Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Erps-Kwerps Christmas

Feliz Navidad, Merry Christmas and Zorionak! I can’t believe it is another Christmas, and most of all, I can’t believe I am not home! I have never missed a Christmas and this one that I do miss, Washington gets tons and tons of snow – so I am pretty jealous! Not only do I not get to spend Christmas with my family, but I don’t get to eat coffee cups of snow all day! Not like I am really in a bad situation – I am spending Christmas in Brussels, with good friends, who are the closest thing I have to family on this continent.

It was a true blessing that they are here and that I am able to spend the holiday with them. On Christmas Eve we baked a bunch of cookies, chocolate chip, triple chocolate, turtle cookies and of course, home-made sugar cookies and we decorated them. We stayed up late and decorated the house, so it feels very Christmasy too. We also watched Christmas movies, played games and got to open one present. It is a tradition in Natalie’s family to open one present on Christmas Eve – and it is always Christmas pajamas, so they got me some pjs that we will all wear tomorrow morning while opening presents!

I have been listening to Christmas music for a good month now and finally realized how sad the song ‘I’ll be Home for Christmas’ is. I always thought that it meant that this guy was coming home to his family and to prepare everything so it is Christmassy when he arrives, but if you listen, you realize that he says he isn’t going to make it home: ‘I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.’ I have a hard time listening to this song now, and even writing about it makes me teary-eyed because this sad song has become my life! I am truly lucky to have this amazing experience for the holiday, but I feel like something is missing because I am not with my family.

I hope that they know that I am thinking of them alllllll day and wish that I could: hear The Night Before Christmas, open a Nutcracker and stand next to my life-sized one, take 3 cars to Grammy’s house, make the gravy for dinner, sit at the kid’s picnic table, help pass out presents, sing Jingle Bells at the family reunion, play in the snow, listen to Christmas music in English on the radio, have my sisters wake me up Christmas morning, have Christmas rolls with jam not butter and last but not least, get socks as a present!

Christmas Day will be fun-filled here in Erps-Kwerps (the city where Natalie and Beau live). Natalie and Beau have invited some friends over and we are having a huge American Christmas dinner! I think it is going to be a very memorable Christmas!

I hope that you are having a Merry Christmas as well, wherever you are reading from :D

Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Zorionak, Zalig Kerstfeast (Dutch), Zalig Kerstfeest (Flemish), Joyeux Noel (French)

Ice Sculpture Festival in Brugge!

On Tuesday we packed up the car again and headed this time to Brugge - a Belgian city about one hour away from Natalie's house. Just like Brussels, it has been very well preserved and is still in great condition! Not only is this city very old, but it is also a canal-based city and is sometimes called the Venice of the North. The main canal that runs through the city is the Dijver Canal - here is a shot of the canal and some of the buildings on it. It is a pretty romantic city, and with the Christmas season was fun for shopping around as well. We poked in the various Christmas markets - picked up a cute hat and dried fruits. Also saw some ice skating in the Grote Market - the main sqaure - and had some waffles yet again! This time we didn't add any crazy toppings, just had the plain waffle and appreciated it for its deliciousness and pockets of sugar inside!

I also finally found my Belgian Christmas ornament. Since I started travelling a few years ago, I have made it a tradition to buy a Christmas ornament everywhere I go and someday when I have my own tree, I will be able to decorate it with all of these different ornaments and each will have a special story. This one is lace, which is something Belgium is famous for and will remind me how lucky I was to spend a Christmas here.

The main point of going to Brugge, besides from seeing another adorable Belgian city, was to attend the Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival. It was this awesome festival that is put on every year in a different European city and this year's theme was Ice Magic. Walking into the exhibition was like walking into a freezer - well probably because it was, and they only kept it at 23º which is a bit chilly. As soon as I got in, I was amazed. I have seen documentaries on ice sculptures and have even seen an ice sculpture but this was a whole different realm. The Ice Magic theme kind of tied into Harry Potter and we saw sculptures of skeletons, cats, gnomes, books, wizards, cats, potions, kings, and so much more - and of course Harry at the end! I wouldn't even know where to start if someone said to make a wizard out of ice...or even how to make a book! I read that they use over 300,000 kilograms (651,500 pounds) of ice and 400 tons of snow to put this exhibition together. Over 40 ice sculpting artists come in early November to start constructing this place from all over the world. Not only were there sculptures but an ice slide. You know me, I had to go down it! So, Natalie and I climbed our way to the top with all the little kids and slid down...and found out ice is pretty hard and very cold haha, something we could have figured out before. Here is a pic of me, laughing out loud on the slide! On top of the cool sculptures and the slide there was an.....ICE BAR! I have always wanted to go to one of these. The whole bar was a block of ice and the bottles of liquor just sit there! We all got a shot to commemerate the bar and to help us warm up a little bit haha. Those poor bartenders, working there all day must freeze! At the end there is a little restaraunt and stopped in and warmed up with some hot chocolate!

I can't believe it's almost Christmas Day - my vacation is going SO quickly! I feel very lucky I get to spend a Christmas here :D I hope you have a great Christmas Eve!


Monday, December 22, 2008

Leuven - Another Belgian city!

