Sunday, 15 April 2012

Semana Santa Parte 1: Sevilla


There are no chocolate eggs here for Easter, but I think 16 whole days off work was quite enough to compensate.  Here's the first part of what I got up to during las vacaciones.

A few weeks ago, I was trawling the websites of cheap flight companies trying to find somewhere exciting I could go without breaking the bank (although I must admit that now, the bank is well and truly broken) and the best idea seemed to be a weekend in Seville.  The Easter celebrations in the south of the country are the most famous and impressive in Spain, so I thought I might get the chance to see some of the processions in the streets whilst out exploring.  I was also hoping to put a bit of colour into my pasty skin, seeing as my idea of Seville was as a land of eternal sunshine!

I flew from Zaragoza on March 30th and the whole experience made me detest Ryanair just a little bit more.  I decided not to bother queueing to get on the flight because I was travelling myself and would probably end up sitting next to a weirdo anyway (besides, I've noticed that people begin queuing before the plane they're getting on has even arrived, which makes no sense at all) and got up just as the last few people were trickling through the gate.  It was about 10 minutes before we were due to take off when I attempted to board and  heard the dreaded words:  'Does your suitcase fit in there?', accompanied by a gesture towards that ridiculous, rickety basket that Ryanair like to use to extract money (50 Euro to be precise) from you.  Lifting my suitcase up and trying to squeeze it into the metal frame, I had that sick and sinking feeling that we all must have experienced at one point.  Oh God, it doesn't fit.  'Please go and pay your 50 Euro at the desk', came the voice of Mrs. Ryanair.  'Um, just give me a second and I'll make it fit,' came my reply.  Like hell I'm paying 50 Euro.  I must have looked like a prize idiot all flustered at the departure gate, but I was determined to arrange my things in such a way to avoid the surcharge, it was just about what the flight had cost me.  So the case was perched on the basket, jammed in the top of the basket and eventually, sitting smugly inside it, much to the disappointment of the airport staff.  Toma.

By the time the whole suitcase débâcle was over, I had about five minutes to get on the flight and ran to the stairs of the aeroplane, where I was greeted by a drunk Andalusian man.  'Weren't you in front of me?', he said.  'I was, yes,' I replied and explained the whole sorry story.  He then tried to strike up further conversation, but it was all pretty much incomprehensible jibberish to me.  I don't know if it was his drunkenness, the southern accent or a mix of both?

Happily, there were no further problems for the duration of the flight and I got off in Seville refreshed and ready to find my hostel.  The directions I'd printed out said I had to take two buses and then wander around aimlessly until I found the right street (OK, it didn't say that, but that's what I always do), so I jumped on the first bus and hoped for the best.  

Happily, the best actually happened for once.  Firstly, a nice, German girl came and sat beside me and we got off at the same stop.  As I was saying 'adiós' to her, two other girls saw our caras de guiri, heard our accented Spanish and uttered the magic words:  'Sois Erasmus?' ('Are you Erasmus students?')   'No,' I explained, 'I've just caught a flight from Zaragoza and I'm visiting for the weekend.  I'm teaching English up near Logroño.  What about you?'  
'Ahh, I know who you are!  You're the girl who was in front of us in the airport with the suitcase and then that drunk man was talking to you!  (Nice to see my ordeal was being observed...) We're Erasmus students in Zaragoza, here for the weekend too.  Do you know where the bus stops are?'
'Not a clue, which one are you looking for?'
'The 32.'  
'That's what I'm looking for too.  Where are you staying?'
'The Oasis Palace, I think it's called.'

Well, qué casualidad, we were all going to the same place.  So we all got lost together, which was a refreshing change from doing it on my own (I despise being lost on my own.)  And when we eventually arrived at our destination, it turned out we were all in the same dorm and one of the girls was in the bunk above me! ¡El mundo es un pañuelo! 

Bell Tower

Seville itself is a charming place, full of architecture that is a fusion of what you'd traditionally see in Spain and what wouldn't be out of place in Morroco.  For example, part of the cathedral in the heart of the city used to be a mosque, so the bell tower was originally used as a minaret.  It was nice to see the two styles, and the two religions, sitting so well with one another.

The Alcázar is also built in an Arabian style and is hugely impressive in its intricacy.  It's surrounded by beautiful gardens and houses paintings and tapestries that will leave you filled with wonder.  I stood gawking at those tapestries for absolutely ages wondering how anyone could possibly have sewed such enormous, detailed designs.

Being a 'flamenco dancer'

Unfortunately, my camera died after getting in the front door,
you'll just have to go to see more!

