Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The modernist traveler

As I delved into studying for my last final exam in Madrid, the sticky June heat begging me to take a walk outside, I realized how little I knew about my 20th century Spanish literature course. Where was I when these terms were introduced? Who the hell are these people with long names and a prolific writing background?! Needless to say, early June was spent indoors at a tiny desk. I learned the meaning of "cramming" in Spain.

Since my brain had spent most of my studying time memorizing miniscule facts, I decided it was time to take a look at the bigger picture. I thought I knew what modernism was, but did I really? There was only one way to find out: Wikipedia.

I made my way to the "Modernist literature" page (in English, because I'd become lazy from the summer heat). One passage really whirred around in my cabeza:

"For the first-time reader, modernist writing can seem frustrating to understand because of the use of a fragmented style and a lack of conciseness. Furthermore the plot, characters and themes of the text are not always presented in a linear way" (Wikipedia).

Wikipedia (of all things) stirred a sense of familiarity within me as I read. The anxieties and frustrations I faced during the first few months in Spain resurfaced as I scanned the first sentence: "For the first-time reader, modernist writing can seem frustrating to understand because of the use of a fragmented style and a lack of conciseness." In my mind, the word "reader" could have been substituted with "traveler".

Life was certainly "fragmented" at the beginning of my journey: rushing to turn in visa forms, figuring out which classes I wouldn't fail, speaking in broken Spanish. I compartmentalized all of these stressful, emotionally draining experiences so that I wouldn't be overwhelmed by the feat of making a home for myself in a new country. As I worked towards each one, my confidence as a traveler fortified. I'd hit my stride.

However, in Madrid, I certainly experienced "a lack of conciseness", testing that confidence. Nothing was short and to the point for the foreigners in la capital. Trying to order a public transportation pass and understanding the university were some of the many ordeals I ran into as an extranjera. Each was an extensive process that gave me a surge of empowerment each trudge I took towards the police department after my phone was pick-pocketed. From every lengthy and painful experience I had in Madrid, I gained more self-respect. I went out, with aplomb, to tackle the rest of the many travel problems I would face.

Each issue I saw as a challenge. Every grueling process I perceived as a way to make me a more flexible and well-rounded person. None of it really mattered. I could run off to Ireland or Morocco at a moment's notice, and I was grateful for every second I was abroad. However, I never forgot my first home in California.

It was as if I existed in separate timelines while I was abroad (à la 'Community'). It's like Wikipedia says: "The plot, characters and themes of the text are not always presented in a linear way." In a very Modernist fashion, the plot and characters of my life were in separate locations and time zones, but I lived in both. In one timeline, I was jetting off to different countries every other weekend, crammed into a tiny airplane whose airline sucked every bit of money it could from its patrons. Anything to keep me moving and seeing different places. I fell in love with that starving traveler lifestyle. I made two-day friends, week-long friends and lifelong friends all within the span of a year. New inside jokes were hatched, café con leche traditions were made, ambitions were scrawled out in a tiny notebook as I hoped that writing them down would make them feel more attainable. All my friends in this timeline wanted to venture out into unfamiliarity, just as I did.

In the other, more comfortable timeline,  I was at home in California, sitting in my chaotic Berkeley apartment while nerding-out on 19th century literature. I met my Cal friends at a cool new place to get happy hour, talking about how being an "adult" sucks. I held my dog while watching some cheesy reality show with my dad in my parents' house. I was driving to get frozen yogurt with my mom, laughing about a funny thing my sister had said. I was visiting my brother at his new university, wishing him well on his first year of college and making sure his dorm room is chick-friendly ("No, you can't get the lava lamp.")

Before I left, I worried about missing these key moments in California. In reality, I didn't miss a thing. I was in these two timelines, living two lives in a completely non-linear way. I felt as if by going abroad, my community merely expanded; it didn't shift from one country to another. I still partly live in Madrid, wandering the barrios, looking for a tapas place to start out the night with my friends. My feet still pound the pavement that Cervantes walked on in the 16th century. I still attempt to make jokes in Spanish (usually failing) while eating chocolate neopolitanas in the university cafeteria.