Today was pretty relaxing - slept in until 11:30am and hung around the house until about 1pm. Beau and Natalie have a Ninentdo Wii so we have been spending a lot of time bowling, skiing, hula-hooping and more! We downloaded Super Mario Brothers yesterday - the original - and Natalie and I played it until 3:30am last night, kind of like we were in the 6th grade again! I beat the game this morning, and probably screamed louder than I ever have because I finally beat this game that I have been playing since I was like 6 years old. Pretty exciting part of my day haha.

Other than Nintendo, we headed to Leuven, a Belgian city about 20 minutes from Natalie and Beau's house. This city is the capital of the Flemish region of Belgium - (Flemish is a mix of Dutch and German). It was founded in the 800s, so obviously has some history! We were only in the city for a few hours - just time for some shopping and grub - but I managed to learn a little about the city and take some pics!

After parking we walked along the river that runs through the town and Beau told us that it is the water that they use to make Stella (a very popular beer in the States). Of course we ended up at a pub and drank some. Turns out that Leuven is home to Anheuser-Busch, so it's a pretty big beer town. I also tried some cider beer and raspberry beer :D Mmm Mmm delicious.

In the main town square, I saw the best building ever! Well, I am sure it is normally pretty, but it was decorated for Christmas, and we know how much I love decorations, so I thought it was fannnnntastic! When I saw it, I thought it was some amazing church, but turns out it is the Town Hall of Leuven that was completed in 1469. It is basically the original, although most of Lueven was ruined with a bomb in WWII. Also in the square were street performers - a mime, trampoliners, jugglers, and silly other street performers - as well as this acticity where you can put on a heavy coat and run through a whole line of chimes and it sounds like a bunch of bells going off at the same time - random but true!
We did a little bit of shopping, mostly just poking in and out of the shops and taking silly pictures with things like this - a life size nutcracker. Well I guess it isn't life size for everyone, but for me it is! We also found someone's bike and thought it would be fun to jump on and take pictures....luckily the person didn't come see us while we were having a photo shoot on thier bike. But we thought it was so fun because on the front of the bike is a little headlight - something I have never seen before. While we were walking down the cobblestone road, we were headed towards a church and with the Christmas lights, I saw this picture - one of the stars from the Christmas lights hanging above the street matched right up with the top of the spire of the Church of St. Peter. I just liked it and thought it was neat :D

We then grabbed some dinner and then headed home for some more Nintendo Wii hahaha. I am not sure what tomorrow holds, but I am sure it will be fun! Hope you are enjoying your snow (everyone in the entire state of Washington probably has more snow than I have seen in my LIFE! JEALOUS!).


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Brussels for the day!

Hi hi! I got here safe and sound - hooray! Natalie and Beau live in an adorable brick house that is all decorated for Christmas and even has a fireplace! Beau's parents are here to celebrate Christmas with us as well so it really feels like a big family. Natalie and Beau live about 20 minutes outside of downtown Brussels so this morning we had a delicious biscuits and gravy breakfast and then headed down to downtown to see the sights.

Passing the European Union building on the way into downtown, I realized how important this city is and why it is sometimes called the Capital of Europe. Not only is it the capital of the EU, but also NATO! Not only is Brussels an important city for government, but they also have such a mix of people living there - in fact they have 3 national languages (Dutch, French and German), but basically all of them can speak English too!

We started off in the Grande Platz (Grand Place) which is the biggest plaza/square in Brussels. It is huge and is surrounded by old, beautifull gothic and baroque buildings all built on worn cobblestone roads. It was built in the 13th century as a market and still hosts concerts and festivals - and this month it housed the Christmas Market - over 240 Christmas cabins. Not only was the Christmas market in the Grand Platz, but some of the most popular Brussels sights help close in the square. One is the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) which looks more like a church. It was built in 1402 and has magnificent carvings on the outside of many different nobles, saints and other figures sculpted into the side of the walls. It is now one of the more popular places in Brussels to get married - probably because it is gorgeous right?! If you look closely you will see that the tower on the building is off-centered, and because of this, is known as the crooked tower. Supposedly, the architect, when he found out of this miscalculation that he jumped off the top of the tower.

Next we continued walking around the old part, peeking in shops and checking out cabins of the Christmas market. Walking down the street, we stopped to check out Brussels favorite claim to fame - Manneken Pis. This is a statue of a little boy peeing into the fountain, which is meant to symbolize Belgiums humor. Because it is Christmas, Manneken Pis was wearing a Santa Claus outfit. It is customary, because so many heads of state visit Brussels, that visiting dignitaries bring a costume of thier home country for Manneken Pis to wear. I guess he even has an Elvis suit - obviously an important part of America haha - and now has more than 200 costumes! Manneken Pis is a statue of Duke Godfrey III of Leuven when he was 2 years old. Supposedly, the troops of his country were battling against the Berthouts and hung the Duke in a tree to encourage them and he eventually peed on the Berthouts from the tree. They eventually lost the war, and the troops thought it was so funny so they created a statue about it. It is pretty funny - not something you see very often!

Of course in Brussels we had to had to had to get a Belgian waffle! There were SO many choices of toppings but after much contemplation I decided on strawberries, whip cream and chocolate mmmmmmm. I was lucky and got to also try the carmel one and a banana/chocolate/whip cream waffle too! The waffles aren't like regular waffles but they have little pockets of sugar in them, so its super super sweet and insanely delicious! I checked into the origins of the waffle and it turns out that they came from wafers - which were made by wafer irons. Nowadays we have waffles and have waffle irons! If you look closely at this picture of me, you will see a little smidge of chocolate on my tooth. Now normally I would take a new picture but we all thought it was so funny and I decided it kind of adds to the integrity of the photo - really shows how tasty it was hahahaha. I couldn't eat the whole thing, partially because we had just eaten breakfast and secondly because it was ridiculously huge and it had more whip cream than I have eaten in my life!

