This week has been the longest week for me I think, that includes the grueling two weeks of mid-terms, and after a long week what do you do when you study abroad? Travel, of course. 

Tonight four other students and I are heading to Barcelona, Spain for the weekend. We will be taking the bus tonight and arriving in the city tomorrow bright and early around 8 a.m. and will have two full days until we leave Sunday afternoon to head back to our home base, Madrid. 

Emily, a friend of mine and student here, went to Barcelona with her family a few weeks ago and she gave us a list of things to see and try. Although I knew what I wanted to see before Emily's assistance, I can't help but think how nice it is to have advice from someone who has already traveled to a city and wants others to get the most out of the trip as much as they have.

Now, unlike France I think I will be a wee bit upset if I don't see most, if not all of these:
  • If I continue my streak of tripping over my own two feet because I am in awe of Gaudi's architecture I solemnly swear to not be embarrassed.
  • La Rambla: I hear people watching on this world-famous boulevard is incredible. As a journalist I feel obligated to partake in this and listen to the music and watch the dancers. 
  • Because I know I have the potential to be an Olympic athlete and just have not been discovered yet it is obligatory to visit the buildings from the 1992 Summer Olympic Games.
  • Sagrada Família is absolutely necessary, if I don't go here I will never admit I have been to Barcelona because it is the one place you need to go. 
  • In every country I sample the sweets so why should this time be any different? I plan on eating some delicious chocolates from Escribá and then ... 
  • ... Grab some chocolate y churros from La Granja
  • If there is time bargain shopping at La Roca Village just outside of the city would be great for the four of us girls, but Tor, the only male, may use his veto powers on this.   

As you can see I am OK with being a tourist this weekend. In addition to those listed above I also hope to follow in the footsteps of Emily and do the following:
  • Eat at the hole in the wall, La Xampanyeria and try the Rosat Cava that cost 2,30 euro for a bottle and a sandwich with ham, grilled onions, cheese and roasted red pepper. With a dash of the red sauce that is apparently on every table in the restaurant. And no, the red sauce is not ketchup. 
  • Check out Carrer de Ferran, just off of La Rambla, for local shopping and unique gifts.
  • Look more closely at Gaudi's architecture at Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera and Casa Batlló, two of his most famous apartments in Barcelona.
  • And what wouldn't be a college study abroad trip without going out in the evening. We plan on going to a bar called Espit Chupitos, an experience that is impossible to pass up when you know the significance of the word "chupito" (shot) and when you hear that it is packed every weekend with locals. We will be taking Emily and her father's suggestion and trying the "Boy Scout" and "Harry Potter" shots. 

Overall, the weekend is going to be extremely fun but also incredibly cheap. We are coming to the end of our time here and we are all pinching pennies, as a result we have chosen a hostel that costs 20 euro per night with a dinner included, as well as choosing the cheapest means of transportation: the bus, costing 58 euros round trip. Now all there is to do is to embark on our journey this evening, sleep on the bus the whole night and see what Barcelona has in store for us! Stay tuned for a recap and a post on our upcoming trip to Brussels, Belgium! 
 
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Exterior of El Escorial, in San Lorenzo, Spain, from the view of the road leading up to the monument.
In October I wrote a blog about visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites while in Europe for the semester and I have just added another to my list for the semester, El Escorial. The tally now is seven overall in Europe, five in Spain. How exciting this is! (Yes, Yoda-Speak I am.)

Going to El Escorial was a great day trip. While the majority of our group was visiting Geneva, Switzerland for the weekend Rachel and I decided to stay local and see historical sites that we have yet to be able to, unfortunately we both had a late start on Saturday morning so we only saw El Escorial, but that proved to be enough as we wanted a more relaxed weekend anyhow. 