I exist in two different environments, and I could never have done so if I hadn't taken the plunge and touched down in Spain that fateful August day last year. To future travelers that have anxiety about leaving their friends and family behind as they live in a different country, just remember: you have the opportunity to be a Modernist traveler. You can forge your own non-linear, long-winded, fragmented world. You can carve two lives for yourself, and I suggest you do just that. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Growing up and goodbyes

One of the most difficult goodbyes is that between two best friends that live across the globe.

This morning, I said goodbye to my dear friend Kaća, an Eastern European girl born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia. It’s an unlikely friendship; our childhoods could not have been more different. One of us grew up in a war-torn Yugoslavia, the other in a sleepy suburb in the Golden State. But despite our varying backgrounds, we became close confidants, sharing our nagging worries and our upmost joys.
We met in Madrid at a lecture. I ended up dropping the course - the professor told all non-native speakers to leave, but Kaća bravely stayed. We went out a few times before revealing our true selves to each other. There were stories, crude jokes, drunken nights, tales of exes and hook-ups: all these pieces of our lives were revealed. 

Someone once asked Kaća if she has a problem with me because my country bombed hers in the early 90s. She answered, “Well, she didn’t bomb us, did she?"

We looked past the conflicts between our homelands. Instead, we were children in the playground that is Madrid, sharing our crayons and chalk to leave a mark on the city we love. We found our independence together, discovering that we were capable of so much more than we thought before. We grew up together, starting as children and becoming the worldly almost-adults that we are today.

I left Serbia today to catch a flight back to our once-shared playground. But this can’t be goodbye. We both yearn to travel and taste the flavors of the world. We will find each other in some corner of the Earth. Until then, my childhood friend.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Class of 2013

I never imagined I would be watching my friends at Cal graduate on my Facebook newsfeed, but here I am, viewing images of familiar faces in navy caps doning their perfectly groomed heads pass my eyes on a computer screen.

If anyone knows me, they understand that I am not the super-hyper cheerleader saying "Go Bears" at every little chance I get. However, I do get surges of pride for my university when I see some random European wearing a Cal shirt (to whom I yell "Go Bears" and who stares at me like I just insulted his family). I feel an unexpected pangs of excitement when I hear that our team has won something-or-other. When I meet someone in Europe that also goes to Berkeley, I do the traditional "ohmygodIgotheretoo" battle cry.

I never thought I'd feel emotional at seeing everyone I know (and don't know) parading across my Facebook newsfeed in their caps and gowns. But I actually do. I sort of wish that I was in that crowd of sweaty anonymous students, waiting in anticipation for three hours for my name to be called.

More than my twinges of jealousy, I feel bouts of pride for my fellow seniors. We more-or-less went through the same baby steps it took to reach this giant leap, from those god-awful G.E.'s to those that introduced us to one of our new passions. We've all navigated from the confusing first week on campus to the confusing first week of REAL ADULT LIFE. We all had a difficult time imagining this day four years ago, but it smacked us in the face.

I am currently pouring over notes, not quite done with my undergraduate career. I'm still nervously anticipating my exams, not quite feeling like a graduating senior. I'm planning my summer Eastern Europe trip, stressing over visas and hostels, and - oh, yeah - worrying about what I'm going to do be doing to get cash so I can eat. In other words, I'm feeling as disoriented as a freshman navigating the halls of Dwinelle (which I eventually mastered, thank you very much!).

But seeing you all in your graduation robes has given me the inner-strength to push through these grueling Spanish exams because I know how hard you have all worked. The ceremonies you are experiencing now are beautiful, grandiose symbols of that perseverance. My only piece of advice to you would be to travel as much and as often as you possibly can. You really don't need much advice; you will be the ones giving life tips to those less experienced, and you will be damn good at it.

Dear Class of 2013, I am so incredibly proud of you all. Now, go have a beer at the Bear's Lair for me.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Taking a turn about town

"Dar una vuelta" is one of my favorite Spanish phrases. Literally translated, it means "to give a turn" and is used to say "to take a walk." My principal pastime in Madrid is to take a turn because I am convinced it is the best way that a person truly becomes familiar with the city in which they live.