With some more shopping up next, we stopped off at the Galeries San Hubert, which is a glass-roofed mall and that has chocolate shops, restaurants and clothing stores. It is the first shopping mall in all of Europe and looked so pretty, all decorated for Christmas! We even stopped into the Newhouse Chocolate Shop. Belgium is known for chocolate, and the best chocolate is supposed to be in Brussels. On top of this, Newhouse chocolate is supposed to be the best chocolate in all of Brussels, so you can imagine how delicious it was! Of course I got one with caramel...mmmm.

We also stopped off at Delirium Café, one of the most famous bars in all of Brussels. It has 2004 beers from all over the world! It serves of course a bunch and bunch of Belgium brews, but I chose a girly beer - the Delirium Apple beer on tap. The place was decorated with a bunch of old beer memorabilia of all different types of beers! Sad but true and very European, there was even a children's table where kids could order pop that came in a bottle that looks like a beer bottle - out of control.

Last but not least was the Royal Palace. This is where the King of Belgium lives and you can tell he is in the country when the Belgian flag is flying on top of the palace. So, as you can see in the picture, the King in in town!!! It is basically like the White House for the Belgian King. I guess there are select days that you can enter the Palace and see it, and the most amazing room is in the Mirror Room. I guess the entire ceiling is decorated with green Thai jeweled beetles. They are dead beetles that are very rare but have an amazing shiny shell, and the entire ceiling is decorated with them which makes for a huge luminous green ceiling!

Tonight we are staying in and making some spaghetti and guess what I get to drink: DR PEPPER! I am estatic! They are buying me a whole case and I can't wait to drink it! It's funny the things I miss hahaha! Tomorrow I think we are headed to Cologne, Germany for a Christmas ice sculpture contest! I will of course write more, but wanted to fill you in a little bit about our day today!

Hope you had a great Sunday!

And kisses in the 3 languages of Belgium - Bises (French), Kussen (Dutch), Küsse (German)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Off to Brussels :D

Well, it's finally here - Christmas Break wooo hoo! I am almost ready and in about an hour will be catching my bus to my flight to Brussels :D The week was rather crazy with lots of classes, moving and seeing all of my friends before we all leave for the break, but now that vacation is here, I am glad I packed in as much as I could. I hope you are all having a good holiday season so far! It is finally starting to turn into Christmas here - they are decorating more and more each day - sad because I am leaving ha! Figures

Anyways, have to finishing packing my suitcase (haciendo mi maleta) and then I am off!


Friday, December 19, 2008

La Navidad está en puertas (Christmas is just around the corner)

Well, I successfully moved apartments this morning! All I have left in my current apartment is my suitcase for my trip! I even had to eat McDonald's because I moved all my food to the new place. On my way back from Mickey D's I saw this lady with a Chritmas tree on the back of her bike leaving the outdoor market- I loved it! I am bustling around and am headed to work soon, but wanted to tell you a little bit about my holiday experience here so far!

As you might have guessed, Christmas abroad is quite different from Christmas in the States. In Spain, Christmas isn't the most important day of the holiday season. It is merely a day to have a big dinner with the family. The big holiday is Epiphany on January 6th. With the recession, I am not even really getting to experience a full Basque Christmas because they cut back on decorations and parties, but I have picked up on some of the big traditions and wanted to tell you some of the special things I have learned.

Olentzero - The Basque people don't really have Santa Claus - it seems to be more American than anything. Instead, they have a man named Olentzero (kind of pronounced like O-lan-chair-o) who is basically the equivalent to our Santa. The name Olentzero in Euskera means 'times of the good ones'. The story goes that Olentzero was a mythical figure who lives on a mountain before Jesus was born. He saw a bright cloud one day and knew that Jesus had been born and wanted to let the people in the town at the bottom of the hill know. He was the person who brought the news of Jesus' birth to the townspeople and returns every December 24th to bring gifts to the people. Like how we hang our stockings, kids here clean thier shoes and put them in front of the fireplace for him. Olentzero is a coal miner, which is the reason that good kids get presents and bad kids get coal here (why does Santa give coal??) All over the Basque Country, you will see figurines (here is one in the pic), puppets and huge blow-up toys of Olentzero in his peasant outfit with a charcoal-burnt face or a pipe. On Christmas Eve, the people of each village take thier Olentzero figurines and run them through the city asking for candies and celebrating.

Día de los Reyes - This is the main day of the holidays for the Basque people. Christmas is really religious here and is similar to many weekends where you have lunch with your family. But, Day of the 3 Kings is the most important day of los Navidades. On this day, the 3 Kings brought Jesus gifts and nowadays it is the day that children get gifts. Normally, adults do not exchange gifts and children really only get a few gifts. It is definitley not even as close to how commerical it is in the States. Tradition says that the 3 Kings: Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar respectivley represented Europe, Arabia and Asia and brought Jesus gold, frankicense and myrrh. Because of this, before the Spanish people go to bed, they polish and leave thier shoes for the 3 Kings to arrive and leave them presents. Also, people during the holidays dress up as the 3 Wise Men (like we have Santa Claus) but they visit schools, orphanages, etc to visit the kids. I didn't know about this day til about last month and had already bought my ticket home from Rome to Bilbao. When I bought it, I thought, wow this is a SUPER cheap flight and that I must be really lucky. Turns out, it is one of the biggest holidays and I happen to be flying on it, which explains the low low price - it's basically like flying on Christmas Day at home...which NO ONE does!

