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Update: I’m a useless little shit.

Get ready, it’s the dreaded “update” post.

Rip the bandaid off. Here we go.

As the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

Now change hell to “running a blog” and you have my current situation. So let me get my excuses out of the way right off the bat:

  1. I was drinking far too much sangria to write coherently
  2. I was travelling every other weekend
  3. My iPad with all my half written blog posts malfunctioned, I lost them all, and I was too pissy to re-write them
  4. I had exams, tests, and gasp… actual school work (much to my surprise)
  5. I WAS HAVING TOO MUCH DAMN FUN

Wow, a stock photo that accurately represents my feelings regarding my iPad.

The last bullet is the most important because though the malfunction with my iPad frustrated me to no end, I’ve honestly been having so much fun in Madrid that I haven’t really had much time to even think about posting. Hell, I’m leaving to Dublin in a few hours with a trip to Amsterdam/Brussels nipping at the heels of it. It has been a storm of travelling and hanging out with new, pretty rad friends. It is kind of hard to fill myself with copious amounts of self-loathing and suffocating guilt when I’ve been having some of the best months of my life.

Tie me to WordPress you kinky bastard and don’t let my eyes stray, even for a cold, dewy glass of tinto.

Jesus christ shutterstock I was being metaphorical.

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The First Two Weeks – AKA Spanish Cults and Ethinic Segregation

Come to Spain they said, you’ll make loads of Spanish friends they said.

Ha.

I had spent the week at the hostel with my mother (who, by the way, did not end up throwing any tomatoes in La Tomatina) and had finished saying goodbye. I arrived at the residence late on a Sunday and was quickly whisked into the group of international students. Most are from the United States but my roommate is from Argentina and there are some others on the Erasmus program.

Everyone was super nice, and not that creepy “YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND (until we find people we actually have something in common with)” sort of friendly, but genuinely nice. We were eating large meals with primero and segundo plates together at the cafeteria, going out for croquettes and tapas, and drinking up on the roof of the residence. We even toured in Getafe together and saw the cute as hell floating umbrellas.

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Maybe we should have noticed that we were all put onto the same floor, or that there was a distinctive lack of Spanish students. 

Oh, we were blissfully unaware until the hoard arrived a few days later.

Suddenly it went from a cozy inclusive group with chummy dinners in English to swarms of tanned, skinny Spanish students ignoring our very existence and surrounding our table like a pack of lions around pale, uncultured gazelles.  

Then it got weird. Not only were we on a separate floor from the Spanish students, attended separate dorm meetings, ate at different tables, but according to the Spanish students, the international floor is known as “The Ghetto”. Apparently with all of us exchange students, smelling like hamburgers and sitting on our disposable travel money, congregated together in an area with numerous problems it is similar to a ghetto. Doors that work? Nope. Lights that don’t flicker? Nah. Actual useable WIFI? Hahaha, never.

All this tension and glaring between groups has sparked what I can only call “casual racism”. For example, today I mentioned taking a nap after having only four hours of sleep and the guy beside me scoffed and said, “Don’t take a nap, don’t be lazy like the Spanish.” 

Excuse me?

We international students bitched about no longer having the cafeteria to ourselves, complained about the laissez-faire approach to life of the Spanish, sneered that their women hike up their shorts until their asses hang out, and threw around words like “they” “those people” and my favourite “it’s how it is in this country”. Hell, I’m not innocent of it either. We say it like after having attended school for 2 weeks here that we are the cultural experts of their country.

It’s us and them, and it’s so fucking preschool.

But it became even more tense when the idea of hazing was introduced to the international students. Suddenly we were the pillars of morality. That would never happen in North America (and it does)! They better not touch us (and they didn’t)! How could they do that to the new students? How cruel. 

I thought it was a joke until I had two girls knocking on my door and asking me how old I was. When I mentioned I was a third year one of them sighed, “Great, so I guess I can’t make you do my dishes then.”

In truth there was hazing, just not towards us past some students trying to swindle dishwashing services out of our floor unsuccessfully.