I've taken the metro since the beginning, and it makes me feel suffocated. I become a sardine, shoved into these tiny tubes under the ground. I always feel as if I'm missing something up above the concrete because I'm stuck in between two gossiping old ladies on a stuffy subway car.

Don't get me wrong, the metro system is phenomenal in Madrid. I can get nearly anywhere on the train, but it's not as fulfilling as I would like it to be. If I need to get somewhere via transportation, I prefer taking the bus so I can catch some vitamin D through the windows.

Walking is by far the most gratifying mode of transportation there is in my Spanish city. Now that the weather does not blast me with freezing air and sprinkles of water, I can truly enjoy a nice "turn" about the neighborhood without complaining about the cold.

I've been able to see things to which I was blind when I was fighting the below-freezing weather. There's that gorgeous Gaudí-like building just a few blocks away from my apartment and the beautiful view from el Templo de Debod that overlooks part of the city.

One of my grand pet peeves is seeing young foreigners walking around plugged into their iPods, drowning out the sounds of the city. If this is how they always walk through Madrid, they will not understand much about the musicality of the town. There's this intense rhythm that drives Madrid day-by-day. It's cyclical and picks up tempo as it gets later in the afternoon, evening and night.

It disturbs me how people must constantly be doing something while walking by themselves, whether they are listening to music or texting. Unplug, relax and don't be afraid to get lost by yourself. If you're  attached to ear buds listening to the grand art of Pitbull, you will never actually see and feel the city you're in as it is meant to be seen and felt. Become a local by simply integrating yourself and making yourself a part of the beat of the town.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Eating my way through Europe

Food: While it is a human necessity, I've been taking that necessity to the extreme. Since my arrival in Europe, I've fallen victim to the trend of taking pictures of food (I'm not too obnoxious about it, I hope).

It's not because I'm a "food porn" advocate; that phrase weirds me out. It's due to the fact that in Europe, meals are like a parade - a delicious, fattening parade - of carefully planned exhibitions. Each plate contains its own unique components and manner of presentation.

First, there was Belgium. Belgian chocolate, Belgian waffles, Belgian beer: The three food groups! Needless to say, I felt a bit ill after my three-day trip.

The colors, all of the visuals and the mouthwatering smells piqued my interest each time they passed me by. I had at least seven pieces of chocolate per day (you know how doctors say dark chocolate is heart-healthy!), and I actually got sick of eating chocolate. Chocolate! A strange occurrence that has never happened before.

My friend Eliza and I created our own food tour, wandering from shop to shop, seeking the most interesting-looking chocolate we could find. Then, there was the beer. Oh, the beer got me. All the colors and flavors - I was in hops heaven. You could make a modern art masterpiece with all the shades of beer there were in Delirium, a famous bar that contains over 2,000 types. I ordered a dark, Guiness-like beer while Eliza chose a rose-colored fruit-based one.

Though I was not a huge fan of Belgium as a tourist, I was as a food fan. While I'm not a "foodie" or a gastronomical expert in the least, I know what tastes good. If you're hungry and don't mind gaining a few kilos, take a trip to Belgium.

Right after my Belgium culinary adventure came my stay at my friend Adri's family beach house in Torredembarra, a sweet little pueblo near Tarragona and Barcelona. The constant stream of food made it very difficult to button my pants. The procession began with some Iberian ham and bread and a smattering of vegetables. Already full, the process continues with salad, a meaty/starchy delicious thing, wine, wine, wine, cheese, wine, coffee, chocolate, chocolate and pineapple tart. The grand finale is a hardcore siesta resulting in discomfort and bloating.

I've realized that when I go back to the United States, the parade will not be the same level of spectacularity to which I've become accustomed. I'll stand over my stovet, peering bleakly into my pan of brown mush that was supposed to be some sort of chicken dish, wishing myself back to the fiesta of food. However, I will always have the memories of a grand parade of colors and flavors that I've experienced while wandering the corners of Europe.

As they say in Spain before you eat anything: "que aproveche", translating to, "Enjoy your meal," but literally meaning "I hope you make the most of it." I only have a few months left in Spain, and I plan to aprovechar every minute. Let the feasting continue! Here, here!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The bubble

I stood watching from afar, fascinated by the woman in a long cloak cleaning her Afghan rug with the strong current of a waterfall in beautiful Chefchaouen, Morocco. Never in my life had I seen such a life where someone used a completely natural thing such as a river to wash household items. How small my life is. How little I know, I thought. Just that simple act of cleansing a carpet left me in an existential crisis of sorts.

