I started the second half of 2014 freshly landed in America. Literally the day after I arrived back, (part of) my family took off for West Virginia to visit my sister, her husband and their new baby. It's a beautiful, underrated part of the country, and we had fun playing around in front of pretty scenery! It's always great to be around family, especially being silly.
While we were already out that way, we took an educational "field trip" to show my eldest niece and nephew Washington DC. It reminded me of my very first plane ride and excursion without my parents, during my 8th grade class trip out there. And I also realized what a cool, hip city DC is! Even in the sweltering 40ªC heat (plus humidity, blegh).
Since my nephew (yes, the boy who is taller than me...unbelievable!) missed his own 8th grade class trip to DC, I was sort of his tour guide, showing him the things I remembered from my other couple of trips out there. But this place I couldn't, because it's new...it's the World War II monument. Having just come from a very WWII-centered vacation, seeing the American monument meant much more to me than usual!
Next up was the Fourth of July. I'm not the most patriotic of Americans, but I do love celebrations of all kinds and am very enamored of fireworks and grilled foods, so it's actually a holiday I quite like! Also, don't we have a pretty flag?
Back in Illinois, I wasted no time in partaking of those foods that I severely crave over in Europe...such as Chicago-style deep dish pizza. Om nom nom.
Trying to take advantage of the fun quirky things in my home area, I also spent a day with my mom at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, one of my favorite annual summer activities. Being a huge history and costumes nerd, this place is right up my alley! Plus this year, my mom got picked to be Little Red Riding Hood in one of the theatrical productions, which was pretty hilarious!
Being that I only had so much time at home, I tried to spend as much of it as possible with my family, especially my beloved nephews and niece, who I miss dearly when I'm gone. It's nice to do really simple activities that remind me of my own childhood, like berry picking up at the old family farm!
As I had a relatively urgent matter to take care of in downtown Chicago (new Spanish visa!), and also since that's where a few of my old friends live now, I spent a fair amount of time down there this summer. I really like feeling like a part of the hustle and bustle for a little bit, and there's always something new to discover!
It wasn't too long (although at times it felt like it...not working and not traveling aren't my favorite activities) before it was time to say hasta luego once again to America and head off to my newest Spain adventure...but not before a few airport hugs and tears shed, as always.
And suddenly, I was back in Spain, something I'd never in a million years expected when I thought I left for good a year before this. Reentry was both glorious and difficult, as I remembered both the wonderful and frustrating aspects of this country that had captured my unwilling heart. This beautiful central plaza of Alcalá de Henares definitely counts as one of the more amazing aspects, though!
The beginning of September was spent exploring my new town, and remarking on just how different it is from everywhere I've lived in Spain before...namely, it's pretty darn typically Spanish, unlike Galicia or the Basque Country!
One of these oh-so-typically-Spanish things about Alcalá de Henares is that it's (supposedly) the home of Miguel de Cervantes, the Shakespeare of Spanish literature and author of Don Quixote, the novel about the crazy would-be knight who battles windmills with his pudgy friend Sancho Panza. Might sound familiar? Literary history warms the cockles of my former-English-major heart, so I was pleased to find myself living in a place with so much of it!
Beginning to explore my nearby surroundings, I took a daytrip to the nearest town in another communidad, Guadalajara in Castilla La Mancha, only about half an hour down the cercanías line. It was a cute little city, and I particularly liked this gorgeous church!
Next up was another short trip with my new gal pals, this time to Valencia, one of the few major Spanish cities I'd never visited. I'm glad to have finally had the chance, if for nothing more than the food! Valencian paella is seriously a million times better than the kind made anywhere else in the country, I swear. And their horxata and fartons, oh man. Take me back there, please?
I spent part of October exploring Madrid a little more, and one day when I was wandering around down in Sol, I ran into this protest against the monarchy. Since old King Juan Carlos abdicated over the summer, many Spaniards have felt it's time to do away with the monarchy (which retains a certain tie to the Franco era, and also has been plagued with recent scandals regarding money and corruption) and embrace full democracy. From a sociological point of view, I found this truly fascinating!
Alcalá is a cool city because it embraces its history so much. So, every year in the middle of October, they hold a medieval market and fair to celebrate Cervantes' baptism (as his exact birthdate is unknown). I liked looking at the wares of all the different stalls, seeing geese walk the streets, and trying new foods!
With one of our nice new Spanish friends, one day in October we made a quick trip to another famous place I'd always been meaning to go to but hadn't visited yet--El Escorial. I thought the place was really beautiful, and I'm glad I finally made the effort to go!
