Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Living Like Popes in Avignon, France

Y’all. I am SO behind in blog posts. I’m just now getting to travels from way back in February…so ashamed that I’ve let tumbleweeds roll all over this blog but I’m trying to get back up to speed, so stay tuned!

Avignon, France
The Papal Palace
It was mid-February and my friend Melissa and I were not amused with how the Galician winter had been treating us. Dark skies and rainy nights kept us indoors most of the time, and because of high humidity, the cold temperatures were particularly bitter despite never dropping below freezing. Simply put, we needed to get out, and sunny southern France seemed like a great place to escape from Santiago for a long weekend.

We took a similar path that the Roman Catholic popes did in the 1300s, who were also fleeing an unsavory (political) climate. They left chaotic Rome for the security of Avignon, a major city along the Rhône River not far from the Mediterranean coast. We scored (and later endured) super-cheap Ryanair flights to Marseille’s airport and looked forward to encountering not only papal history but also Roman ruins and endless French pastries.

Why we used Avignon as a home base for the region

Avignon, France
The city seen through the windows of the Papal Palace
So why Avignon and not, say, Marseille, or any of the fine provincial capitals scattered around Provence? Well, for one, it was centrally located between the airport and all the places we wanted to make daytrips to: Arles, Nîmes, and the Pont du Gard. But to be honest, the main reason we chose Avignon had to do with the existence of a hostel, which are far and few between in a region that isn’t necessarily on the backpacker trail. Call us cheapskates, but there’s no need to pay 40€ a night for crappy hotel rooms when 20€ bunkbeds work just fine. (Pop’ Hostel, by the way, is worth looking into if you’re planning a trip here!)

Avignon, France
Window murals
In the end, Avignon (pronounced “ah-vee-nyon” ​[ɲɔ̃]) turned out to be a great home base for exploring southern France. We were never more than an hour away from our daytrip destinations via efficient TER trains or intercity buses, and there were plenty of cafés, bakeries, mini-markets, and restaurants in the old town, giving us a plethora of options to choose from for our pre-train breakfasts and evening dinners once we were back in town.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Moving to Spain, 3 Years Later: My Spain-iversary

Now that I’m back home with my parents in Texas this summer, I’ve recently been leafing through all the old travel journals that I kept when I moved to Spain and traveled around Europe. They’ve put me in a real emotional mood remembering how excited I felt to be moving to a foreign country. At the same time, all my old anxieties came flooding back: what city would I live in, what apartment would I choose, how would I get to work, would I make any friends, and what the heck comes next after all of this is over.

moving to spain
The Acibecharía façade of the cathedral in Santiago
It’s now been three years since I landed on the tarmac at the Barajas airport in Madrid, giddy and jetlagged and naïve all at once. I thought it would only be appropriate to commemorate this anniversary—or Spain-iversary, in Cat’s words—with a retrospective blog post looking back on my first day in España, the journey I’ve taken since then, and some of the lessons I’ve learned while living abroad.

I may be back in the very same place where I started over 1,000 days ago, but today I’m a much different, wiser person than the freshly-minted college graduate I was, the young man that would step off of that sleepless trans-Atlantic flight into a crisp, Castilian morning.

Reminiscing on my first 24 hours in Spain

As luck (or fate) would have it, my seatmate for the overnight flight between Philadelphia and Madrid happened to be an American named Annie, a fellow language assistant going to teach in Galicia. It didn’t take long for us to bond over our shared love of all things Spain…and our shared anxieties about dropping everything and moving across the ocean for nine months. I couldn’t have asked for a more encouraging companion to begin this journey with, and while our paths diverged as we left the airport—she hopped on a bus north to Lugo while I had to catch the Cercanías train into town—we’ve stayed in touch ever since and have met up multiple times in Galicia.

The vastness that is the Atocha train station really threw me for a loop. Serving as the rail hub for the entire country, Atocha sends off high-speed trains to all corners of the country, not to mention medium-distance and commuter rail…oh, and there’s two metro stops. And the “old” train station is a huge garden foyer. I literally walked in circles before finally finding the ticket stands. Unfortunately it was already half past nine and I would have to wait until a little after 3pm for the next train south.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Bonaval Park

Bonaval Park, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
View of the cathedral
I know, I know, I’ve been on a big city-parks-of-Santiago kick lately on the blog. Last year I talked about the Alameda (the main public park) and Belvís (basically my backyard), and in the past few weeks I’ve highlighted the Sarela River Trail and Galeras Park. These green spaces amount to one of Santiago de Compostela’s greatest assets and give folks who live here a way to exercise, relax, and meet up with friends and family.