Those feelings were triggered again the next day when a group of teenage boys hid behind our bus and attached themselves between the wheels in order to cross the sea to get into Spain. A sad weight filled my body. These children want so desperately to leave their country that they'd put themselves at this grave risk. My heart goes out to them, hoping things get better.

I couldn't believe how each lifestyle I saw differed from my own. It made me realize that I live in a tiny little bubble that is the United States, and I've never actually known what it was like to live without a PC or a television. I've never felt the urge to risk my life in order to cross a border.

Though I will never know what types of lives these people lead - with their religious convictions and the small size of their community - I realized how much I've come to know various lifestyles just by traveling. For example, upon hearing that two girls and I had come alone on the trip, one of the group leaders with DiscoverSevilla (my tour group) told us that we were "free spirits" for making a trip solo, even though we were with a tour group. It hit me: No one has ever referred to me as a "free spirit" before.

On the contrary, actually. I've been told I'm too uptight, too serious, too anxious. What happened to that teenager that worried about going to college an hour outside her hometown? Now, I've lived in a completely different country and have made it my second home.

I most certainly demonstrated my new happy-go-lucky attitude in Morocco; I walked into the tour bus without knowing anyone and came out of it with new friends. I left for my trip without knowing a thing about the culture and came out the other side with a small but significant taste of what it means to be in a place where there's a picture of the king in nearly every establishment and the children run free outside, kicking a soccer ball amongst themselves. I started out too embarrassed to bargain because I felt like I was being rude, but I ended up getting the shop owners to lower their starting price by 15 euros (not exactly a world-record, but it's a start!). Though the changes may not have been drastic, I've come out of this excursion different than when I signed up.

Although I live in a tiny little bubble in my life, I'm slowly expanding that bubble with each of my travels. Each new experience I have and every person I meet contribute to the expansion of this small world I've built for myself. Until next time, Africa.

Friday, April 5, 2013


Standing in front of a group of scrutinizing eyes, delivering a presentation in a foreign language is one of the most uncomfortable experiences a person can have. My first exposición was yesterday, and, much like a stomach flu, I felt absolutely horrible during and directly after the incident. Students were whispering, tittering and giggling as I attempted to conjugate verbs and make my sentences coherent. Did I have something in my teeth? Did I say something idiotic? Probably.

Who knows what came out of my mouth? The most important thing for me was that it made sense. I was so nervous that I didn't even look at my notes. I just babbled on for ten minutes (at the time, I was sure it was an hour). Afterward, the teacher looked at me with pity: "I know it must be hard with the language and everything." I felt myself turning burgundy. Though she meant well, the comment made me feel like the idiot in a class full of geniuses. I wanted to bury my head in my arms at my desk.

When I sat back down, I turned to an American classmate, Denise, and I grimaced in emotional pain. She smiled and commented that I did really well. I brushed it off as comforting words and continued to sulk.

I stayed in the same classroom, being forced to face the teacher for another class period (she teaches two out of three classes I take).  Another American friend, Alexis, came to the classroom, setting her books down next to us. Denise told her about my presentation, saying I did well."She didn't even use notes," Denise added.

That made me reevaluate my performance; maybe I actually did well for a foreign student. Maybe being too nervous to read off my notes actually demonstrates how far my Spanish has come since August, when I arrived in Spain. I could analyze a piece of literature off the cuff in a foreign language! Who knew I'd ever be able to do that?

Basically, now I have to work on seeing the progress I've been making since I've lived in Spain. I usually only see the mistakes I make, but it's time for me to consider my improvements because whether I see it or not, they exist. During the next presentation I give, I'll be sure to look at my performance from an objective viewpoint and hold my head high afterwards rather than hide it in my hands.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Getting lost

Watching kids bike off window ledges. Seeing the creative process of extravagant graffiti art. Wiping mud off your back, laughing inexplicably while a strong, warm hand lifts you off the ground. Just another day of getting lost in an unknown city.