···· Special Note - each family picks which of these they celebrate. This week in my classes, I asked my kids to tell me what they celebrate, and some celebrate only Olenztero, some celebrate only 3 Kings and some celebrate both.

Turrón - This is the famous Spanish Christmas dessert that is super popular but only available for the holidays. During the rest of the year, it is pretty scarce and hard to find. It is basically a nougat made of honey, sugar, egg white and some sort of nut or fruit. History says that turron (pronounced like two-ron) was created by Arabs in the 15th century. Supposedly, it became popular in Spain when King Felipe II took a liking to it and served it at his special gatherings. The same has stayed true to today and it is served at family gatherings during the holidays. I think that some of it looks like a thick peanut brittle haha. I am waiting til I get to Brussels to try some with my friends :D Here is a picture I got from the internet just so you can picture it.

Christmas Lottery - Something that blows my mind is this huge lottery that started going on about a few weeks ago. Lines and lines are outside the lottery office every day to buy a ticket at this lottery that is the largest in Spain. All of Spain sells tickets and the pot is so big that you would be instantly rich if you won. The winners are announced on December 22nd and this signals the beginning of Christmas for the Spanish people. Too bad I'm not Spanish...otherwise I would buy a ticket and hopefully win! The lottery is called el Gordo (which basically translates to the Fat One, which I guess means its a HUGE prize ha). The winning numbers are announced by a childrens choir who sings the numbers as they come out of the old-timer lottery cage.

Doce Uvas de Suerte - 12 Grapes of Luck - This is a tradition for New Year's Eve (nochevieja) in Spain. Eventhough I won't be here for New Years, I think it is a really interesting tradition. When the clock strikes 12 midnight on New Years Eve, Spainards eat one white grape for each of the 12 chime of the clock. They say if you are able to eat them all before the last bell you will have good luck for the whole year! This tradition started in 1909 when the grape growers overproduced and had a lot of extra grapes and needed to get rid of this surplus, so they thought this idea up and it really caught on! They say that each grape represents a month in the year. The big celebration happens in the Puerta del Sol (remember the center of Spain - from my previous blog about Madrid) - kind of like Times Square. When we were in Madrid told us that some people cheat and that there are some stores that sell peeled, seedless grapes in a can of 12 and it makes them really easy to eat all 12 quickly for good luck hahah!

These are just some of the things that I have learned about the holidays! Eventhough it is very different from the States, it is still a time for family and love. :D Here are a few words that might be interesting to you:

· Merry Christmas - Feliz Navidad or Zorionak (in Basque) - and here is the Kursaal (our convention center) light up with Zorionak!
· Christmas Eve - nochebuena
· Season's Greetings - Felices Fiestas
· Happy New Year - Feliz Año Nuevo
· present - regalo
· nativity scene - belén
· Christmas songs - canciones de Navidad
· snowman - muñeca de nieve (muñeca means doll)
· gingerbread - jengibre
· Christmas tree - pino (because it's a pine tree)
· carta de Navidad - Christmas card

Well, it is off for work for me - more Christmas arts & crafts for the day! I hope you have a wonderful week and found this blog kind of interesting :D


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Quick Update!

Hi everyone! I know it's been some time since I wrote a blog, so I thought I would catch you up real quick. This week is crazy busy! I have successfully found a new apartment and am in the process of moving stuff over everyday, because I am going to have my last day in my current apartment be Saturday - that way I won't have to pay rent for the two and a half weeks I am travelling. No worries if you sent something to me and I don't get it before I go on my trip - I spoke with the people at the office and they told me they will still call me if I get any mail.

I went over yesterday to get the keys and turns out there is another Spanish person, a guy from Bilbao. His name is Iker (pronounced like e-krrr (like brrr but with a k), so I was happy to know another Spanish person will be there. There is one vacant room, and maybe I will get lucky and another Spanish person will move in so I will be FORCED to speak Spanish all the time.

Other than that, my week is just full of Spanish classes, English classes, dinners and coffees with friends and packing for Brussels and Rome! Not much to report, just busy busy busy!

I hope that everyone is having a great week! I will write more later this week but just wanted to say hello :D


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pamplona minus the bulls

Since I was in the mood for another day trip, my friend Charlotte and I decided to venture to Pamplona for the day. Charlotte is an English teacher as well and actually teaches in Hondarribia too...such a coincidence. She is British, is here for one year and speaks perfect English of course haha.

Pamplona, where they normally have Running of the Bulls, is only an hour away from San Sebastian by bus, and is another state of Basque Country - Navarra. For 6.50€ we jumped on a bus and were off early in the morning! When we arrived we wandered around a bit and after asking, found the tourist office. Convientley, there was a 3€ tour starting in 30 minutes - hooray! I seem to always have great luck with these cheap (barrato) tours! We poked around for a bit and then met in the Plaza de San Francisco. There were no trolley cars, rice or bread bowls, but did have some cute little houses. Turns out, there were two girls leading the tour, and they were about our age, and for our 3€ we actually got a personal tour because we were the only two on the whole tour! It was all in Spanish and was kind of like our Spanish lesson for the day.