It occurred out in a dusty dog park beside the Getafe residence. Freshmen students were put into circles in their pyjamas as the ring leaders holding nefarious amounts of alcohol starting picking out people for tasks.

It looked a little like a cult with the perfect boy-girl-boy-girl circles all nervous to be indoctrinated. Break out the cool aid!

Whipped cream nipple licking unfortunately not included in this picture.

Whipped cream nipple licking unfortunately not included in this picture.

But the boy who dragged us there insisted, “They love it.” Even if it felt weirdly morally ambiguous to watch 12-year-old looking girls lick whipped cream off a moaning boy’s nipples.

We did finally meet some Spanish students and while the hazing will never quite make sense (neither will having tomato sauce on rice), at least now Spanish and international students are beginning to feel comfortable enough to sit next to each other.

Provided there are at least two empty seats between them.

 

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Tapas – AKA Toast

With the tales of tapas built by the hipster bars spotting the streets of Toronto promising authentic tapas and sangria, there was a certain image of what tapas included. Imagine, for a moment, piles of roasted ham stabbed by a toothpick just to stay upright, little portions of the main offerings of the menu as taster previews, and stuffed olives fit to burst.

This is the image I, and certainly my mother, had when eating tapas in Madrid. Surely we’d be sitting there eating “authentic” tapas with the ability to return to Toronto and sneer at the Toronto tapas bars run by men with oiled mustaches and tattoos of geometric shapes. ‘This isn’t tapas you uncultured swines‘, we’d sneer haughtily with all the pompousness of a well travelled asshole, ‘I’ve been to Madrid and tasted real tapas!’ Then we would throw in a few random Spanish words for credibility.

Sadly this dream may be down the toilet because for the grandeur that tapas back home had, the tapas here are… well… toast.

I think maybe part of the appeal to the locals is how low brow it is, though I can only assume since I’ve yet to ask because of my appalling Spanish. I kind of get it, and I kind of don’t (the appeal, not the Spanish). In our first tapas meal, although I use the word “tapas” lightly since montadito is a sort of sub-genre of tapas, my mother and I arrived at 100 Montaditos hungry, jet-lagged, and just looking for something that resembled food after the scary pasta on Air Canada. At this point we had no idea what “montadito” even meant but hell it didn’t matter.

100 Montaditos seemed perfect. Young couples speaking Spanish were pouring out with tinto de verano in their hands, and you ordered on pieces of paper. Unpretentious, and oh look there were pictures of nice big sandwiches!

Except they weren’t. I think we should have noticed that no sandwich should cost 1euro and be expected to be large… but we were naive and ordered one each and a third to split because we were feeling positively gluttonous.

They instead were micro-sandwiches. 

What is this? A sandwich for ants?

What is this? A sandwich for ants?

Mind you, despite the size of sandwich, they were pretty good! Especially the one with potato tortilla and garlic mayo. My mother was less impressed, but she also called it the “McDonalds of tapas”. (This one week with her has been filled with so many exasperated sighs that I’m afraid I’ll lose the ability to speak English all together and adopt exasperation as my mother tongue instead.) The tinto de verano may have also just beat sangria…. but just by a fraction.

After a long day of shopping to fit in and no longer look like hideous, Birkenstock wearing tourists, we stopped off at Taberna La Descubierta on calle de Barcelona at the recommendation of Paula, the young Venezuelan ex-pat working the desk at Hostal Gala Madrid.

Alright, real tapas at last. Bring on the undeserved foodie ego. The place had bright colours filling in where there lacked bricks and the bar was lined with local wines. It was dark, cozy, and all locals to the point after my mother successfully pronounced “caipirinha” the man stopped part way through giving us the one and only English menu and instead gave us the Spanish. We were not tourists, no, we were tapas experts with (Toronto) tapa experience, no English menu for us!

We ordered ourself some calamares a la romana along with a table tapas. I was (am) still having a hard time breaking my vegetarianism, especially with the Jamón ibérico leg sitting with a hoof pointed out straight like a ballet dancer right at my head, but regardless I looked on with some interest at the real tapas experience.