El Escorial is located in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a region near Madrid and in the center of Spain. If you are based in Madrid like myself you can either take the bus or the train, both are inexpensive costing 7,50 euro roundtrip and is a relaxing 55 minute ride both ways. When you arrive in San Lorenzo you don't think El Escorial is far from the train station, but it is about a 20 minute walk uphill, so for those who do not enjoy a steady incline or have issues walking I suggested taking the bus offered that runs for the station to El Escorial. Rachel and I decided to see how fit we were and walked the incline, wrong move. 
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Rachel outside of El Escorial entrance.
Once we reached the area we were shocked as to how large this five century old monument was. I personally believe it has the potential to put the Queen of England's palace to shame, sorry Buckingham Palace. El Escorial is quite possibly the most important architectural monument from the Spanish Renaissance, and I say quite possibly because every Spanish history and culture professor I have had has said this. My señora even said this once I returned from my day trip. The monument, the brainchild of King Philip II, took 21 years to complete, beginning in 1563 and ending in 1584. Phillip II wanted the building to be a place that had multiple purposes and being the determined man he was he made it happen. El Escorial was not just a palace for the King but was also a burial ground where many of the Kings of Spain are buried (originally it was meant to solely be a burial place for his father Charles V), a monastery, church, college and library. 

If you are more of a visual person here is a break down by date:
  • 1582: Iglesia de San Bernabé 
  • 1584: Royal Palace, Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, university 
  • 1592: Biblioteca de El Escorial 

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Hallway leading to the pantheons.
Rachel and I wanted to take our time going through El Escorial but our leisure lunch took a bit longer than we anticipated and did not enter until around 4:00 and it closes at 6:00. As a result we bypassed the numerous rooms of paintings and armory from past wars, we quickly gawked at the tools and apparatuses used to build the monument located in the basement and then strolled through the living rooms - yes, there were multiple living rooms - and enjoyed visiting the ornate bedrooms and offices, the five century year-old chairs that still had their cushions and tapestry in tact and also the pantheons where 26 kings and queens are buried. This was probably my favorite part and Rachel's least favorite. That sounds morbid so let me explain a bit. 

I have never been a fan of cemeteries, I mean who is? But, on the other hand I think their is something special about how as a family you all are together in one unified location in the end. (I am probably not helping myself sound less grim right now, my apologies.) The pantheons and the several other rooms where the princes and princesses are also buried signify a single location where hundreds of years of history are conjoined. Yes, the kings and queens may not have gotten along, really boosted Spain's economy or even lead Spain downhill (Philip II, that is aimed at you) but they played pivotal roles in Spain's history. It was a little creepy, for lack of a better word, to walk from room to room and see more crypts and tombs that have decayed bodies in them, however it makes you realize how far back the history of Spain goes and how young the United States of America is. At one point I asked Rachel what she thought the bodies would be like after so much time has passed, she did not like that question and began to walk faster towards the exit. Once we came to the last of several of the stone, white, and rather cold, pantheons we decided to take a peak at the basilica and then get some fresh air by taking a gander through the gardens. The Church of San Bernabé  was beautiful and we stayed for a few minutes then said to one another, "Why do these all look the same to us now?" So we soaked in the beauty of the church and headed for the gardens. 

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Iglesia de San Bernabé.
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Rachel in the gardens of El Escorial.
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Gardens of El Escorial.
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Rachel and Andrea outside El Escorial entrance.
We saw swans, took in the brisk air and soaked in the view of the mountains and really could not believe that the grass was still so lush and green, in Minnesota there was six inches of snow. As we walked through the gardens I couldn't help but think how nice it would be to have this much green space but how I would hate to groom the shrubs and maintain the fountains. Whoever does deserves a raise. El Escorial and San Lorenzo were pleasantly quiet and I think Rachel and I both needed that after celebrating Thanksgiving away from our families and the comfort of our quiet hometown, Minneapolis. All in all it was a great day-trip and I think it is quite possibly my new favorite UNESCO site in Spain I have seen. Props to King Philip II, you didn't do all that bad. 
 
Thanksgiving was hard to celebrate away from our families, but it was also difficult to celebrate this year with the Madrid family because we were missing one key member, Dr. Eufemia Sanchez de la Calle. 

