Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Week 8: Three Things I Learned This Week in Spain

This past week I decided to take a break from travel and to instead focus on better appreciating the city around me. I enjoyed a relaxing weekend, several days in the pool, and spending time with friends. Here's what I learned:

{Puerta de Sol}

1. The best way to learn a language. I started learning Spanish my freshman year of high school, and with the exception of summer breaks and my first semester of college, I've been learning it since. While I still don't think I'm completely fluent, studying a language for six years makes a huge difference, and I hoped that coming here would help even more. However, I spent the first several weeks I was here kind of frustrated with my Spanish and feeling like I had hit a bit of a plateau; after learning all the necessary grammar in school, all I really needed to work on was my accent and the difference between the Spanish you speak in class and colloquial Spanish. But in between practicing with my host parents and speaking with strangers in the city, I didn't feel like I was improving at all. After coming back from Italy, I realized my Spanish really was quite good, and that the first four weeks in Spain actually did make a small difference. Since starting my language exchange, I've developed more confidence in my ability to speak the language and I've even learned a bit of slang that I would never have learned in a classroom. That being said, I think the best way to learn a language is with a balance. I've learned Hindi and Gujarati only from family and moviesnever in a classroomso there's only so much I know, only so many nuances of grammar and vocabulary and structure that I'm able to understand. At the same time, there's a limit to how much understanding that a classroom environment can provide you with when you're learning a new language, and coming here has helped me to realize that.

{gluten-free cupcakes from Celicioso}

2. A new reason to appreciate Spanish. Last summer, I went to Honduras with some family friends and while I was there, I spoke a bit of Spanish with one of the locals. He was incredibly kind and patient with my limited abilities, and even complimented my accent. I was confused at the time; as a non-native speaker, I don't really have an accent that binds itself to any Spanish-speaking country and I've always felt that if I want to be considered fluent, I have to speak as a native speaker would. Javier, my language-exchange friend, has complimented my Spanish multiple times, and each time, I tell him how I still don't feel like I speak well enough and that I still think my accent needs work. 

I've always been fascinated by the diversity of the accents that accompany the Spanish accent, especially that of the Castilian accent here in Spain, and I've tried to recreate that lisp of the letter Z and that harsher, throaty sound that comes with the letter J. But conversations with my host parents and Javier have made me realize that my accent isn't "wrong," nor would it be more "right" if it was traditionally Cuban or Mexican or Castilian or whatever. When you speak a language that's been spoken for thousands of years across over twenty different countries, there isn't one right way to speak. Sure there are differences that mark you as more correct in one country than another, differences that involve diction and pronunciation and even the way you address others (tú versus usted), and while for many these differences mark country of origin or nationality, for me they mark my history: I use "vale" because I've lived in Spain, I will use usted (once I'm back in America) because that's what my teachers have taught me to do, I will manipulate my accent to reflect what I find aesthetically appealing or colloquial effective or even personally significant. When you speak the Spanish language, you get to appreciate all these nuances and intricacies and that makes me love it even more.

{sometimes sunsets hurt because they involve pie bombs}
3. Why sunsets hurt. I've only mention this in passing, but the sunsets here are amazing. I saw a sunrise on a trip I went on with my AP Biology class in my junior year of high school that I still remember. It was the first sunrise I'd seen over the water, without any buildings to mar the horizon, and I still remember the way the clouds brought out certain shades of pink and orange and yellow in the sky, and the way the sky and its reflection in the water changed from before the sun had even begun to rise to a whole hour after. Photos don't do sights like these justice so you try snapping a couple pictures but ultimately you just give up and appreciate the view in front of you, trying to commit it to memory. 

That was nearly four years ago and now, if I time my bus ride home just right (the sun sets around 9:30-9:45), I can catch the most beautiful skies nearly every night. And I've been here long enough to realize that the views are different leading up to and after the summer solstice so that you end up with a whole spectrum of sunsets, each with a spectrum of colors itself. You have rainbow sunsets, where the surrounding mountains appear to be a dark indigo and the sky right by them is a bright red, which bleeds into an orange, with becomes a yellow and in between this and the blues you get at the very top, there's a small strip of subtle green. Then you have your cotton candy sunsets, where if you have the right type of clouds (cirrostratus for all you physical geography nerds out there), the setting sun creates strips of bright orangish pink that contrast with the neutral blues, and even the Cuatro Torres reflect a bit of the pink as well. The sunsets here are beautiful in the way that makes your heart hurt because you know you can't take them for granted, that you won't be seeing them forever, that these skylines and spectrums are not yours to keep. And don't even get me started on the starry nights.