We ate the calamari with lemon and then waited as the tapas arrived. Except when our waitress laid them down on the wooden table I could see the moment my mother’s face fell in disappointment.

Toast. More bread.

Each and every tapas sat on a piece of baguette toasted with olive oil. Even the ham and cheese were spread out extremely thinly. The cheese was semi-hard, sharp and delicious, and sure, even I appreciated how smooth the chorizo was but god damn so much bread.

Atkins would hate this plate of tapas.

Atkins would hate this plate of tapas.

“How do they even stay thin here?” My mother asked as she munched on another piece of bread. “It’s all bread! There’s not a vegetable in sight and they are all skinny.”

It must be all the walking?

Now full of carbs, we walked back through Puerta del Sol, past the immigrants illegally selling knock-offs and pulling the strings of their stores into bags to run from the police, and the chirps of the men selling LED twirling copters. We bought alright lemon gelato from Palazzo along the road and walked back both a little disappointed.

This is not tapas everywhere, and I’m almost certain this is just two coincidences and that tapas in Madrid are different elsewhere. Or maybe that is just how “real” tapas are and I’m truly the uncultured swine who knows no better (this is admittedly most likely). Either way, I don’t want to eat another piece of bread for a few weeks. The sight of a freshly baked loaf alone makes me feel bloated.

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And we’re off – a pretentious reflection from inside a horrible Air Canada Rouge plane at 3 am

Countdown to lift-off: 0 days

As I write this I am sitting in a plane that belongs in a museum nestled beside fertility jars and terrible educational taxidermy displays rather than in the air. No touch screen entertainment system? No inflight movie screens? For a seven hour international flight no less. This may be the first place where someone reads Air Canada’s enRoute cover to cover and clings to every word of the feature piece on Eugene Bouchard with the tagline “the Canadian tennis champ on poutine, diamonds and infinity pools”.

This is of course all hyperbole, but it did allow for the absorption of the scenery as we took off instead of flicking through the screen trying to find out if they had “Guardians of the Galaxy” yet.

I watched as my home was yanked out under from my feet and the land I have known all my life grew small enough that the lights of the cars appeared to be working to pump golden blood through the freeway veins of Toronto. The veins ran through the dark and feed into the glowing, pulsing organs of activity that I used to be a part of.

Canada is the body I understand. I know it’s aesthetic; from the poutine that Eugene Bouchard’s mother picks up at Montreal’s Gibeau Orange Julep, to the need to apologize for someone else bumping into you. I know not to eat the devil spawn they call Coffee Crisp, to not question what precisely constitutes “all dressed”, and that despite French being on every product and sign, I will still be unable to understand it when trapped in a one way street in the suburbs of Quebec City.

In Canada I get the clusters of light the stream of cars pump into. I understand it. And as I say goodbye to all I understand, I leave with the same trepidation, nervousness, and excitement that comes with exploring a new partner for the first time.

Madrid will be the new place I crawl into the skin of, the place I seek the new map of golden veins, the hubs of life I attempt to insert myself into. I’ll get to understand it’s likes and dislikes, it’s favourite food, lifestyle, and sense of humour. It’s dating someone new with all that entails.

Sure I’ll miss Canada, I’ll miss the familiar and routine, despite it being less sexy, but it’s time for a break and to see other people.

After all, if everyone stayed together for the sake of the familiarity there would be way less divorces. And like the next white suburban upper middle class pseudo-intellectual, I do appreciate a good divorce.

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If my exchange was a tree, my family would be lichen

Countdown to lift-off: 25 days

While waiting in the stifling office of the Spanish Consulate with nauseating honeymooners looking for travel visas and a desperate old man clinging to the counter when told his visa wouldn’t come in time for a family together, I saw one girl standing in front of me who obviously was not Spanish. I leaned over in my seat as the hard plastic cushion stuck to my skin from the humidity, and nodded to the forms in her painted fingers.