After Femy's death in September we all grieved in different ways. Some liked to talk about it, others kept their feelings quiet and some were upfront and said they didn't accept the fact that she was gone. I think I had a mixture of all three. For the past two months we all have been going about our daily routines and remembering Femy for the wonderful person she was when the topic came up, but none of us dwelled on her death and I think we all have moved on from it as best as we have been able to, however after receiving a comment on a blog entry I wrote on the death of Femy, the emotions could not help but come flooding back. 

Her name is Jackie Curbishley and she met Femy when she was an au pair in London, England. Curbishley shared a story that none of the students knew and after conversations with faculty here I don't think they did either. 

Excerpt: 
I first met her through one of my Spanish teachers when I was studying the language as a mature student in London. I was married with two children and a working mum. My teacher, Teresa Rubio told me she had met a young Spanish girl in Bourne & Hollingsworth (a famous old London store, now long gone,) one lunchtime. She said this girl had come to London via an agency in Spain as an au pair, for the purpose of learning English. The family she had been placed with were Indian, they spoke no English at home and wouldn't allow the girl to attend any classes. They had taken away her passport and she was allowed only one day a week off. 
This to me seemed like modern slavery, and ever the campaigner for liberty, I decided to free her.
I was in the music business in those days, managing bands like The Who, so I had access to some pretty heavy security men. That night I sent one of them to the address Teresa had given me with the express orders not to leave without the girl and her passport and if necessary, to call the police.
To cut a long story short, he had to call the police, but Femy arrived at my house that night, aged 23, nervous and bemused as she had no idea how this miracle had come about. 
So began a lifelong friendship. 

Not a single soul in our group knew this about Femy and I never would have expected it. When I first received the email with the blog comment I planned on reading it back at my piso, but decided to read it while I was around friends. As I read it aloud to Emily we both couldn't help up and think about how strong of a woman Femy was. No matter how difficult the situation was she never complained, she never let anyone know how she truly felt if she did not like something and she always turned a horrible situation into a positive one. 

As I continued to read the letter aloud to Emily we kept learning things about our dear Femy that we never knew. She lived with Curbishley and her family in England for three years, becoming fluent in English while she taught them Spanish; Femy was forced to withdraw from her education in Salamanca, Spain because her college grant was taken away due to austerity reasons; she thought the best way to learn English was to be a stewardess but she decided to be an au pair instead; when her college grant was reinstated she went back to her university in Salamanca and never mentioned how she was doing until she told her family and Jackie that she was getting her doctorate and heading to teach in Michigan as a professor. 

Emily asked a good question, how could we have known Femy so well but not have known all of this? Our minds were racing with questions but then we came to a conclusion: we were meant to receive this comment on Thanksgiving, when we all would be together later that evening and be able to process it together, just like we had two months earlier. 

I am not one for fate and I will be honest, I don't know if there is a higher power or not, but you can't help but think we were meant to receive this on a day where we would be missing our families and be leaning on one another already to help us forget about missing a family orientated holiday. 

When I posted the comment in our group Facebook page the responses were positive, one student even said they had chills. We all knew we lost an incredible women but we never knew she could continue to amaze us without even being present in our lives. Curbishley said it best in her closing statement:
 I will never forget her and we have all been touched by her to greater and lesser degrees. That was Femy. Always loving, always giving of herself, and always a shining example of the best of humanity. She will be sorely missed.
- Jackie Curbishley.

 
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Kevin and Emily serenade the Spaniards with Taylor Swift's hits.
People always say you haven't had a successful trip to Milwaukee if you haven't been to one of the breweries or had a locally brewed beer, in Spain many of the university students we know say you haven't been integrated into the culture until you have been to a botellón. Well, I guess I have been integrated into the Spanish culture! 