We started off learning a little bit of history. Pamplona, which was founded by the Romans in 74 BC, was actually originally named Pompaelo but with the Spanish language changed to Pamplona. In Basque it is called Iruña, which means 'the city'. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Vascones (remember this from my blog about Hondarribia??) basically lived in Pamplona, but come the 12th century were in for a shock. Two new burgos (independant municipalities) were founded in the same area of Pamplona and created the problem of 3 burgos in one city! For the next two centuries, the Navarrese (the original Vascones), the people of San Cercin, and the people of San Nicolás were constantly fighting over the city. There are 3 distinct neighborhoods in Pamplona, which show where these 3 enemies lived. In 1423, King Charles III, decided to unify the 3 burgos and successfully did so and as a symbol of the peace of the 3 groups, built a town hall for all of them in the place where the 3 burgos intersected. It is still the Town Hall to this day! There are two statues on the top of the building on both sides of roof of Hercules with clubs in thier hands, which means to watch over the city and protect it. At the very top of the building there is an angel playing a trumpet, signifying the fame and splendor of the city. On both sides of the angel are two lions, one next to the coat of arms, and the other with the symbol of the flag. It was pretty bad weather outside, so it's hard to make out the statues perfectly. Once it started to sprinkle, our tour guides brought us to the 3 churches that used to be the churches of the 3 burgos. The first was the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. It also houses the Capilla de San Fermin (who is the Saint the the Running of the Bulls is for). This was the church for the burgo of San Cercin. The next church was the Church of Santa María, which is on the highest hill in Pamplona. It was for the Navarrese people and was built between the 12th and 19th century (quite a long construction ha). We had to walk up this rock/cobblestone to get to it. Once at the top, our tour guide (oh, I never told you her name - Itzibar - kind of pronounced like itsy-bar) told us that the church is built at the top of the cross of the streets. Like when you think of the Christian cross, the top of the Cross is where the Church of Santa María is, and there is a street in front of it to signify the cross part, and then this street that we walked up, is the bottom of the cross. The next chuch was the Chuch of San Nicolás, which was for the people of San Nicolás of course! We were able to walk in, but there was a service going on, so we just ran through, but something I found interesting is that the floor is actually one big gravesite and the whole church is built on hollowed ground. I snapped a quick picture and you can see the service but if you look closely at the floor you will see tha the the wooden floor is actually wooden graves with numbers of them.

We then made our way on the route that the Running of the Bulls goes on. The most famous street is Calle Estafeta. Every year this crazy festival goes on during June and Itzibar told us that millions of people come from all over the world to participate! They always wear white outfits and a red scarf to signify the blood of the bulls. After running through the streets of Pamplona, the people and bulls make thier way through a 3 meter-wide door into the Plaza de Toros (Bull Ring) for the Bull Fight! I hope that someday I can stay for this crazy party! Since I couldn't be there for the real thing, I reinacted what I think I would look like if a bunch of bulls were chasing after me on Calle Estafeta. Classic. I am sure I looked like the biggest tourist EVER when I took this picture...but I have no shame!
Once the rain fully commenced, we made our way to the last stop on the tour - a wine cellar. The state of Navarra is famous for its wine - mostly the Rosado (a blush wine). We tasted a glass of the local wine and from the wine cellar guide lady, she made sure to tell us that if you want to drink a blush wine, it is best to drink it chilled and from the current year. We were able to try a delicious glass of wine that warmed us up and got us out of the rain!

After finishing the tour, Charlotte and I grabbed a pintxo and then wandered around the town a bit. We ended up in the Plaza de Castillo (castle) which is the old area for the bull fights. It's not even a stadium, and instead people would watch from thier balconies that surround the Plaza. There was a little Christmas festival and I bought myself a cute turquoise ring woo hoo! We saw this funny sign in a store-front window, and I tink it sums up my view pretty well - Merry Crisismas! It kills me that San Sebastian is doing basically nothing for Christmas because of the economic crisis, and I love going to places like Bayonne or here in Pamplona because they realize that eventhough it is a tight Christmas, it will only hurt spirits if you take away the decorations and remind them we are in a bad spot economically. Might as well keep the morale up! We were happy to find a huge Christmas tree and Basque people singing what we think are Christmas songs, but we decided sounded more like revolutionary songs. Either way, it was nice to be in a Christmasy place that was decorated and hearing festive songs!

Later, we decided to head back to San Sebastian because siesta had started and everything was closed, it was pouring and we were freezing!

We finished our night with some dinner and Christmas movies! I found Disney Christmas AND Claymation Christmas on youtube - I was elated and watched them with a huge smile on my face like a 6 year old!

Nothing planned for my Sunday - just studying and looking up some fun things to do when I visit Rome and Brussels next week :D I hope you are having a great weekend!


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Apartment Searching!

Woah - I just had a crazy experience apartment searching! All in Spanish of course!

I have been wanting to move apartments (in Europe they are called flats, and in Spanish they are called pisos) for awhile now. The people that I live with are nice, but it's really not homey. I live with a 3 guy students and one creepy old man (well he is 30 but he is still creepy). They have parties ALL the time and never clean up after themselves. Usually when I want to cook something, I need to wash someone else's dishes. To top it all off, we only speak English in the house, so it's impossible to practice my Spanish! I also want to move to a new neighborhood called Gros (pronounced just like it looks - gross) because it is closer to my Spanish language school and supposedly is the best neighborhood (barrio) in San Sebastian.