“Where you’ going? Madrid? Barcelona?” I asked.

“Madrid, you?”

“Madrid too, awesome. Where you going?”

“Carlos Madrid!”

“No way, me too!

“Wow, well where do you go?”

“Waterloo…. don’t tell me…”

She stood there gaping. “Holy crap! No way.”

Out all the people getting student visas for Spain we just happened to be going to the exact same place and coming from the exact same school. 

From our strange moment of connection we then checked out the large map on the wall as we waited for our numbers to be called and then exchanged numbers.

Since then Angela and I have had coffee together on campus, talking about her getting an apartment for two weeks with a Brazilian girl and about our plans once there (including my planned day to simply camp out in the Prado by all of Goya’s works). When I mentioned my mother was coming for the first week before I start school to help out with setting up bank accounts and getting a cell phone she gave me this deadpan expression. Okay… had I said something wrong?

YOU CAN'T MAKE ME LEAVE!!!

YOU CAN’T MAKE ME LEAVE!!!

Then when she was planning a theoretical Oktoberfest trip (that I could never afford) with me, her, and her German boyfriend, I mentioned that my Grandparents were meeting me in September and then flying me up to Liverpool for Thanksgiving.

She pulled back from the seat in Williams, moving her chai latte beside her face. “Okay wait, so is your entire family like going on this exchange with you or something?”

Apparently my family is practically lichen.

Family photo

Family photo

The more I thought about it though, and with the potential addition of my little sister coming up on her fall break, well, shit she was kind of right. I mean there Angela was, already having two years living alone in Japan under her belt with a no doubt sexy European boyfriend and plans of living downtown right near Latina.

And on the other hand there I was: hopelessly single and queer, planning to live in shared dorms again in the Getafe suburbs of Madrid, and having my family constantly checking up that I haven’t been smuggled across the Alboran Sea to Morocco for sex trafficking.

If she was the bright red foreign sports car of exchanges I was a soccer mom’s mini van complete with child locked windows.

soccer-mom-van

Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to finally drag my grandparents out of their Liverpool cocoon and the idea of having my mom around to do some shopping has my wallet crying out in relief… but then there’s the idea of my mother coming with me to La Tomatina stuck in my head.

I keep getting these horrid flashbacks to middle school when I and an old friend Alanna had convinced both our mothers to drive us to Anime North, Toronto’s largest anime convention, for the cheapest and shortest day. For hours my mother did nothing but complain about how there was nothing to do, how it was weird that people spent money to buy anime merch, and how that middle aged man dressed as Sailor Moon needed help.

bc7

I preemptively feel like I’m that little kid again, having to constantly defend my interests, something I still often have to do with my parents. The idea of doing that with something I’ve had on my bucket list for years with my mother is concerning.

“What do you mean you just stand around and throw tomatoes? We could do that at home for 3 dollars.”

“It was so short, is that honestly really it?”

“Isn’t there anything else to it?”

The whole point of an exchange is to put yourself in situations were everything is foreign to you. The whole point of going alone is to do just that under your own terms without having to justify why you want to throw overripe tomatoes at people, or visit Speedy’s Cafe in London because of BBC’s Sherlock, or go to Chianti just to drink it with some fava beans (do you see the trend in a lot of my day trip choices?).

With your old life constantly popping in to remind you of it, I wonder if it’s going to be the romantic, soul-searching experience I picture it being (and it’s just that, a romantic notion practically stapled in my head from unrealistic books like “Eat, Pray, Love”).

This is why, no matter how much my family begs me to find someone to travel with once my exchange finishes, I really don’t want to. Not with Angela, not with anyone. And maybe that’s why the longer I stare at the route I’m taking once I’m finished the exchange the more inclined I am to add Bosnia to the list.

I want to stand alone in the one country my parents forbade me from going to in the middle of winter right beside the land mine signs. Like eating Lucky Charms for the first time in University I want to send the picture with the caption “YOU DONT CONTROL ME” like I’m some angst ridden teenager on a rebellion bent. Only this time freezing half to death in Mostar, Bosnia beside explosives.