A botellón is a gathering that involves alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages where you sit outside and chat, drink, share stories and have a grand old time before you head for a bar. For our first botellón we stayed inside because it was rather chilly outside. Those of us with intercambios have really been able to dive deeper into the Spanish culture and Amanda's intercambio, Alejandro, invited us over to his friends apartment to partake in the festivities. We all immediately said yes as we haven't had the opportunities to go out with Madrileños and after experiencing what we did that night, I don't think any of us would decline another invitation. 

When we arrived with Alejandro the five of us were a little nervous. Yes, we can carry a conversation in Spanish; yes, we know how to have fun; yes, we know we have an accent, but that didn't stop us from having butterflies in our stomaches. Upon our arrival we were immediately greeted by about fifteen to twenty Spaniards, they were sitting in the living room socializing and when we walked in their heads turned towards the door and they smiled. After taking the sight of five American's in they stood and got in a line. The procession of besos (kisses) began. For a solid five minutes we gave kisses on the cheeks and heard countless names that I could not tell you to save my life. They all were very welcoming and extremely interested in getting to know us while we were very interested in getting to know them. We spoke in Spanish and those who could speak English wanted to practice, it was a great start to a great evening for all the people at the party. 

When we started to talk to a smaller sample size of the group we began to discuss the differences and similarities between the United States and Spain as well as the Americans versus the British. One male studied in England for an entire year and when he spoke English out came the perfect British accent, we all were under the impression that he was British and English was his primary language until he told us otherwise. When we spoke about the American accent in comparison to the British accent the Spaniards said both were fairly easy to understand, but that the vocabulary is different. They have a point. It is just like how the Spanish from Latin America has a different vocabulary than the Spanish from Spain. We then moved on to the touchy topic of stereotypes. The Spaniards went first saying they thought all Americans would be rude, fat and egotistic. They explained that much of Europe and many Spaniards believe that the United States population believes they are superior to all other cultures. They said that we are more advanced when it comes to some things, but not all. One male even said to watch out for China, and I will admit he has a point because we should. We asked if we fit the stereotypes and preconceived notions and thankfully they said no. We didn't get to share about what we had expected in terms of people, but then again as the group of five of us discussed later, we didn't really expect anything out of the ordinary or really know what to expect.

After the serious conversations we decided to do a Spaniard versus American game session, I'll spare you the details and let you know the Spanish are fast. We were crushed. To bring the botellón to full swing and just relax for a bit we decided to play a little bit of music. While Kevin, Amanda and Emily played the guitar and sang American pop songs, Rachel and I spoke to one girl who studied abroad in London, England for a six months the year prior. This was the most comforting of all conversations that night in my opinion. 

María asked if we have started to think, sleep and eat Spanish and we couldn't lie to her, we said no. She was neither surprised nor offended and explained that she is nowhere near as good at English as she hoped she would be after London. She said she and her friends used Spanish together because it was a way they could feel secure and grounded in a different place far from home. María did what the most of us here are doing. Go to classes taught in a foreign language, converse with vendors, people on the streets and our host-mothers in a foreign language, but spend your free-time with students who speak your native language. She was so happy that we spoke Spanish to her and she spoke English to us, and so were we, but what was even better to know is that our group wasn't the only one to stick close and speak a first language. 

As the night came to a close we reconvened as a whole group. Some people left giving us our two besitos on the cheeks while others stayed as we continued to talk about the evening and how we all need to have another botellón or two before the end of the semester. It was a refreshing evening and one of the best I think I have had in Madrid. We spent the night like real madrileños and it could not have been better, especially after we taught them how to photo bomb pictures, they loved that. 
 
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It is perhaps the most acceptable holiday to refill your plate more times than you care to remember and still gorge out on pie afterwards all while being surrounded by family and friends. You eat, drink, tell stories and laugh that hearty laugh and the delicious aroma of hot, homemade turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, pie, biscuits (I could obviously go on) fills the home. It is Thanksgiving - my favorite holiday. 