{view from my evening run}
I'm starting to really miss D.C. and can't wait to go back and move into my new dorm. I have so much to look forward to during this next year, but I only have four weeks left in Spain and I intend to make them count. I'm planning weekends to Lisbon, Granada, and Sevilla and am meeting some new friends soon. Enjoy the rest of your week!

{shopping on Gran Vía}
~ V
Read also:Week 1Week 2Week 3Week 4Week 5Week 6, Week 7

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Week 7: Six Things I Learned This Week in Spain

As usual, when you learn to let go and stop forcing things to work a certain way, everything sort of falls into place. This week I decided to let things happen without planning too much, and the results were pretty great. I went to my first flamenco show and had a great night out with some girls, I spent a day being productive and working on internship applications at a cute cafe in the city, and I started a language exchange with Javier, a man here in Madrid trying to improve his English. It's sometimes nice to see where things take you rather than planning your days down to the minute, which is what I usually do. Here's what I learned this week:
{Dolce Vita}
1. NARS' Dolce Vita is amazing. (I'm kind of cheating here, since this has nothing to do with Spain, but when an airline loses your luggage and all your (new) makeup inside it, you justify going shopping.) One of my favorite writers/bloggers/instagram accounts is Ella Ceron, a self-proclaimed kale and cookie equal opportunist. She's incredibly bold and inspiring, not only in her professional work and expertise regarding all things Kanye, Kardashian, and Drake, but also in her personal posts on body image, life with disordered eating, being a woman, etc. She wrote a post a few months ago about lipstick that kind of stuck with me (read it, it's fantastic) and inspired my recent purchase. I've worn this shade every day since I bought it and am definitely incorporating it into my makeup routine. 
{la Reina Sofía}
2. What homesickness feels like. For the first time in these past seven weeks, I felt homesick. I was feeling kind of blehh, which is the exact word I used to describe my mindset to a friend, and really needed someone to talk to. I couldn't help but think that if I was back home, I could just drive over to Alana's house and pick her up and drive around and get ice cream. Instead, I had to settle for instant messages and time zones and scheduled Skype sessions. While I wouldn't consider leaving early for even a second, it's nice to remember that I have a home and a family and friends who I consider family, all who will make leaving Spain in just five short weeks so much easier.
{garlic naan & paneer masala}
3. Indian food in Madrid is a joke. I took myself out to dinner on Sunday, desperately craving paneer and in need of a little bit of #treatyoself. I did my research on Yelp beforehand trying to find the best Indian restaurant in the area, but the most highly rated place also happened to be the worst Indian food I've had in my entire life. Ever. Needless to say, I'll be waiting until I'm back on American soil to try any Indian food again.
{flamenco dancer}
4. Flamenco is totally underrated and inspiring. Word to the wise: if you're ever feeling jaded in Spain go to your first flamenco show. Remind yourself what it is to feel small and insignificant and inexperienced and incapable and inferior in the best way possible. Think about how much you're going to miss Spain when you leave. How much it has become a part of you. How much its identity had aligned with your own, just as you knew it would and then in some unexpected ways as well. Remind yourself what it is to feel something and remind yourself how silly it is that you ever forgot. 
{gorgeous library}
5. It's the little things in life. This week, I had one of the best days I've had yet. The weather wasn't stiflingly hot (for once), all my favorite Drake songs played even though my iPod was on shuffle, I had my favorite breakfast, I wore my favorite t shirt dress and Birkentocks, I had new lipstick to complement my stellar hair day, I had my first language exchange, and best of allI didn't miss my bus. This may sound trivial but this is the first time I've made my bus without planning well ahead of time. I made my metro in between transferring lines and didn't have to wait 9 minutes for the next train and the doors closed right as I got on and when I got off I was right in front of the escalators to exit and had exactly 4 minutes to get my bus so I didn't have to rush or wait too long AND HOW GREAT IS THAT. From the outside looking in, all of this probably sounds trivial and unexciting, but my grin on the metro when I realized I was going to make my bus is proof enough that the simple joys in life are worth appreciating, too.
{card & cat}
6. The joy of receiving a letter in the mail. When I was younger, my cousin in Georgia and I would send letters to each other after she moved from New Jersey in the fourth grade. But with cell phones and Facebook, all of that stopped, so it had been years since I received real mail. My roommate is studying abroad in Japan during this upcoming school year (and is going to have an amazing time), and wrote goodbye letters to the rest of us in the room, and I just received mine in the mail this morning. With the amount of time that had passed since she mailed the letter, we both assumed it had gotten lost in the mail, so when I woke up this morning and found a white envelope with my name on it, I actually screamed from excitement. I read the card with the kind of giddy excitement you get over birthday presents when you’re nine or when you receive surprise flowers from someone you really care about. It’s amazing how a simple piece of paper can make you so happy, but there I was, standing in the entryway reading this card over and over and laughing at the jokes and doodles and crying not only at how much I’m going to miss my roommate, but also at how happy I was to have her in my life, to have someone who valued our friendship as much as I did, and cared enough to send a card and cat photo 3,781 miles away. It’s cliche at this point to lament the fact that we no longer send each other handwritten letters, especially considering that I’m part of the generation that hardly did that anyway. But I’ve decided to start sending my friends mail; if you can make someone so happy, so easily, then why wouldn’t you? 

