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Posts Tagged ‘Spain’

Well, it’s finally here. The final — almost — week of classes at SciencesPo for the term has started, and although I have a few makeup sessions next week, I am virtually done with class in France, with only two finals — one on May 27 and the other on June 3 — standing in the way of me and my European opera adventure this summer.

Research papers written, classes attended and grades distributed, it’s hard to believe that the term is over so soon — not thinking, of course, of my friends back in Chapel Hill, who are already moving out this week as they take the last of their spring term finals.

But just because the academic side of my term abroad is winding down, doesn’t mean I’m running out of things to do. In fact, this past weekend was one of the most exciting and interesting I’ve had yet in France.

It started out on Friday, when my friend Dana and I had a lazy Friday evening in which we moved her things from one room to another — her landlady is moving in with her — and ate a a delicious batch of eggs and hash browns. We ended the night by watching old Nickelodeon shows and realizing how they are much funnier in memory then in repeat reality, and then decided to meet the next day at Place de la Republique for the Fête du Travail.

The Fête du Travail — known in the States as May Day — is a big party for the left-wing/labor forces in France, Europe and most of the world except America. In Paris, the celebration involves big parades of workers’ syndicates, left-wing parties and anarchists marching between Place de la Republique and Place de La Bastille, demanding retirement rights, higher wages and similar such things.

Mostly, though, it’s just a big, old fashioned protest-party. Whole families come out to dance with Turkish and Kurdistan Communist groups, as  anarchist radicals rub shoulders with leaders of the main French left-wing political organization, the Parti Socialiste. Food vendors sell delicious sandwiches and the cafés were full to bursting.

Dana and I decided that it was really neat that the left wing factions in France are strong enough to have a day just to themselves for celebration and peaceful demonstration. We also noted the relatively low police presence, and realized that the United States simply doesn’t know how to have demonstrations that are just for demonstrating’s sake.

Soon, we grew tired of the craziness, and decided to head over to somewhere a bit quieter — the Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Père Lachaise, a world famous cemetery in which such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison and some random clown from the early 20th century are buried, was on both of our Paris Bucket Lists — or, the series of things we feel we must do here before the term is over, now the end is in sight and we both have fallen in love with the city.

Together with Dana’s friend Charles, we wandered around for a few hours, relishing in the silence and quirky charm of the place. Narrow, named avenues wind past stately oaks and through rows of stoic gravestones and family mausoleums, ending sometimes in epic monuments to former Russian countesses or maybe the French writer who penned Aesop’s fables. It was a lovely antidote to the chaos of the fête du travail, and Dana and I finished our Saturday eating cereal for dinner and watching “The Jungle Book” in my apartment.

Sunday was sunny, so I went for a great run along the canal, and when I came back, I got to meet my new roommate, the current inhabitant of Djelloul’s old room. Her name is Elissa, and she is a young architect from Barcelona, Spain. Already, I feel that we are great friends.

It’s funny — in the few short days that Elissa has lived in our apartment, I already know more about her and have talked to her more frequently than either of the two guys with whom I have lived for almost four months. She’s funny, and gracious, and interesting, and has a really fascinating job with an architecture firm currently competing for a contract with the French Defense Ministry to build a super-secret, underground computer terminal in the countryside outside of Paris.

Best of all, she isn’t a native French speaker, so even though we only speak in French to each other — she insisted her English was laughable at best, and I wouldn’t want to speak in English, anyway — the conversations are animated and enjoyable, because neither one of us has to worry about our little grammatical errors. We both make a lot, but we both understand each other just fine, and I realize that having someone to talk to at home besides Flocon the Cat has made me a much happier person.

Back to school was back to school, so not much to say there, although today I did go to a fantastic coffee shop written up by the New York Times with a friend — I say coffee shop and not café because it really felt like a San Francisco hang out and not a French café — where we shared great conversation and what I am going to call the best cup of coffee in Paris. I will definitely go back again, and soon, and often.

Plus, this evening Dana was nice enough to invite me to a fascinating conference/lecture at SciencesPo given by former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian who served as the Secretary-General from 1992-1996 until the United States forced him out for his inaction during the humanitarian crises that so characterized the mid-1990s, spoke mainly on the subject of Africa in the 21st century. He didn’t really have too many new things to say, but he was really interesting, and I enjoyed that the whole conference was in French and I listened and understood everything like it wasn’t even a big deal. Cause it wasn’t, of course.

More updates on my continuing adventures to come in the following action-packed and soon to be school-free days, but know this, dear readers: j’aime Paris, et finalement, je pense que Paris m’aime, aussi.

Look up that last part, if you really need to. If anything, I hope my blog has taught some of you out there a little bit of French know-how and vocab.

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So, you might say that I’m not the world’s most traditional spring breaker.

For the last two years, I’ve gone to Chicago with various groups of friends in the early frigid part of March, and the year before that, I visited Montreal with my father to check out McGill University. Rather than sun and stereotypical beach lounging, I go to large, northern cities and wonder around in the snow.