This year Thanksgiving Day was quite different than what I am used to, and what many United States citizens are used to. While students back in the United States have part of this week off to celebrate the holiday, us here in Madrid, Spain still have classes, and while you watched football, the 2012 National Dog Show, or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade we, or rather I, watched the season finale of Covert Affairs. Needless to say, the beginning and middle of my Thanksgiving were no match to the customary holiday music, family-filled day I have had since I was just a wee little kid. However, the day took a turn for the best when Dani, my intercambio, and I walked around the city of Madrid and he showed me a breathtaking view of Madrid from the top of a hotel. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me at the time. It was a pristine view. While I was with my intercambio I couldn't help but think that there was something about speaking Spanish on Thanksgiving that made me miss home even more, but it helped that Dani was intreagued by the American holiday and asked why we liked our potatoes to be mashed. Several confused faces and cheerful laughs were shared while I tried to explain that phenomenon.

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After chatting for a few hours he walked me to Sol where I met the rest of the Marquette University  students were dressed in our finest attire, that we brought with us that is, and we headed to have our Thanksgiving dinner at Restaurante Botín. For over 30 years Marquette has celebrated the holiday at Botín and it was a pleasure to carry on the tradition, even if it meant swaying from your own, and it was an incredible experience to eat a meal at the world's oldest restaurant opening in 1725, according to the Guinness Book of Records

What made the dinner more special was the presence of Femy's brother and sister-in-law who came to have dinner with us, he said they came in honor of her. It was very sweet of them and made all of us reflect on how we are grateful for the time we had with Femy before her death. In addition to Femy's family a few of our professors from the semester and orientation class came. The table was segregated with profesores on one side and estudiantes on another. It was a blast to see them outside of the classroom, share our traditions, and watch them be confused over why we thought this meal was the best meal of the year. Needless to say our plates were spotless by the end of the meal and they had barely touched theirs.

We did not know what to really expect. Paloma and Lilliana told us it would be an authentic dinner, but we did not really know what their version of authentic would be. But when we saw the turkey, and the vegetables we became overjoyed and could not wait to dive into the meal. 

These were the best parts of the evenings delicacies: 
  • Potatoes, they were not mashed but they were very good.
  • Cranberries. They were from a can, but that did not bother me because I love cranberries mixed with turkey mixed with gravy. It was delish
  • The turkey. Oh my goodness gracious it was heavenly. I like dark and white meat and they gave me both by chance and I could not believe how wonderful it tasted. 
  • Last but not least, the pumpkin and apple pie. To die for. I am a big fan of cinnamon and there was a strong taste of the spice in the apple pie. And the sheer fact that the restaurant served pumpkin pie made my heart melt of happiness.
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We were served one plate of food, going back for more was not an option, but it was plenty to eat. We could barely finish our pie, but we obviously did. While enjoying our pie we also were serenaded by local university students who sang "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" and classic Spanish hymns that our professors sang along to. It was an evening full of sharing stories, laughing at jokes and embarrassing moments and our professors and directors witnessing some of us dance to the live music. All in all, it was a success don't you think? 

So, that was my Thanksgiving experience. It was different than what I am accustom to but it turned into one of the best nights I have had in Madrid because I was surrounded by my friends who are like my family. We all are grateful for this opportunity to study abroad in Madrid, and as fate would have it Thanksgiving marked the beginning of our last thirty days. Studying abroad has been one of the greatest gifts given to me but I wouldn't be able to do it without my parents, so I give thanks to my parents Elin and LeRoy Anderson; to my brother and sister-in-law and their new son, Nolan (he is such a cutie); to my friends I have back home who are as solid as rocks; to the new friends I have made here; to Paloma and Lilliana for being there for us after Femy passed away; to my health; to all the traveling and cultures I have been able to experience; and my education. I hope you had a wonderful Turkey Day, we sure did.

 
Oofta-weefta, I am exhausted. These past two weeks have been nothing but studying, reviewing, creating power points, writing essays and more for my mid-terms in all five of my classes. 

Whoever said there was no studying while you study abroad had it wrong. 