Since I work at one of the bilingual English schools in the Communidad de Madrid, Halloween is a big deal there. I still refuse to play to the Spanish convention that it needs to be scary (I dressed up as a unicorn), but I like celebrating it. These are some of the hundreds of sucker ghosts I made as a present for my little students. So much work, but so worth it to see their awed faces!
November was the end of our Indian summer in Spain, and it found me making a trek back up to mi pueblo (ha), Vigo. Surprise surprise, it was raining when I got there!
Vigo is where my Spanish "brother" and "sister" live, and I was so happy to be back with them, and to surprise the former for his birthday! Combined with returning to the city that I love best in Spain, it was very nearly a perfect weekend.
November wasn't the easiest of months, however, as one morning I woke up to one of those life-changing, devastating whatsapps, that my last grandparent had passed away. The subsequent frantic chaos to get off work and get to Arizona for her funeral, all while feeling so sad and helpless and far away, was one of the more trying bits of my life so far, but I got through it and was glad to be there for my family, who all gathered together to say a proper goodbye.
Arizona holds some of my fondest vacation memories from my childhood. As it was my Ramblin' Rose of a grandmother who was the one to first settle part of the family there (so far from her own Midwestern hometown), reflecting on the things I love about this beautiful state made me feel closer to her. I also feel like I partially have her to thank for some of the restless nature, wandering spirit, and fierce female independence that have led me to Spain in the first place. So, traveling to her faraway home from my own felt like a fitting tribute to a woman who blazed the trail for all fearless women to follow, in a time when that was no easy task. To her and all others like her, I can only say thank you.
Perhaps it's fitting that the very next thing that came up right when I got home from my whirlwind trip to America was Thanksgiving. There's no better time than after having lost someone you loved to reflect on all you have, the wonderful people surrounding you, and all you're thankful for. I was too exhausted from jet-lag to do my usual full-on cooking extravaganza, so I just gathered together enough energy to make apple and pumpkin pie. Dessert is the most important part of any meal, right?
As we rolled on into December, I delved once again into my past and went back to the city that started it all, the city I left over 5 years ago now, Bilbao. I studied abroad there back in 2009, and the experience changed my life in more ways than I could have known back then. I didn't always love the city (or Spain, for that matter) while I was living there, but like many things, Bilbao is a place that grows on you. I have so many fond memories there, and although my current travel companions really hated it, I couldn't help but reflect on how lucky I was to have lived in such a cool alternative city.
It would be a shame to live so near Madrid and not go check out the center when it's all decked out for Christmas, which is exactly what I did one sunny day in December. Sol, Madrid's vibrant center, is where everyone is watching on December 31st, and where the big clock chimes 12 to ring in the New Year and prompts Spaniards everywhere to start gulping grapes like it's their job. (Imagine if it were, that would solve this whole crisis thing right quick! Ha. Ha.)
After a flurry of Christmas activities at school and cooing over my babies shaking their tambourines at the 3 Kings, we were officially on Christmas break, so I took off straightaway on vacation, first to Zaragoza. I loooved the colorful Mudéjar-style tiles on the roof of Nuestra Señora del Pilar cathedral, and I am officially inspired to go search out more examples of this style of architecture.
After Christmas came and went, I was off back to my beloved France, to see a bit that I had dreamed of visiting since my early days studying French and reading Peter Mayle in high school--Provence! On my way there, I stopped off in some smaller towns that I ended up liking better than dingy Marseille, one of which was Carcassonne. I knew nothing of this town before stopping there on a whim one day, and I was utterly charmed by the gorgeous and very complete castle just outside the city center.
After Carcassonne, I fell further in love with the Languedoc-Roussillon region when I visited Nîmes, which has a spectacularly well-preserved coliseum (much better than the one in Rome, in my humble opinion), as well as several other Roman ruins. Being a smaller city, it was also not too crowded or touristy, which I appreciate more and more the older I get!
I finished off 2014 in my own non-stereotypical way, feeling no guilt whatsoever about it (I so love that about getting older...who cares what other people think??). I spent New Years Eve not out partying, but in stuffing my face with all the French foods that I'd really been missing since my departure in June. A fitting end to a year that really taught me to love and rely on myself above all others, I'd say!
2014 was quite a rollercoaster ride, and while I enjoyed the majority of it, I'm kind of hoping that 2015 manages to be a little calmer. However, no matter what happens, I have confidence that I can make it through anything, which I guess is the most important thing, in the end!
I hope everyone's 2015 is getting off to an excellent start! So far so good on my end, no complaints about getting to travel more through southern France and then get hello hugs from my little students upon my return! Bonne année, feliz ano novo, urte berri on, feliz año nuevo, and Happy (late) New Year to all!