Dirt and twigs caked to my hair, I get up and try to keep going on my bike, trailing my friend and host, Adrián. As I struggle to pedal down the channel that runs through Toulouse, I try to look at the gorgeous natural surroundings (something that I hadn't seen much of in the urban atmosphere of Madrid). However, it's tough balancing sight-seeing and balancing on a bike in a giant mud pile, a body of water on one side and a bushel of thorns on the other. Tired, sweating, muddy, but still smiling.

I smile because I know that I'll remember the crazy, adventurous moment more clearly than any other. More than any monument or blurb from history, I'll recall falling over into a giant pile of mud next to the channel that runs through Toulouse, belly-laughing as I landed. I'll chuckle remembering the time I rolled down the tallest sand dune in Europe like a child. I'll think of the kindness and warmth I received from Adri and his family, complete with a personal Easter egg hunt.

I've been getting lost a lot lately. Lost in Madrid, lost in foreign cities, lost in thought... Being a student in a foreign country has given me the courage that I've never had before. If Adri and I hadn't gone down that muddy trail next to the channel, we would've never had to cross the bridge to turn around to the other bank. If we hadn't done that, we wouldn't have been able to see the sunset along the countryside horizon. It was like we were caught in a series of postcard pictures; the saying "Wish you were here" made a lot of sense to me in that moment.

In the south of France, my life became a sort of stock photo: a picture-perfect world where nothing exists but what is shown within the four corners. It was a stock photograph that I would have never found if I had never wandered through Europe, jumping into the abyss of an unknown place.

In life, if you don't get lost, you won't get to the other side of the channel. You won't land that perfect career that motivates you to sprint from home to work, grinning the whole way. You won't meet that person that makes you feel like you're a diamond in a barren coal mine. Because of my experiences here, I plan on getting lost in the future. Often.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


When you're a child, you believe in fairies. In enchantments. In happily-ever-after. In magic.

As you age, the world becomes much faster and there is less room for imagination. Everything runs past you in a blur because you're racing to get to the next checkpoint. "I can't wait for my vacation. I just need this busy time at work to be over. Then, I'll be happy."

But you're not. You get stuck in the cycle of looking forward to something instead of looking at what's going on around you.

This past week in Rome, I rediscovered how my world looked through the rose-colored lenses I had as a kid.

I arrived in the Eternal City in a taxi, bags under my eyes and mascara smudged on my face as a result of the nap I had on the plane. Scooting my little RyanAir-approved bag along the gravel, I came across the most stately, gorgeous house I'd ever seen in real life. The Latin writing on the outside made it all the more impressive. I looked at the house number, and indeed it was the residence of my friend, Marco, with whom I was to stay.

The inside was more grandiose. I proceeded inside to meet the family that inhabited this gorgeous estate. Though Marco's parents didn't speak English, they are some of the warmest people I know and welcomed me into their home, no questions asked. They loved to make their own wine and pasta. I couldn't stop smiling because of how they included me, even though I don't speak Italian. I've never felt so comfortable in someone else's house. I felt like a kid again, going to a "play date" for the first time.

Marco lives right in the middle of the historical area, walking distance away from the Coliseum and Circus Maximus. I couldn't believe his life. He grew up among ruins and history. I grew up in good 'ole C-Town, but its main "historical landmark" is the water tower. There's no comparison.

Marco showed me around the city, mentioning historical tidbits along the way. As I marveled the antiquity of my surroundings, he laughed at my awe-stricken face. We got along well, just like when two kids split the two-stick popsicles on a hot summer day. I realized how simple things such as sharing food could bring people closer together.

Seeing all the famous landmarks in Rome made me feel as if I were thrown into a picture-book; all the photos I'd seen and history I'd read about came to life in front of me. Each landmark became a tangible object, and the only comparison that could come to my mind was that of a child visiting Disneyland for the first time. All that excitement and wonder flooded back to my mind, stirring my imagination in a way that I am not able to describe in a blog entry.

You'll just have to experience it, my dear friends. Then you'll feel the complete and utter happiness that only travel and childhood can bring. You can discover magic again.

Just get on a plane and go.