrounding it, it seems like something right out of a fairy tale. The highlight of the trip for me was definitely the famous cathedral of Toledo: Catedral de Santa María. Here is a video of the outside, as we were unable to use cameras inside the cathedral…

If I could sum up Toledo in one word, it would be: magical. To visit Toledo is to step into a time machine. Everywhere you look is an important part of Spain’s history. The way that things there have been preserved since even before the Middle Ages is phenomenal. Check out my travel buddy Ryan’s blog for some info about our trip to Toledo.

The remainder of our time in Madrid was just too short, although for how sleep-deprived all of us were, a change of pace needed. Ryan, Sarah and I walked for hours before sunset and explored a the beautiful park at La Plaza de la Independencia:

clicking my heels together in the park

We spent our last day and night in Madrid exploring the city as much as we could. We topped the night off with sangria at El Secreto,  a wonderful place we found tucked away on a side street in downtown Madrid.

A few of us at El Secreto

On Sunday morning we made the scenic journey from Madrid to Bilbao. There is an unusual amount of snow in Spain right now, so parts of the trip were a bit like travelling in North Dakota. But that didn’t last long. As we entered the Basque Country, the landscape changed, the snow disappeared, and like an illusion, quaint castles and cathedrals began to pop up seemingly out of nowhere along the countryside. Seeing this breathtaking countryside outside of Bilbao was the spark that began my new love for my new home. We were able to see Bilbao from the highway as we came in, and Ibon, our program director, served as our tour guide for our first glimpse of the city. As we entered Getxo, all of us were taken back by the beauty. I don’t think any of us expected it to be so inviting and so astoundingly gorgeous. I couldn’t be happier with my location in Spain.

Perhaps I should explain this Bilbao vs. Getxo business. Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country and has 400,000 inhabitants. When including all of the surrounding communities, the population of Bilbao is one million. Getxo is a seaside community (pop. 80,000) that is directly connected to Bilbao. Bilbao has many industries and large stores, while Getxo is purely residential, with small shops, restaurants and bars scattered throughout. My neighborhood is called Algorta, and it is the most mountainous area of Getxo so all of the streets are quite steep. At the bottom of the Algorta neighborhood is the finest beach in Getxo. Not too shabby. I attend school at two different campuses: one which is in an area between Getxo and Bilbao, and one which in the very centrally located in Bilbao. See if you can find Bilbao, Getxo and Algorta on this map.

There is so much more to be said about my time so far in Getxo, my orientations at school, and all the adventures in between, but that will have to wait. I will take some time to get more pictures of where I live as all I have so far are the ones I took from the bus. The video below was taken as we first laid eyes on Getxo from the bus:

¡Hasta la próxima!