Bonaval Park, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Triple staircase in the Museo do Pobo Galego
Today I’d like to turn the spotlight on Bonaval Park, situated just outside the old town to the northeast. For centuries, the land here belonged to the monastic community of San Domingos de Bonaval, but in 1837 it was confiscated by the Spanish state during the anti-clerical desamortización de Mendizábal. The Baroque monastery then passed to the city government. Today, Bonaval is anchored by the Museo do Pobo Galego, which offers an ethnographic look into Galician culture and traditions. The museum’s star attraction is a bewildering spiral staircase in which three separate flights of stairs intertwine.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Trying Out Inkly, a Handwritten Postcard App

It’s never been easier to stay in touch with your friends and family back home while you’re traveling or living abroad. Instagram, Twitter, and all the rest help keep people updated on what you’re up to, while messaging apps and video chat are always there for meaningful, one-on-one conversations.

Inkly greeting cards

There’s honestly no way I would have survived longer than one school year in Spain so far away from home had I not had so many accessible and affordable ways to keep in close contact with my parents, the rest of my family, and my friends from college. I salute those all who have bravely gone before me with only snail mail or expensive calling cards as their sole means of communication. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here furiously updating my Instagram.

Still, there’s something about travel that brings out the old-fashioned side of me. I try to dress up for the occasion whenever I catch a flight; I prefer the romance of civilized train travel over slow, nauseating buses; and I enjoy sending handwritten postcards across the ocean to relatives and friends back home.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Galeras Park

Galeras Park, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Cherry trees in blossom
Like I said on my earlier post about the Sarela River Trail, I think Santiago de Compostela is uniquely fortunate to have its older part of town surrounded by parks and green spaces rather than by sprawl, as happened to countless other European cities in the past century. Built on a bluff between two small rivers, Santiago only became the administrative capital of Galicia in the 1980s, so much of the World Heritage-declared historic core has been protected.

Galeras Park, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
A heron flying through the willows
With the Alameda Park to the southwest and Belvís Park running along the east, Santiago has plenty of places to go running, have a picnic, or just breathe some fresh air in. Joining these quality parks is Galeras Park, situated just to the northeast of Santiago’s old town. A tranquil meadow dotted with willows and fruit trees, Galeras straddles both banks of the Sarela River as it meanders southwards.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Crash Course in the Galician Language

Galicia, located in Spain’s northwestern corner, ranks as one of the country’s greatest regions. When I lived there from 2013 to 2015, I couldn’t get enough of the glorious, fresh food, the green, lush countryside, and the grand, granite architecture. But I could only take canned sardines with me back home, we’ve got enough humidity here in Texas, and sadly the oldest buildings in suburban Plano date back not to the 1070s but the 1970’s.

A primavera—Spring
But what has stuck with me the most has been galego, the Galician language that I quickly picked up on after being immersed in it from day one at the elementary school I worked at. Closely related to Spanish (and even closer to Portuguese), you can think of it as a de-nasalized Portuguese, pronounced like Spanish, and with an Italian intonation. Its endearing musical (some might say whiny) rhythm has infected my accent in Spanish, and I can rattle off more seafood and rain-related terms in Galician than I can in English.

So, what if you’re going to Galicia and are terrified that your Spanish will be of no use? Don’t worry—everyone in Galicia speaks Spanish as well as Galician. But learning a little of the language can only help you in making friends, understanding conversations, and (most importantly!) reading menus. I’ve put together this crash course in galego that I hope will help you keep your head above water, whether you’re just there for a visit or moving to the region for a longer stay.

Quick overview of this post

Part I: A bit of a background
Part II: Where Galician is spoken today
Part III: 6 Galician grammar points if you already know Spanish
Part IV: 10 tricks to figuring out what a Galician word means if you already know Spanish
Part V: How to pronounce Galician
Part VI: Some basic vocabulary
Part VII: Some useful expressions
Part VIII: 3 important irregular verbs, conjugated
Part IX: Online resources

Part I: A bit of a background

How to learn Galician
A bandeira galega—the Galician flag
The Galician language is a direct descendant of the Latin language that the Romans introduced to Spain’s northwest corner, just as today’s French developed from the Latin spoken in northern France and standard Italian grew out of the Tuscan dialects in central Italy. As the Roman Empire collapsed in the 400s CE and communications broke down, the everyday Latin in this isolated region naturally evolved into a separate language altogether.

Today known as Galician-Portuguese, the language was spoken during the Middle Ages from the northern Atlantic shores down to the Portuguese Algarve. As the ragtag Christian kingdoms of northern Spain carried the Reconquista south into the territory of Muslim al-Andalus, they also brought their respective Romance dialects with them. A narrow strip of Galician-Portuguese thus spread down the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Sarela River Trail

Sarela River Trail, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Old stone bridge
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the countless parks and green spaces that surround Santiago de Compostela make the city such a great place to call home. From the Alameda, where you can see and be seen (or just go jogging), to Belvís, where you can lay out on the hillside and have a picnic, Santiago is truly blessed with pleasant public spaces where you can escape the noise and demands of the city and breathe in some fresh air.

Sarela River Trail, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Spring flowers
No part of town gives you a better connection to the natural world than the footpaths that follow the course of the Sarela River. Trailblazed several years ago, the Paseo Fluvial do Río Sarela traces a tranquil creek as it trickles down the western edge of Santiago from the north to the southwest.