So, I have been looking and today went to go see two apartments. The first one has a boy who is from a city I can't pronounce but it is in Africa but is part of the Spanish part of Africa - I guess a few cities are Spanish down there. Another is a girl from Burgos, which is a little more inland than here. The last person is a German, I think a boy, I didn't meet him, but I guess he isn't very conversational (is that a word?). The two people that I meant, the Spanish people, were super nice and didn't seem to care that my Spanish is not that good. Here we say bastante bien, which means good enough! I was able to talk about the rent, the room, the electric bills, the internet, moving in, etc. They say, don't worry about your time you move out in June you will be fluent lol. I have til Sunday to decide...eeek!

The next one I went to was SUPER weird. I went up to the piso and rang the bell. A nice guy answered and explained I needed to take my shoes off...that's fine - let's keep the floors nice. So then I thought he was going to show me around the piso but he took me to the kitchen where 3 other people were sitting, and from then on it was like a interview (entrevista). They asked me a million questions, and I could tell they kinda judged my Spanish - meanies I am trying! By the end I was super awkward because they told me that they would have to speak with thier other roommate, explain me and decide if they liked me. WHAT?! I said - 'gracias por este entrevista' when I left ahahha and should be expecting a call on Friday IF they liked me.

I liked the second apartment better because it was GORGEOUS and in a super nice building, but I think I will chose the first one because the people are better :D Now, I have to figure out how I can pay half a month rent in this piso and store my stuff for the time I am gone in Brussels and Rome. I am sure I will figure it out! Just wanted to give you a little update on my night and let you know I successfully spoke a BUNCH of Spanish today!

Muchos besos!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Spanish Holidays!

After a very exciting and festive Saturday, I had a very boring rest of the weekend. We had a 3-day weekend here and I took full advantage of Saturday and Sunday to relax! Here (Europe in general) they don't use the word 3-day weekend, and instead they say holiday. So, Monday was holiday and we didn't have to work :D They say the same thing for vacations - like you wouldn't say where did you go on vacation, you would say where did you go on holiday - I am still getting used to it!

This weekend was filled with holidays- both Saturday and Monday. Because these two holidays are always spaced one day apart, you always get the day in the middle off as well. Sadly, that fell on a Sunday! Wouldn't it be awesome to have holiday on Monday and Wednesday and then you get Tuesday off as well?!

Saturday was Día de la Constitución - always the 6th of December. This is the day that Spain officially became a democracy because the Constitution was drafted. When Franco (the scary militant leader who ran Spain for many years) died in 1975, a new King was put in charge - Juan Carlos I. He had promised Franco that he would uphold all of his militant strategies while ruling, but Juan Carlos didn't really support them and threw them out. So, in 1977, King Juan Carlos did the unthinkable - he gave up all of his power and requested that the people of Spain hold a free and open election for a President. After this HUGE transition, the President formed a team to write the Constitution and on 12-6-1978 it was signed and is now a big holiday! Juan Carlos is still the head of state here in Spain, but the head of government is Zapatero.

Monday was also a holiday - Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception) is obviously a more religious holiday and is always celebrated on the 8th of December.

Really, I have not accomplished much - but I think it was good to relax. This was our first day off since the start of the school year so it was nice to be a bum. I think the highlight of my weekend was deciding to go out to dinner with my girlfriend Lotte, and then we just ended up at McDonalds (only the second time I have eaten there since I moved here) and ended up eating ice cream on the street in 40º weather. We were crazy!

I hope you had a great weekend :D


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Le Village de Noel in Bayonne, France

Sitting here eating a chocolate covered carmel deliciouness from my trip yesterday, I am excited to tell you about Bayonne, France! My friend from Spanish class, Pernille (pronounded like vanilla with a P) and I figured since we have a 3-day weekend, we should atleast make one day-trip. We picked Bayonne because it is famous for it's chocolate and also because they have a large Christmas festival going on this month! It was definitley a trip full of chocolate, Christmas, shopping and mixes of English, Danish (Peni as I call her is from Denmark), Spanish and French.

Bayonne is in the South of France, really actually close to the other French Coastal cities I visited the other week (Biarritz and San Juan de Luz). It is more inland, but has a river that runs through it - Le Nive. It is still considered Basque country (well, French Basque Country, which is completely different if you ask someone in Spain haha). Everything we saw was in both French and Euskera, just like it is here but Spanish and Euskera (Basque language), but since I don't speak French or Euskera, it wasn't too helpful for me ha. Come to think of it, I probably only know ten French words. Bonjour, Merci, Madame, Moisuer (or however you spell it), Aurevoi (don't know how to spell that one either!), and I can count to 3 - but that's pretty much my extent of the French language. If you ask me a ballet term I can fire off a bunch of those, but these words don't help much when you are lost. Excuse me sir, I can do a piroutte, but do you happen to know where this bus is?? Haha. I think all the French I learned is from Beauty and the Beast...sad but true!

