Year in Review: The Good, the Bad and the Lovely

In less than two weeks, I’m heading back to Spain for my second year as a language assistant.

After a summer at home during which I had ample time to reflect (mostly while working on my tan at the beach), there are a few things I’d like to share about my first year in Spain.

My experience teaching English and living abroad has, thus far, been overwhelmingly positive. I couldn’t be more excited to be heading back for round two. However, as is to be expected when you’re a human being living life, the year wasn’t without its challenges. Breaking news: life isn’t all rainbows and butterflies.

In the spirit of transparency, which is one of the things that first drew me to blogging, I’m putting it all out there and recapping the good, the bad and the lovely from my first year in Spain.

Because I dream, I am not crazy.

 

The Good

Our Apartment  

The day we signed on our apartment was one of relief and triumph. It would have been easy to settle for a property (in fact, we almost did), but we held out and found a place we now proudly call our home.

I love our apartment. Like seriously love it. Both our living room and bedroom have huge sliding glass doors that open up onto the cutest balconettes overlooking a park. We’ve got pretty parquet floors and a little breakfast bar that’s just perfect for two. Pictures of family and friends, stacks of books, our ever-growing magnet collection and a few potted plants give the apartment that personal touch.

It was a struggle, but we found our home away from home. After a long day, I feel so lucky to return to such a comfortable and cozy space.

Teaching

I was attracted to the program because it was a surefire way for me to support myself and legally live in Spain. The job itself was irrelevant. I probably would have given garbage collecting a shot if it meant I could live in Madrid. A job is a job is a job. I figured I would put in my hours each week and be done with it. I expected not to like work (perhaps even hate it).

Imagine my surprise when a month into the school year I realized I was actually enjoying what I was doing. My friends and family couldn’t believe I, who have never been much of a “kid person,” liked working with children.

Teaching primary students, particularly first graders, is incredibly fulfilling. Really, they’re amazing little creatures. So hopeful and eager to learn. Even the hellish commute couldn’t get me too down because I knew I had two dozen smiling faces waiting for me at the end of it.

If that was too cheesy, I’m sorry, but it’s true! A year ago, I was slinging bras and panties at a department store. Today, I have the privilege of helping teach children language skills that will shape their future.

The last of school with my partner teacher, Alba.

 

Traveling

There’s a reason everyone loves Europe. My five-week backpacking trip after I graduated from college opened my eyes to all the wonders the continent holds. I’ve got a “must-visit” list in my Notes app, and it seems like every time I tick a place off, I add somewhere new.

This year, I visited:

Toledo, Spain

Segovia, Spain

Sevilla, Spain

Cordoba, Spain

Zaragoza, Spain

Porto, Portugal

Granada, Spain

Dublin, Ireland

Barcelona, Spain

Budapest, Hungary

Vienna, Austria

Prague, Czech Republic

Brussels, Belgium

Amsterdam, Netherlands

My favorite destination in Spain was Cordoba, which I visited with my family and Taylor over Christmas. I didn’t know much about the city going in and was impressed by its history. We took a fantastic guided tour that began in the city’s old Jewish quarter and finished in the spooky Alcázar which was used during the Spanish Inquisition. Cordoba, known for its whitewashed buildings adorned with colorful potted plants, is picture-perfect Andalusia. And of course, the La Mezquita, the city’s mosque-cathedral, is not to be missed.

My favorite destination outside of Spain was Budapest, Hungary. One of my college professors, who had spent some time teaching in a Hungarian university, peaked my interest in the city, and I’ve wanted to visit ever since. It didn’t disappoint. Why did I like it so much? Well, it’s hard to put my finger on it. The city is architecturally stunning. The people are friendly. The food (and wine) is delicious. The nightlife is the actual coolest. It’s all of those things, really. I just dug Budapest’s vibe. Sometimes a destination is exactly what you need exactly when you need it.

Hiking up a zillion stairs was worth this view of Budapest.

 

Confidence

I did it! When I left Spain in the fall of 2014 after my three-month stint as an au pair, I promised myself that I would find a way to return. It wasn’t easy. The visa process was a headache, and the apartment hunting was a nightmare, but with everything I overcame, I gained a little more confidence. I’m not even 25 years old yet, and I’ve already realized one of my lifelong dreams: living abroad. I set my mind to something and made it happen. Woohoo, I’m a rockstar. If I can do this, what else is possible?

The Bad

Apartment Hunting

Turns out, the Madrid rental market is crazy competitive.

In our first few days, Taylor and I called nearly 100 places. I spent hours and hours scrolling through online listings. We’d walk up and down street after street in the afternoon heat craning our necks for “se alquila” signs. On three separate occasions, we had appointments to see a property, but upon arrival, we were told it was already taken.