I'm looking forward to this week and hope you enjoy yours!
~ V
Read also: Week 1Week 2Week 3Week 4Week 5, Week 6

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Week 6: the One Thing I Learned This Week in Spain and Italy

{Rome at sunset}
I’m halfway there, you guys. And not halfway there in the way that you are in a marathon or a math class, when you’re counting down the miles or minutes until freedom, but halfway there as you are with a really good meal, when you look down at your food, willing it with your eyes to last longer. (It never does.)

I’m six weeks in and at this point, I have six left to go. It’s weird, being at this crossroads. I know what I want to do differently, but I don’t know how. I know I’m looking forward to seeing about four more cities, celebrating my twentieth birthday, and hopefully starting some new books. But beyond that, I’m not sure what to make of the time that has passed and the time I have left.
{sunlight through stained glass}
I know I’ve learned a lot. These weekly posts have forced me to reflect upon and then consequently chronicle just that. And I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my own as well, in the safety of my on head or journal or private conversations with friends. When I started, I thought by now, at this halfway point, time would have flown, and it did. But the weird thing is, I simultaneously feel like I’ve done so much that there’s nothing left to do, and yet, that I have so much left to do and not enough time.

And as weird as it is to admit on such a public space, it feels like I’m missing something. I was sitting in Plaza Mayor one evening with a friend and some American tourists walked in and the mom looked around and said, “That’s it?” It was funny then, and still is now, because that’s such an accurate representation of how I’ve been feeling. This is it? Instead of posting my usual weekly bulleted list, I’m just going to say this, that my life isn’t as glorious as it looks on Instagram or on this blog or whatever, wherever. Nobody’s is. I’m hot and sweaty and complaining half the time, and I’m not trying to pretend that it’s any other way. Don’t get me wrong, I know how incredibly cool it is to be here where I am right now, to have these opportunities to do what I’m doing. And I’m grateful for that, truly. But I think halfway through is a good time to focus on reality, to take off those rose-tinted tourist glasses and just stop and take Madrid for what it is: another city, another home.
For the remainder of my time, I'm going to look at Madrid as this home instead of just another new place to explore before crossing off some imaginary bucket list. I'm going to appreciate the food and the places and the people, just like I do in D.C., and I'm going to take advantage of what's offered to me as best as I can. I'm going to enjoy the last few weeks of summer and freedom and appreciate it all. After all, I've only got six weeks left.