Another thing on my list to visit was the Plaza de España, an absolutely enormous square filled with tiled alcoves representing every province of Spain.  Of course, I had to get the obligatory picture in the Logroño one:

The only downside of my trip was the weather, as a lot of the processions I wanted to see on Palm Sunday were cancelled due to torrential rain.  And so much for getting a tan!

Empty chairs, no procession today...
Waiting for a procession that never started!  There is one advantage to the rain, though - it makes the whole city smell like an orange grove.  It's full of orange trees and legend has it that they were planted by a man (can't remember who, a king?!) who took his wife to Seville from the country.  She told him she missed the countryside and the snow, so he planted orange trees everywhere so that the white blossoms would fall in the autumn and provide the 'snow' that she missed.

I did manage to catch one parade, though - a few guys from my hostel and I were wandering around at 1am and just happened to stumble across hundreds of people filing through the streets, holding candles and dressed all in white.  A slightly creepy, but very surreal experience.
Those in the procession play music and carry crosses
and ornate figures of Jesus.
The processions often look like rallies of the Klu Klux Klan,
due to the long, white, pointed hoods the people wear.
It has absolutely nothing to do with it, but a lot of
people think that the KKK probably copied the idea from
Semana Santa as the hoods disguise the face and are linked to

I want to keep exploring, do I have to go back to work tomorrow?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Consejos para tener una buena experiencia en el extranjero


Some tips for a successful year abroad that I wish someone had sent me when I was nineteen:

Figure out what you want to gain from your time abroad before you go.

It sounds like a really simple piece of advice, but you need to be clear about what you want to achieve from your time away before you get on the aeroplane. Do you want to learn a new language? Experience a new culture? Meet new people? Gain more independence? Or do you simply want some time away from it all? Remember that being clear about what you want is the only way you'll ever succeed in getting it.

Check that your goals are realistic and plan how you're going to make them happen.

It's all very well saying you're going to learn Spanish/ German/ Chinese whilst you're away, but how likely is fluency in 6 months? What steps are you going to take to learn as much as possible? Get on the internet, do your research, ask questions and then make it happen.  
And for God's sake, please don't make one of your goals 'finding yourself'. Surely if you lost yourself you'd look in places that you'd already been rather than running off to another continent? As the poster on my bedroom wall says: 'life isn't about finding yourself, it's about creating yourself.'

Go alone
It's always nice to have someone with you when you're doing something scary. Just like it's always preferable to have someone you know sitting next to you on an aeroplane (if only so you won't spend your dying moments clutching the clammy hand of a complete stranger if the engine fails). But at the end of the day, the only way to ensure your control of your experience is to do it solo. It might be the one time in your life when you don't have to compromise with anyone about anything, which is about the most liberating thing ever.

Live with locals

The most tempting thing to do when you move to a foreign country is to latch on to other foreigners. You discover your new environment with them, you party with them, you share your problems with them, so why not go the whole hog and live with them too? Bad move. No-one can give you more insight into a place than a person who has lived there for years, and you will reap the benefits of living with a native speaker if you're trying to learn another language. Try for flat shares in France and if you're looking for compañeros in Spain.

Keep in contact with the people who matter

In this digital age, there's no excuse for not keeping in touch with your friends, family and loved ones at home whilst you're off on a jolly. Chat on Facebook, video call on Skype (or buy a Skype phone subscription that allows you unlimited phonecalls to anywhere in the world for a very reasonable fee), send emails, start a blog, send postcards and write letters. Actually, write LOTS of letters.

Don't get romantically involved with anyone from your peer group unless - 
1) you're in love with them
2) you enjoy living a life similar to a soap opera.

Anyone who's done Erasmus/ language teaching abroad will know what I mean here. It's a completely unexplainable phenomenon, but the majority of people seem to transform into pigeons in heat as soon as their toes touch foreign soil. So A gets off with B on Friday night, B gets off with C on Saturday night, A is jealous and gets off with D, B gets off with E to show A that he doesn't care that he got off with D and then B and D are awkward around each other because they've both got off with A. And A and C want to fight each other because they both really want to be with B. Confused? Just imagine this were your life.


The internet is a wonderful resource while you're away. Facebook will inevitably have a group for foreigners in the city you're living in, you can find clubs and language exchanges on and is a godsend to meet awesome new people.

Don't get paralysed by fear

The one question everyone always asks me when I go to a new place is: 'What happens if you don't like it?' Well, it's quite simple, really. I get on a plane and I go home. There's absolutely no shame or weakness in walking away from something if you're not happy with it, there's only a problem when you don't try something at all or stick it out in order to keep up appearances.

Listen to Mark Twain

'Sail away from the safe harbor
Catch the trade winds in your sails.

Wise words indeed.