It was incredibly frustrating to say the least especially after all the preparation I’d done. At my lowest point, I wondered if I’d made a mistake in coming to Spain. I cried myself to sleep that night because, if I couldn’t even find a damn apartment, how was I going to manage life abroad?!

Commuting

Going into the program, I knew I would have to commute, so I was prepared for the 50 minutes to an hour it took me to get to school every Tuesday and Thursday. I used the commute time to read, listen to podcasts, check email, etc. In the morning, it was an opportunity to mentally prepare myself for the day. In the afternoon, it was a chance to decompress.

That actually sounds kind of nice, right?

On the other hand, my Wednesday and Friday commute was an absolute monster. Usually leaving the apartment around 7:20 a.m., I began my mornings with a frantic sprint around the corner to the bus stop. The bus took me to the metro station, and I rode the metro for 40 minutes. At 8:15 a.m., I was on another bus which dropped me off 40 minutes later about half a mile from my school. If everything ran smoothly, I’d walk into the classroom right around 9 a.m.

With so many moving parts though, my commute didn’t always go according to plan. The bus that took me to my school only ran once every hour. If I wasn’t on the bus at 8:15 a.m., which happened several times, I was SOL.

Getting home was a whole other nightmare. School ended at 2 p.m., but the bus didn’t come until 2:40 p.m. On a good day, it only took me 2 and a half hours to get home.

Relationships

The Spanish are known for being extremely social, and after a year in Madrid, I definitely agree. It could be a random Tuesday in the dead of winter, and you’ll still find packed bars with Spaniards drinking copas until the wee hours of the morning.

However, Spaniards, in my experience, aren’t the type of people who will strike up a conversation with a stranger, especially a foreigner. To be honest, they’re a little cliquey. It can be intimidating to try and break in. Even when you do manage to break in, the Spanish are private people, which I relate to and respect. As it should be, friendship is a serious matter. While Spaniards are happy to make your acquaintance, a relationship with any depth takes significant time and effort to cultivate.

With our busy travel schedule, we didn’t leave ourselves a lot of free weekends to go out and meet people–Spanish or otherwise. When we did have time, there was often the language barrier to contend with. Making friends is tough and definitely not for the faint of heart.

The Lovely  

Sharing every experience with Taylor

I put my own spin on the name of this post because, even on the worst days this year, nothing was ugly. Even when I was tired or homesick or actually sick, I was still waking up every morning in Spain. Even more than that, I was waking up next to my best friend and the love of my life.

Having someone to share your adventure with makes the good days even better and the bad days bearable. Taylor was my shoulder to cry on, my voice of reason and the best travel buddy anyone could ask for.

I thought we were close prior to moving to Spain, but this year brought us even closer. Separated from friends and family, we became each other’s everything. That’s a big test for a relationship, but I like to think we passed with flying colors. After this year, I know that no matter where I am in the world, I will feel at home as long as I’m with Taylor.

More than ready for a lifetime of adventures with this dude.

There you have it. The good, the bad and the lovely. What do you think? Should I do it all over again?

I think so.

Travel Plans: Where I’m going in 2016

With the exception of a few trips around Spain, my backpack has mostly remained tucked away since moving to Madrid. Well, that’s certainly about to change.

That’s right. I’m preparing to hit the road again, and I’m excited to share my travel plans with you.

February: Porto, Portugal

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Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Oh yes, Spain’s next door neighbor. It was difficult to choose between Porto and Lisbon (Portugal’s capital), but I went with the coastal city renowned for its Port wine production. One of the friends I’m traveling with works in the wine industry, and I’m–let’s just say–a wine enthusiast. Thus, our decision was an easy one. Lisbon will just have to wait for another time.

February: Granada, Spain

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Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

My boyfriend and I made a spontaneous day-trip to Granada when we were backpacking around Europe in 2014. Spontaneity, yay! Actually, not in this case. Due to the unexpectedness of our little venture, we missed out on Granada’s number one must-see: the Alhambra Palace. During peak season, tickets sell out months in advance, and we weren’t able to visit. Yes, it’s pretty embarrassing to tell people we’ve been to Granada and haven’t visited the Alhambra. This time around though, the trip has been thoroughly planned. Tickets? Check.

March: Dublin, Ireland

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Photo found via Pinterest

I’ll be missing St. Patty’s Day by a week. I’m not sure if that’s fortunate or unfortunate. Regardless, I’m pumped for some Guinness. This will be my first European destination where English is the primary language spoken. That should be an interesting experience in and of itself.