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It’s all very ‘first world problems’-esque.

So yes, my family is sticking to me like moss with this exchange, but damn if I’m going to let that make me into a family Sudan. Screw you sticky fingerprints and mini TVs with Dora the Explorer playing 24/7, I’m at least a Prius.

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Madrid exchange is a go — AKA breaking down to Shakira at work

Countdown to lift-off: 73 days

Seriously, it looks the exact same.

Look, it’s Daenerys in the red waste with her khalasar!

I will admit something I never thought I’d utter. Today I starting crying at my desk to Shakira. Thank god my supervisor was off this week so I could mop up my pathetic, latin music induced tears on my “dress-down-Friday” sweater. With a crappy tea in one hand and my dignity quickly slipping through the other, I sat there crying to “Te Dejo Madrid” by Shakira in what was supposed to be my own little happy celebration regarding the email I received this morning.

“Dear Student, 

Congratulations for your admission at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid as an international student!”

I was too cozy in the cocoon of warm blankets and too cranky at 7am to really process what the hell I’d just read. So it wasn’t until I played upbeat Shakira at my desk in an attempt to really bring it home that the full weight of what had happened dropped on me. I was looking at the collage of my family, friends, and my dogs when I realized… holy shit, this is really happening. I’m actually going to be living away from everything I know, alone, in a country I don’t speak the language and then will be travelling by myself for an extra two or three months.

Feel free to laugh. I mean the Shakira alone was ridiculous, but the concept of someone who loves travelling getting upset over doing just that would seem ludicrous to a more seasoned traveller. I invite you though to think of your own youth, or for those who are still young to imagine the future.

There is a time, I believe, in every life where some sort of monumental change is about to occur. You can sense it as if the feeling of foreboding could be physical and crawl under your skin. It’s a little like when you are outside and see large, dark rain clouds rolling in. Even if you love the rain there is a feeling that there is something larger than you, something big and potentially scary that looms over you, charging the very atmosphere. The choice you are left with is whether to take cover or to dance in the rain.

That’s how I feel right now as I enter the stage of starting to prep student visas and look into flights. Those clouds are rolling in and I can feel it and even though I love the rain the temptation to run for cover is there.

What if I can’t pick up the language and I’m lost in some back alley in Gran Vía, with an abuela screaming at me in Spanish? Or what happens if I’m so homesick I end up having a mental break down in the middle of a supermarket the moment I see maple syrup? Worst of all… what if my mother’s prophecies are true and I’m to end up as a skin suit for the real Buffalo Bill?

The face of my future imminent breakdown.

The face of my future imminent breakdown.

And yet… at the same time another part of me is screaming that this is my chance to experience the world. PUT ON YOUR BIG GIRL BOOTS AND LEARN THAT YOU CAN HANDLE ANYTHING! Stolen passport? Psh, you got it. Lost? So last year. Making new friends despite your crippling shyness when first meeting people? Eh, okay, maybe not anything.

Despite all my fears and apprehension about moving to Madrid, I want to dance in the rain (to extend an overextended metaphor). I want to take this experience for what it will be and milk it for all it’s worth. If I’m going to be stuck in Reykjavik for a twenty hour layover on my way home you better damn well believe I’ll be going to the Blue Lagoon. Life is too damn short to spend it worrying about the “what if”s, no matter how cliched it may sound. So screw it! I’m officially going to Madrid in 73 days and I’m going to enjoy it! ¿Entender?

And in the end if everything goes wrong, I will at least have the chance to become an alcoholic off of red sangrias.

Hello darkness my old friend.

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Body-Slamming Spanish Cuisine

Countdown to lift-off: 131 days

I’m not yet close enough to my departure for Madrid to be focusing on packing, getting visas, or any of that other boring and mandatory crap. Instead I get to do what I always love to do: over prepare to the point of insanity.