~ V
{peacock in Madrid}
Read also: Week 1Week 2Week 3Week 4, Week 5

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Thoughts on travel

{Roman sunset}
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to travel. Maybe that’s just what happens when you’re born in one place but live in three, all spanning across different continents, by the time you even turn three. I’ve lived in Mumbai, Nigeria, Houston, New Jersey, D.C., and now Madrid; had my family or I chosen to stay in either of these places longer than we did, my life would have gone in so many different directions. Who would I have been if I hadn’t met my best friends or lived near the family that I am so close to? If I hadn’t met the people who introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut or Kanye West lyrics or The Office? I think the one of the many, many reasons I travel is to compensate for that. My life could have been drastically different and I’m grateful for every place I’ve been to, and if they’ve all shaped me so much, how much more could I grow by adding to that list of cities? How much could I learn and grow after three months in Madrid or six in Amsterdam or eight more in Mumbai or anywhere, really. The place isn’t as important as the people you meet there, the people who make you think and grow; think about yourself and your views and where you come from, where you're going, and who you are. 

You never fully appreciate home until you leave. This is true for America when I go to India or Nutley when I moved to D.C., and even for Madrid while I was in Italy. New isn’t always good but new definitely adds to you: how much you know, how deeply you think about certain things, how closely you hold certain parts of you to what you identify with. So yeah, travel is quite important to me. It always has been, and always will be. But right now? For the first time, I want to stop traveling.

When I first came to Spain, I was excited. I was grateful. On one particularly early and sleep-deprived morning, I cried because of how grateful I was to be here in Madrid, doing what I am. Grateful to my parents for making this possible in every sense of the word, but also to myself for valuing my desires and ambitions more than simply the progression of my career. For investing in myself wholly rather than in just a part of myself, as I would have been doing if I had chosen to intern somewhere this summer. (Hell, at one point I even shed a tear to a Drake song. But then again, if “Look What You’ve Done” doesn’t make you appreciate how far you’ve come or how far your family has come or how much your parents have done for you, then your soul is dead my friend. But I digress.)

But now I am tired. Maybe I’m jaded. I no longer fully appreciate every unique building, every sunset, every stroll through new streets and new neighborhoods. And that just isn’t me. The concept of gratitude and of appreciating every opportunity and every moment of beauty or happiness or peace is such a big part of who I am. One of my favorite quotes comes from a Kurt Vonnegut anecdote in which the author talks about his uncle Alex, who often made a point of stopping to say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” And that’s what I try to do, too. If these evenings in Madrid, if these views from long train rides, if these glasses of wine and conversations with strangers and new words learnt aren’t nice—then what is?

But somewhere along the line, I’ve lost that appreciation. I was talking to a friend back home and found myself complaining about how I didn’t want to travel anymore, not for a while at least. I need a break after this summer is over. I said to her, “After all, there are only so many cathedrals and museums and parks you can see.” And I stand by that, too. Too much of a good thing really is, well, too much. It gets old and mundane and tiring and you stop valuing it the way it deserves to be valued.

This past May, before leaving for Spain, I was talking to another friend about Madrid and Amsterdam, where I wanted to study abroad this coming spring semester. She had been to China the summer before and loved the experience. We got to talking about Europe and she spoke about how she didn’t feel the need to go there. She had been to Austria to visit family before and it was enough for her. I was confused. I had only been to Europe for the first time the summer before, to London, Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. I had loved it all and thought that she was being a bit unfair; in such a diverse continent how could one have had enough after visiting just one part of one country?

But now I see what she meant. The places I’ve been are definitely different from home, but only to an extent. I feel like I’ve learned so much here and I’m grateful for it all, but going to a few more countries and cities won’t do what I need it to. It won’t make me think differently or grow in any way, not when I’m as tired as I am. In a few years, when I go back, I’ll have grown and changed enough that the setting will be able to add to me. But at this point, it’s not going to make a difference.

(I’m trying to be careful here; I know Europe is a big place with an indescribable level of diversity and opportunity to grow and develop. The issue isn’t Europe here, it’s me and where I am right now: tired, weary, jaded, and in need of a break.)

At this point I’m reconsidering study abroad. At moments, I wonder if I even want to do it, which if you know me at all is insane. I’ve been looking forward to study abroad for eleven years, since my aunt spent six months in Australia and loved it beyond words. But even if I do study abroad (and I do think that I will), I’m reconsidering Europe. I’m reconsidering Amsterdam and instead I’m considering places across Africa and Asia, especially India. Being Indian-American is an enormous part of who I am and I think it would be incredible to live in the city where I was born, to reconnect with family that I would’ve been closer to, to explore the neighborhoods that would have been my own. I will never not be grateful for living where I am, for being Indian-American and for the people and places I call home. But sometimes I wonder. Would I still have the views and thoughts I do, be they religious, political, or otherwise, if I still lived in Mumbai? Who would be my friends? What would I think of the family I have in America? It would be amazing to go back, to live in the city that changes me and challenges me and teaches me so much every time I go back. 