Last Friday was a day filled with two exams, one covered Hispanoamericana literature and the other was on old Castilian and mid-evil literature. If your mind just exploded trying to figure out what constitutes being either of those that, try studying it for five days straight.  

The weekend provided a little break but consisted of more studying in order to  prepare for my midterm in Spanish culture on Monday, and theology on Tuesday, but nothing prepared me for advanced grammar Tuesday afternoon. That was just brutal and worth 40 percent of my grade. Can't wait to see that...

Wednesday was a recooperacion for last weeks Theology classes where we presented a power point presentation on a book in the Bible. It  was a grand three and a half hours straight of Theology. Judith, my assigned book and biblical figure, and I are now best buds after all the time we have doesn't together this past week. 

I will admit it is a little aggravating seeing all the photos and hearing all the stories of people studying abroad via other programs through Marquette that do not have as heavy of a course load it would seem. The students here in the Marquette en Madrid program and I have all expressed the desire to be able to travel for a week and not have to worry about the repercussions of missing classes, or being severely behind on assignments and material but unfortunately we can't so we take it with a grain of salt and use the three day weekends to our advantage. After these mid-terms I could use a vacay and look forward to Barcelona and Brussels in the coming two weeks. For now, I will just live vicariously via students studying in the King's College program in London, England or the John Cabot University program in Rome, Italy.  
 
Oh Ryanair, how I love you so. 

Last week I came across an article in the business section of Time and what caught my attention? Three words: Ryanair, standing, flight. 

The article, "New Low for Flying? Standing-Room-Only Flights Possible," informed me that the European low fare airline is currently attempting to launch a standing-room-only section on their aircrafts for short-distance flights within Europe. The cost you may ask? A whopping 1.50 USD without the airline administration fee, and with the fee flying one way the cost would most likely come out to be around $11.00 -- drastically less than even its cheapest flights currently. 

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about an airline who has a habit of having technical difficulties allowing standing-room tickets, but the student in me thinks it is a great idea. With the creation of a stand-room-only section the cost of all tickets will decrease, bring more name recognition and popularity to the airline, and maybe even make them a profit so they can fill the plane all the way with gas. It seems like a win-win in my mind. 

That being said, I do have my reservations about how safe it would be during the takeoff and landing but I think, like any student who wants to travel Europe, they would install some sort of handle bars both vertically and horizontally so you can brace yourself. I would hope. Then again I will contradict myself and say I recall reading that Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, did say that if an aircraft did crash a seatbelt would not save you. He is correct, but I just wonder what else he may skimp out on. Time will only tell, but for now I wish my flights all cost $11.oo. Viaja con Dios, lucky ducks. 
 
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Christmas wreath outside Starbucks entrance.
Sitting in a Starbucks is far from what I would call a cultural experience, but sometimes you need a little taste of home. So as a treat from studying since nine this morning at the apartment (it is now 7:30 p.m.,  almost eleven hours of straight studying) I decided I needed a pick-me-up and a Starbucks apple crumble latte sounded like it would tickle my fancy.

After walking around the neighborhood for a bit and printing some things for class I ventured to the Starbucks a block away from the apartment in Arguelles and saw my first Christmas wreath in Madrid hanging on the door. I entered and what greeted me? "Jingle Bells," possibly my favorite Christmas song ever. OK, maybe not ever it’s a close call between "The Christmas Song" by James Taylor, "All I Want for Christmas" by Mariah Carey and any version of "Jingle Bells." 

I know, I know, it is not even Thanksgiving, but it’s midterms and I love Christmas because it is the one time my whole family is together and the bickering is at a minimal. Sorry mom, it’s true. 

Now, back to Starbucks. 

If you have never had an apple crumble latte you absolutely need to try one. It’s everything about Christmas in one sip: the apple, the cinnamon, the whipped cream, a smile can’t help but spread across your face when the hot milk reaches your tongue and you taste the delicious taste of, dare I say it again… Christmas.