But not this year. Even with the evil Icelandic volcano threatening our flights, my friends Chris, Isabella, Katie and I miraculously found ourselves in sunny Valencia, Spain, where we spent a carefree and positively wonderful week being poor, happy university students.

Chris and I left Thursday morning, taking a bus to the small, strange and distant Beauvais airport — literally an hour from the center of Paris — where we were to catch our RyanAir flight to Alicante, Spain. You might know RyanAir as the super-cheap, low cost Irish airline. You might wonder how they manage to make their rates so cheap.

Then you get onboard a RyanAir flight. It is pretty much a bus with wings — not an AirBus, with glamour and comfort — but rather a bus from a poor metropolitan area that takes everyone to somewhere they don’t really want to go, but is somewhat close to where you want to go. Isabella said as much: “RyanAir takes you to places kind of close to desirable destinations, without actually being there.”

But cheap or small or cramped or willing to charge its passengers up to 3 Euros for a bottle of water, RyanAir still did as it advertised and flew us to Alicante, a large regional airport in the south of Spain. Despite the week of cancelled European flights, we flew without trouble, although Chris and I were pretty sure we saw some suspicious looking, smoky ash clouds as we took off from Paris.

From Alicante, Chris and took a regional train to the main Valencia train station, a lovely, Texas-looking, early modernist structure. Valencia is a strange city — a mix between an ancient, walled Iberian town and a bustling, modern metropolis, now the third largest city in Spain. It’s sprawling and expansive; yet it feels as if it isn’t much bigger than a small regional capital. It has a metro, but it’s slow and clean and on time, rather than the faster and dirtier metros of northern Europe.

I suppose Valencia was a good introduction to the general atmosphere of southern Europe. Even though roughly 1 in 4 people in Spain are unemployed, no one seems to mind. Everyone seemed happy and loose, and nobody minded that Isabella and Katie were wearing skirts in public — it was a warm springtime week, after all. Prices were low, food was cheap and the people were pleasant, even though I don’t speak a word of Spanish. All those years of pretending like I could kind of understand and read Spanish turned out to be true make-believe — although in my defense, I must say that the Valencia region speaks a strange, eastern dialect of Spanish that is close to Catalan, so my Spanish skills might still be better than it seems.

Our hostel, named Indigo, was a lovely place, with a big kitchen, clean bathrooms and rooms full of young people from all over the world. For my first hostel experience, it was fantastic. Isabella joined us late Thursday night, and Katie, a friend of Isabella from California, met up with us Friday morning.

From then on, our days were pretty simple: wake up, eat breakfast, buy picnic supplies and head to the beach. After lunch on the beach, we would sun and swim, occasionally pausing for ice cream or coffee breaks in the many beachside cafés and food stands. Evenings were either a cooked meal in the hostel or, on two wonderful nights, traditional Spanish tapas at a little bar in the old quarter of the city.

The tapas deserves its own paragraph. As a coastal town, it was assured that Valencia would have good sea food — a fact which we proved in a delicious lunchtime paella meal one afternoon. But the surprisingly inexpensive tapas place, or small plates bar, served some the simplest, most delicious food I have ever tasted, including a plate of what will probably prove to be the finest mussels I will ever eat. Cheese, lightly smoked ham, squid, octopus, spring eggs, tuna steaks and even surprisingly delicious almond cake greeted us each night. I think it’s a testament to the quality of the tapas at this place that we went there twice, rather than risk missing out on the wonderful quality of the food by seeking out another, less tasty restaurant in the city.

When not sunning or swimming or stuffing our faces, we managed to find time to visit La Ciudad de Las Artes y Las Ciencias, a stunning, modernist museum complex on the edge of the old city. We bought a two day pass, spending a cloudy Sunday at the hands-on sciences museum and massive IMAX theatre and the morning of a sunny beach day at the fantastic aquarium, where we saw many a fish and dolphin.

Mostly, we just relaxed. I realized, while sipping on Sangria on the beach one afternoon, how long it had been since I had had so few responsibilities in my life. Granted, I still had a huge research paper waiting for me in Paris, my summer itinerary to construct and finals to study for, but while in Spain, all I had to do was wake up when I wanted and make sure to apply enough sun screen.

When we flew back Thursday afternoon to Paris — in time to see She & Him, one of my favorite groups, in concert — I’ll admit I was glad to be back in a country where I could read and speak and understand the things cashiers and bus drivers told me, but I definitely felt recharged. I needed to get out of the city  — and my skin was glad for the boost in Vitamin D — but coming back made the whole thing that much sweeter.

Maybe this post is kind of off topic and general, but there aren’t really too many specifics to go into for our trip. It was a simple week, with a simple goal: to relax.

And that’s just what we did.

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Hey friends!

Just a quick note to say that I safely made it to the lovely, warm, Mediterranean coastal town of Valencia, Spain, where I will be spending an absolutely heavenly week by the sea, eating seafood, sunning on the beach and having little to no responsbilities.

Such is the life.

I´ll have more details when I get home on Thursday, but for know, please imagine me as I likely am: on a white sand beach, in the sun, with the crystal blue Mediterranean stretched out in front of me and the colorful city of Valencia behind me.

Bisous,

Nick

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