March: Barcelona, Spain

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Photo found via Pinterest

Yet another Spanish destination my 2014 backpacking trip didn’t do justice. I’m Barcelona-bound with an itinerary focused on Gaudi sightseeing. This trip, my plan is fewer clubs and more art.

March: Budapest, Hungary 

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Photo found via Pinterest

I have a long-standing fascination with Budapest. Actually Eastern Europe in general. This spring break my dreams will be realized. Bring on the palinka (which is apparently some kind of Hungarian fruit brandy). If you’ve tried it, tell me: should I be scared?

March: Vienna, Austria

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Photo found via Pinterest

I’ll only be spending one night in Vienna, which a few people have said is a crime, but I figure it’s better than spending zero nights in the Austrian capital.

March: Prague, Czech Republic

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Photo found via Pinterest

I can’t think of a better city with which to conclude my winter/spring travels than this historic destination. To be honest, I don’t know much about Prague, so please send any and all travel tips my way! I know there’s a lot to see, and as always, I want to make the most of my time.

There you have it, folks. My 2016 winter/spring travel plans! That backpack is about to get some serious use. Five new cities. Five new countries. Seven destinations total. Let’s do this.

What do you think of my 2016 plans? If you’ve visited any of these destinations, I’d love to hear about your experience! 

 

What to do in Zaragoza, Spain

As much as I love Madrid, it sure is nice to get out of the city for the weekend every once in awhile. On Saturday, my boyfriend and I traded in the hustle and bustle of Spain’s capital for the infamously windy Zaragoza.

Situated in the autonomous community of Aragon, Zaragoza is the fifth biggest city in Spain with around 700,000 residents. We decided to visit Zaragoza in order to show my boyfriend’s visiting parents a different side of Spain. The inviting, vibrant city did not disappoint.

Relaxing in the Plaze del Pilar.
Relaxing in the Plaze del Pilar.

Although often overlooked in favor of Spain’s better-known cities, Zaragoza offers travelers rich culture, plentiful shopping, tasty tapas and memorable sightseeing. Its location makes it a perfect weekend getaway. It took us three hours by bus from Madrid’s Avenida de America and cost just shy of 33 euros per person round-trip. Thank you, ALSA!

Find Madrid in the center of the country then trace a diagonal line toward France. You'll run right into Zaragoza!
From Madrid, trace a diagonal line toward France. You’ll run right into Zaragoza!

*Quick side note* I’m a big fan of ALSA for trips within Spain that are four hours or less. The buses are clean, comfortable and punctual. In fact, we arrived early both to and from Zaragoza! The reasonable fares make for an affordable transportation option.

Speaking of affordability, the four of us shared an Airbnb flat near the city center. The host, Claudia, went above and beyond to make us feel welcome. The kitchen was stocked with an array of beverages, including wine. YAY! As if the wine wasn’t more than enough, she also provided a fresh jar of peanut butter for breakfast. My little American self couldn’t have been happier. On top of all that, Caludia’s son drove us to the bus station on Sunday. Best Airbnb host ever or best Airbnb host ever?

Once we were settled in, the sightseeing began! If you’re planning on visiting Zaragoza, these sights are not to be missed!

Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Pilar:  Depending on where you are in your European travels, you may be tired of touring cathedrals. If that’s so, I totally understand, but hear me out. The views for this basilica’s tower are fantastic. For 3 euros, you can ride an elevator to the top of the tower for sweeping views of the city.

The view from the tower was breathtaking.
The view from the tower was breathtaking.

Palacio de la Aljafería: Can’t make it to Andalusia but craving some Moorish architecture? Zaragoza has got just what you need! Built during the second half of the 11th century, the castle features a picturesque courtyard and ceilings inlaid with gold.

Looks intimidating, right? I wouldn't dream of storming these walls.
Looks intimidating, right? I wouldn’t dream of storming these walls.
I felt right at home amidst the Moorish architecture.
I felt right at home amidst the Moorish architecture.

El Tubo: No trip to Zaragoza would be complete without an afternoon spent wandering the winding, narrow streets of the area known as “El Tubo.” What is it? Tapas, tapas and more tapas. There’s no shortage of cozy bars in which to enjoy a glass of wine, a snack and good company. We explored the area during the afternoon, but I hear the twisted streets have an excellent after-dark atmosphere.

My weekend trip to Zaragoza was a fun, relaxing way to kick off my 2016 travels. I recommend this destination for travelers wishing to discover Spain’s happy median between the country’s buzzing metropolises and sleepy pueblos. Just remember to pack a scarf! The cierzo is strong, dry and usually cold. But don’t let a little wind keep you from exploring this Iberian gem!

Have you visited Zaragoza? Would you like to visit?