As I type this The Beach Boys's "Little Saint Nick"  just came on and another smile can’t help but creep onto my face, you can’t not be happy during the Holiday season. Music tells you to be joyful (and triumphant), you are close to spending a nonstop, possibly too much, amount of time with your family and you get to eat delicious food. That all sounds incredibly wonderful, I don’t know what there is to be grumpy about. 

Currently, my cute, red, Christmas Starbucks coffee cup that contains my delicious apple crumble latte, is sitting on the table next to my computer as I plow away on Theology. My once disgruntled face is now relaxed as I recall all the unforgettable holidays I have had in my life and the fact that I am very lucky to be abroad and to have had the experiences I have had in my life. It was almost a year ago to this day that I was processing my visa applications to go to India with Diederich College of Communication, and now after a great journey there I am here. It is crazy what the world has in store for you. 

I leave you with a question posed by the great Charlie Brown:  "Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” I know what my answer is, but do you?   

That being said, as I take my last sip of the Christmas-in-a-cup-latte, I sign off from this blog post and wish you a happy start to the week. Christmas countdown: 37 days. 


 
Generally when I wake up in the morning my apartment complex and surrounding area are quiet as a mouse, the only sounds you hear are the swirling of a spoon in a coffee cup, a hairdryer going off a few apartments above and the creaky floorboards. Today was different. Helicopters, chants, and whistles overpowered the hairdryer and floorboards - I woke up in the middle of what will soon be history come the end of the day. 

Today marks the second general strike in Spain of the year incited by Cumbre Social (Social Summit) comprised of over 150 groups nationwide including trade unions (police, Guardia Civil and military) as well as the Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), the Spanish Worker's Commission, and Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), the General Union of Workers. The European Union attempted to coordinate all austerity protests across Europe for this Wednesday to voice the overwhelming sentiments that the governments are shafting their citizens. 

It is no secret that the European Union, and more specifically the southern EU countries such as Spain and Greece, are in an economic crisis. Spain has seen a substantial rise in unemployment rates, a recent increase in taxes that simultaneously coincided with a decrease in pensions and benefits all to lower the public debt. In Cataluña it is not only about the injustices against the new living standards and personal rights but also a way to take a stance against political figures in the farthest northeastern autonomy of the country where regional elections are to be held in less than two weeks on November 25. 

With almost 100 percent of workers in the energy, construction, automobile and shipbuilding industry heading the efforts and taking part of the nationwide halt there have been severe disruptions in travel. In a recent email from the Marquette University program director for Marquette en Madrid, it was stated that IberiaAir Nostrum and Vueling  have cancelled a combined 473 flights, while Air Europa cancelled 92 flights; and EasyJet has cancelled 26. The numbers are only to rise. 

Local transportation in Madrid, as well as in other cities in the country, are running on minimal service and citizens are being urged to pre-book taxis or rental cars and leave time on either side of your commute if you are embarking on an important journey. 

In addition to travel strikes, universities have also closed for the day as professors and faculty are protesting their drop in wages and lack of compensation with the rise in taxes. Dani, my intercambio, said he would not have come to school anyhow if it was mandated because with the general strikes he would have to leave at 6:00 a.m. to get to his 8:30 a.m. class, a trip that usually takes no more than 45 minutes. He also said he and other Madrileños avoid the metro because extremist are likely to act out. One method is putting glue on door handles to the metro and other transportation services, while riots and invasions in commercial city centers and malls is not uncommon. 

In Madrid alone there have been 32 arrests and 15 people treated for injuries, according to an Associated Press report, and are likely to rise as the day goes on with protests planned outside prominent buildings and plazas such as Puerta del Sol and Plaza de Atocha. Currently, the wait between metro rides is 20 minutes, which is not terrible, but because of the length in lines and number of people waiting to get on, the norm is to wait for three or four trains total until you can squeeze your way on. 