When the first Hunger Games movie came out in theatres in true mimesis form my friends and I—a bunch of then 18-year-olds—went around the parking lot after the movie pretending to impale each with arrows and ranting about how long we’d live. It came down to my friend Matt living the longest because of his bloodlust and ability to disappear for months at a time. Where did I rank and how does this have to do with travelling? Hush sweet reader, for I shall get there soon. For myself I loudly proclaimed I, with my ambition, patience and inflated sense of self worth, would surely get to the final four. “Oh no”, they claimed, “Christ, you wouldn’t even make it out of the cornucopia.” I demanded an explanation only to be told, “You’d rush right into the cornucopia and proceed to try and pack everything into your bag until you were gutted. You’d totally be like “wait, I may need these five different throwing daggers, this camp stove, maybe a spear—no wait, I totally will need two spears incase one gets lost”.”

On evaluation it was scarily accurate.

I’m sure there are many other people out there who have a similar problem and would be helicopter lifted out of the cornucopia along with me. As a previous entry mentioned, this really does bleed into my style of travelling and pre-travel planning.

So with Spain finally in my vision I am currently at the cornucopia of knowledge, shoving every fact I can into my hideous metaphorical fanny pack. My current unhealthy obsession is…

GIVE ME BOOKS ON CHEESE, GIVE ME WEBPAGES ON COOKING SCHOOLS IN MADRID, PLEASE SPANISH FOOD GODS LET ME DEVOUR EVERY PIECE OF KNOWLEDGE ON SPANISH CUISINE. I WANT TO DEVOUR SO MUCH PAELLA MY STOMACH SPLITS OPEN, I MUST DINE IN BOTIN, FEED ME JAMÓN AND PULPO A LA GALLEGA.

Ahem.

I’m pretty fucking stoked to be able to write about the food while I’m there, but in the meantime I’m going to mention some of the resources I’ve been ploughing through recently in preparation for the Spanish portion of my eight months abroad (Italy and Germany will be next on my hit list).

The first book I bought, which is applicable to all of my stops, is the “Food Lovers Guide To The World” by Lonely Planet. It is a fantastic resource with recipes, recommended culinary pitstops, where to find the best of the best along with food-related festivals in each of the areas it reviews.

Here is the introduction page for Spain, giving an idea of the super pretty pictures and information. (As a note, I will probably be including a few recipes from these books in a later post!)

And here you will note my bed duvet. First my home and now my sheets... I dare say our relationship is getting pretty serious.

And here you will note my bed duvet. First my home and now my sheets… I dare say our relationship is getting pretty serious.

The next thing I slit open my wallet and shook it’s near empty contents onto a counter for was “Spain: Recipes and Traditions from the Verdant Hills of the Basque Country to the Costal Waters of Andalucía” by Jeff Koehler.

 

The photos in this book are incredible and while it may not have the level of information that the Food Lovers book does, it has so, so many recipes.

Look how colourful and pretty!

Look how colourful and pretty!

This is of course on top of web resources like About.com and Spain’s Official Tourism Website. I also bought “Cheese for Dummies” and have been studying up on different Spanish cheeses (who can believe that there is more than just manchego!?). If you have any other awesome books on Spanish cuisine of any kind, please do tell! This of course is on top of struggling, emphasis on struggling, to learn Spanish through Duolingo¿El perro come un niño? I fear for when I’ll ever need to use this sentence.

Pretty much in the past few weeks since I finished my huge chunk of exams I have been trying to really learn as much as I can about Spain, with a giant emphasis on its food. The only downside is the more I learn about their food, the more I begin to hate Canada and our lack of a cultural cuisine presence. Sure Madrid isn’t as fancy with their cocino and stews but it sure as hell beats poutine, maple syrup and ketchup chips (shhh, I’m so sorry poutine I don’t mean any of it). Then again, perhaps it is all about perspective. Having worked with many ESL students at my past job it’s surprising to hear about people studying up on so-called “Canadian cuisine” before coming here with the same fervour as I am currently studying Spanish cuisine. Maybe… just maybe… if I spent this much time learning about my own country I could learn about all the great foods that Canada has to offer….

Nah.