We took a train from San Sebastian to Hendaye (a small French town that is opposite Hondarribia). From there we were supposed to take a French train but the line (cue in British English) was too long and the 5 minutes we allowed ourselves to buy tickets and board the train didn't work out and we issed it. No big deal...we are on an adventure. We wandered out of the train station and low and behold, there is a bus to San Juan de Luz. We figured we might as well take it and get closer to our end destination since the next train didn't come for 2 hours. When we arrived in San Juan de Luz we were worried we wouldn't be able to find a bus to Bayonne, but the moment we stepped off the bus another bus pulled up - straight to Bayonne! Such good karma :D We ended up arriving quicker than if we had waited for the next train, and only spent 3€ instead of the 13€ the train cost - pretty successful I would say! Once off the bus, our inefficiency in French was glaringly obvious. We couldn't even figure out what direction was North haha. There was a teenage boy at the bus stop and we asked him - do you speak English, to which he said no, so our next question was do you speak Spanish, also which was a no. We didn't care - we speak sign language! We kept trying to figure out how to get to the river, but genius Amanda doesn't know how to say river in French...I said rio (spanish), ria (because I thought maybe if I changed one letter he would silly), river (english eventhough he already said he didn't know it) and then riviera (ridiculous I know!). We finally figured it out and made it into the city but then couldn't find out how to get to the tourism office. We were looking at a large city map on the street when someone approached us (we must have looked very confused) and he asked us, in English, if we needed some help. Hooray - a French person who is willing to speak English - or so we thought! We smiled very big and had a converstaion that went something like this: 'Oh, you speak English?' 'NO!' 'Oh hablas español?' 'NO!' I FRENCH! FRENCH KISS!' Needless to say, he didn't help much!

We finally figured it out and found the tourist office, grabbed a map and headed off to the Christmas Festival. We were pretty excited to have some Christmas in our lives, because in San Sebastian because of the EU recession, the city has decided to not really put up many Christmas lights or decorations in order to save money...bah humbug! It doesn't even really feel like Christmas here in San Sebastian - it could basically be October. There are a few decorations, but I am used to lights lights lights and I miss them! The city of Bayonne was decked out super Christmasy and has this Christmas festival where they put up little wood cabins and people sell gifts, foods, etc in Le Village de Noel (Christmas Village). They have planted a bunch of Christmas trees along the pathway for the month, and have these branch reindeer all over! All of the wood cabins have fake snow on the roofs and lights to make them look festive and there was even an ice-skating rink! With pony-rides, face-painting and Christmas music, it was very festive! My favorite little food cabin was this one where they sell tasty breads. They have little samples and I experience my first REAL ginger BREAD...not that gingerbread cookie stuff - this was the real thing! It was deliccccious! Funny as well was that some of the breads had things in them - apricots, oranges, etc - and one of them has Amandes - which I loved because it's close to my name - and it means Almonds in French! I don't like Amandes but I like Amandas hahah. After picking out a few good gifts we figured we could walk around the Old Part of town to check some shops.

Bayonne was founded in 842 when the Vikings wanted a port city to help connect the Atlantic Ocean and te Mediterranean Sea. It is called Bayonne in English, but in Euskera is called Baiona. The word 'ibai' in Euskera means river, so it is fitting that Baiona is a port city on a river! The Old Part faces the river and is very cute! Because it is the Christmas season every store in puts out thier version of a Christmas tree. I love this idea and think it should be implented everywhere lol. There were some cute ones, some ugly ones, some weird ones - all kinds! There was a black tree...who wants a black Christmas tree?! Then there was this one - a stack of boxes made to look like a triangle, which I guess is a tree haha. All of the windows of the shops were decorated and it really helped charge my Christmas spirit!

Even the restaurant that we stopped to eat at was decorated to the max! With sparkly lights in the window, you could think it was snowing! Too bad the food wasn't as nice as the decorations! You always hear about French food being delightful, but this lunch was anything but! The best part of my lunch was the wine - a rosé. My Grammy insisted that I have a glass of French wine, and I think it was great advice because it was the perfect fix after the travels of the morning and walking around Bayonne! Here is a shot of me, looking a little worn out, at the restaurant. In Spain when siesta happens, all the restaurants stay open, so we assumed that the same would go for France, but boy were we wrong. When we decided to eat around 4pm, we kept getting told that the kitchen was shut down and we could only drink coffee in the restaurant! So eventhough the food at this restaurant wasn't the best, we were happy to be inside at a warm place having a wine and food!

I later decided maybe the French don't do food well in Bayonne, but what they DO do well is wine and chocolate! Bayonne is the capital of chocolate-making in all of France. In the 1500s, Jews were forced out of Spain by the Inquisition and fled to Portugal. After being forced out of Portugal as well, they fled to The Basque Country of France and brought with them thier chocolate-making secrets! Supposedly there are only 10 famalies that still live in Bayonne that are true descendants from these first chocolate makers. Spain controlled most of the cocoa trade business in Europe in 1500s and finally in the 1600s it spread to the rest of the continent. On a field trip for my spanish class, I learned that San Sebastian used to be one of the main cocoa ports in all of Europe! Hundreds of years later, San Sebastian doesn't trade cocoa anymore, but Bayonne has remained the capital of chocolate for France. Walking around town we stopped in little chocolate shops on Rue Port-Neuf (which means street of chocolate shops) and tasted many delicious treats! Some were plain, serious chocolate, while others were elaborate decorated desserts and we even found these cute little cappucino candy treats - made of all chocolate and sweets! I tried the famous French pastry called a macaron (not macaroons though) which is a little sandwich of sweet! It is made egg whites, sugar, almonds and icing and it makes a little sandwich of meringue with some icing in the center...mmmm. I tried the frambuesa (raspberry) one and it was to die for! It just melts in your mouth. I just bought one originally for tasting, but couldn't help but buy a few more! The ladies working in the shop were so friendly and smiling- probably because they get to eat those treats all day! They had everything - chocolate trees, sculptures with sweets, colored sugar, a sweet-loving dream! And this was just a regular day - we didn't even visit the musem where you can see the chocolate being made (which I really want to go back and do) and we also weren't there during the chocolate festival, because YES there is a whole festival about chocoloate in this little town!