I used to go to Bombay every other summer and at this point, it has been six years since my last visit. I celebrated my fourteenth birthday in India and as I inch closer and closer to twenty, it hurts to think about how long I’ve been away from one of the places I still consider home. India has changed enormously since I’ve been away, and there’s nothing weirder than returning to a place you call home and having it be drastically different. Regardless, I know I want to go back and I think to myself, if I don’t live there now, then when?

I still plan on visiting about four more cities this summer; it seems silly to not take advantage of being here and having my weekends free to explore Spain and Portugal. Coming here, I didn’t expect to want anything but Europe. And all those cities across this continent will remain on my wanderlist. But until I’m ready to explore them, until I’m at a place where I will be able to appreciate and enjoy them as much as I potentially can, I’m taking a break. And I’m reconsidering things that I thought to be true, which if you ask me, is one of the biggest benefits of travel anyway.

~ V

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Week 5: Five Things I Learned This Week in Spain and Italy

This week has been an absolute whirlwind. My mom and brother came to visit me in Spain and after two days in Madrid, we headed to Italy. I've wanted to come here since learning Italian in my fourth grade class so needless to say, I was pretty excited. We spent time in both Venice and Florence before coming to Rome and met up with some family and my mom's friend from college. As nice as it is traveling all over Italy, the heat and humidity here are even worse than Madrid and Mumbai, which I didn't realize was even possible. To make matters worse, Brussels Airlines lost my luggage between Madrid and Venice. They lost all my clothes, medicine, contact lenses and glasses, journal, and my DSLR camera. I still haven't gotten my bag back, nor have I received a response to any of my emails to Brussels Airlines, but I'm trying to stay positive and not let this ruin my vacation. Here's what I learned this week:
{my mom, brother, & me in Puerta de Sol}
1. The beauty of not understanding the language. While I still can't say I'm fluent in Spanish, I know enough to understand nearly everything people say, which is something I've definitely appreciated in Madrid. In comparison, my Italian is limited to what I learned in elementary school, so the only sentence I know is the most useless phrase, "Il lupo vive in una casa," which translates to, "the wolf lives in a house." Instead of being frustrated when I can't communicate with locals, I kind of enjoy just being able to appreciate the language from the outside looking in. Italian is so beautiful and has such a unique rhythm and flow and I love hearing it all around me.
{Firenze from up top}
2. Italian food is the best food. I'm cheating here, because growing up in Nutley, NJ means I've already had a huge appreciation for Italian food. Regardless, one of the best parts about being here in Italy is getting to eat amazing pizza, pasta, and gelato. I've been here for over a week now and have eaten gelato nearly every day, and if I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, it would probably be pizza so I'm pretty damn happy here. The food is fantastic, and calories and carbs eaten abroad don't count.
{gelato in Firenze}
3. The value of comfortable shoes. I lost my comfy sneakers and favorite Birkenstocks since they were in my carry-on, and all I had was a cheap pair of black flats without any support. I spent four whole days wandering around Venice and Florence before I finally found a store that sold Birks and I swear to god my feet have never been so happy. Luckily, I found them before climbing the roughly 900 steps up both Giotto's Campanile and the Duomo... and then back down again.
4. What real wine tastes like. I had a glass of the best wine I've ever tasted in Venice and some delicious wine on a tour we took in the Chianti region as well. Needless to say, this is a huge break from what my friends and I are used to as poor college students and I enjoyed learning some new things.
5. I'm not good at dealing with heat. It is hot here. Very, very, very hot. I feel like as an English major I should have better words to describe how incredibly stifling this heat is but I don't. It's freaking hot all the time and the heat makes me cranky and I'm constantly sunburnt. This makes it a little harder to enjoy the Colosseum tours and wandering around the cities, but I keep reminding myself that I'm only in Italy for a short time. And again, a gelato in the afternoon always helps.
Tomorrow I'll be visiting Vatican City and then I'm off to Barcelona! Any recommendations? Let me know. :) Enjoy a few more pictures from my trip!
~ V

Read also: Week 1Week 2Week 3, Week 4