As the day was winding down we headed back to the bus but walked as we walked out of the town, we noticed that the whole Old Part was actually walled in. It used to be part of the orignal city and the walls are still intact. We saw these houses set a bit behind the protective wall, and if you look at them, you can see they are houses that are actually built into the city walls. You can see the round house looks as if it was a watch tower!

Another exciting weekend in France...but this time I did learn a new word - bonsoir (good night!), so now I am practically an expert!


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Little Hondarribia

Well, I found out today that I am living through a record-breaking year in Basque Country. The first record breaking fact is that the average temperature for November was 9.61º celsius (48ºF), which is the coldest November since 1928. Next exciting record-breaking event I am living through is the fact that Basque Country is experiencing the iciest year since 1934. Last but not least is the rain info. So far in November and December we have received over a third of the ANNUAL rainfall. San Sebastian has not had such a rainy year since 1923. Best fact though is that Hondarribia (the town where I work) received 67.2 liters (17.75 gallons) of rain JUST LAST MONDAY, which is the most rain of any day in December since 1955!!! Aren't you glad I could experience such record-breaking excitement this winter?!

On a brighter note, I thought I would share some photos of Hondarribia that I took awhile back, when it was sunny and not so cold as well some history of the city. I thought maybe this would be good for you to see pictures and therapeutic for me, so I don't go crazy when it rains all month hahaha.

According to history, Hondarribia dates all the way back to basically the ice age more than 50,000 years ago. Supposedly when the world was basically ice, cave men migrated south and stayed in caves and such, and one of these caves has been found in Hondarribia, and it is named Cape Higuer. In the next thousand years or so, Hondarribia was home to Vascons (get it- Pais Vasco?). These peoples basically had the land from the Pyrenees to the coast. During this time, a wall was built around Hondarribia to protect it but alas in the 400s barbarians came in and created quite a lot of trouble for the residents. After hundreds of years of unrest, Hondarribia finally gets peace...and thier name! In 1203, Hondarribia is awared foundation and by the Navarre King - Sancho VI. From the 13th century on, Hondarribia becomes an important Navarre port city for things to be shipped to Northern Europe, and is also an important fishing port city. Also important to note, Hondarribia is the Spanish name of the town - it is referred to as Fuentarribia in Basque language. After years of prosperity, in 1476 fights between the French and Navarre people start and in 1498 all but six buildings in Hondarribia burn to a crisp.

After this Hondarribia is rebuilt with all new buildings - new church, new walls, new castle - a while new look! Here are some pictures of what was rebuilt and still remains in Hondarribia. The Parish Church of Santa Maria de Asuncion y del Manzano. This church was rebuilt on the old walls that didn't crumble in the fires. In the book 'Los Pireneos' (The Pyrenees) by Victor Hugo, he describes Hondarribia as a “silhouette of a town of gold, with a sharp bell tower, in the depth of a blue gulf, in an immense area”. This famous Gothic belltower is what I see everyday on the bus and its always gorgeous, no matter what the weather is like! Another historical area is the Parte Vieja (Alde Zaharra in Basque) of Hondarribia. That which still stands was part of the original walled area of the city. With cobblestone streets, iron balconies and tiny pathways, the old part of town is always gorgeous. I would think that it would be filled with tourist shops or restaurants, but the truth is that it is hard to find a restauarnt in the maze of streets that are mostly just filled with very old houses!

However, with all of the wars during the next 300 years, Hondarribia has a hard time prospering because of bad relations which slow demand for thier exports. By the 1800s, Hondarribia is involved in the Carlist Wars and is taken over many times but eventually by the 1900s starts to rebuild itself by expanding the city center, strengthening the fishing fleet, and gaining land from the countryside to accomodate more residents. Here is a shot of one of the many boat entrances to the port. This is what it looks like now will have to use your imagination for how it looked in the 1900s!

Nowadays Hondarribia boasts a whopping 16,000 residents and is known as a small, beautiful village in Basque Country with heaps of good restaurants. I have met many tourists on the bus coming to Hondarribia just for lunch!

If you remember from my blog a loooong time ago about where I live and all that stuff, you remember that Hondarribia is the last city before France. It sits on the Bidasoa River and across the river is Hendaye, a French town. There is a long walkway along the river where you can gaze across the River and (when it is not pouring down rain like it has been) you can see France! I've not walked on the boardwalk for quite some time fact I can't think of the last day we didn't have rain haha! Oh well, I cannot complain, I love it here. Helena (my boss) keeps insisting to me that this is the worst winter ever and she hopes I come back next year to teach again and she promises that the weather won't be so rotten. In the meantime, I will stock up on hats, scarfs, boots and umbrellas!

I hope you're enjoying your week and you are not having as much rain as me! Hopefully we don't break any more records haha! Oh, and PS - I added a new pic of Hondarribia to my 'favorite shots' on the right. It's the one closest to the top with the boats and France in the background!