With Spain's unemployment standing around 24 percent of the workforce, or 5 million citizens, and the projected plan by the government to further cut spending in the coming year the country can expect several more of these strikes in the near future. For now I will have to cherish my mornings with the hairdryer, creaky floorboards and swirling of the coffee spoon and wear earplugs when the days for the general strikes arrive. 
 
When people say they are bored in Madrid, Spain my nose and lips become scrunched  together and my eyes become a little narrower, it's a look of confusion and wonder. I ask myself, how do people get bored in Madrid? 

Last Friday I was guilty of being bored. I was tired of studying, I was sleepy and I really just did not want to learn anymore about the book of Judith in the Old Testament. I'm all for an empowered woman, but three hours was enough time with her for one day. Luckily, it was puente (an official three-day weekend holiday) for the Festival of the Virgen de la Almudena, the female patron saint of Madrid, and two other girls and myself decided to immerse ourselves one step further into the Spanish culture and see what a religious festival in Madrid was like. 
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Virgen de la Almudena exiting the Catholic cathedral.
History:
The Virgen de la Almudena (Virgin of Almudena) is the icon of the Virgin Mary and is the image of the advocation, or summoning, of the Virgin that also is the patroness of Madrid. The devotion to la Virgen de la Almudena began in the 11th century and is celebrated every ninth of November. 

According to the history of Our Lady and the history of Spain under the ruling of Dom Alfonso VI it was when Alfonso reconquered Madrid in 1083 from the Moors, who conquered the city in the eighth century, that Almudena made her presence known in a rather spooky manner. King Alfonso VI wanted the Catholic cathedral, Santa María la Real de La Almudena, to be purified after being neglected and misused by the Moors. The statue of Our Lady, placed by the Apostle St. James in Santa María, had disappeared and the King, along with other religious administrators and powers, held a procession to find the statue. They walked throughout the city and around the walls praying to God for help in order to find the statue of Almudena. They sang and prayed while waving scents along the way until at one point part of the wall fell and they found the statue of la Virgen de la Almudena, which had apparently been there, hidden, for over 300 years. The even more spooky part is that next to the statue were two candles that were still burning. At this point in history the statue was named Our Lady, not Almudena. It was when Alfonso and his religious authorities found the statue that they named her Almudena, meaning market or granary, because she was hidden near the Moorish granary.

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Madrileños watching the procession in front of Santa María.
Experience:
When we arrived at the metro stop Ópera the number of people walking around the area was greater than usual. The holiday was only for Madrid and with a number of banks, shops and museums being closed as well as schools and other employees being off for the holiday the streets were buzzing with traffic. 

We headed to Santa María la Real de La Almudena next to Palacio Real where the mass, celebration, and procession were taking place. Along the way were vendors selling flowers, people young and old, the occasional newborn babies dressed in all white and bonnets on their heads, and whole families in tow were at the festival. I had never seen so many Madrileños in one place, except for a Real Madrid game. 

When we arrived at Plaza de la Almudena the square was full. The service, traditionally held outdoors at Plaza de España, was moved inside the cathedral due to the rain, drawing even more people to the plaza. We ventured towards the end of the square farther from the busy streets to watch the offerings of the flowers and listen to the service. Though none of us in our group of three are terribly religious, we found it nice to follow the service while standing in the crowd and take in the aroma of the thousands of flowers that were continuing to fill the temporary wall that was built for the holiday. As we stood for an hour or so we watched people pray, sing, gab and really just be happy to pay respects to their female patron saint. I was in awe with how many people were coming and going, if they had to work they paid their respects to the Virgen de la Almudena and quickly left after saying a prayer, others arrived before us and left after listening to the mass over the speakers. 

After watching the flowers multiply we moved closer to the cathedral to watch the procession that would begin soon. I am not sure what I expected, but seeing hundreds of people exit the cathedral in black dresses and vales, alter boys and priests in white cloaks and superbly dressed people of importance (though we couldn't tell you who they were or why they are of significance) was not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be an intimate crowd that would exit the church and that maybe they would also say a few words to the crowd outside in the rain, and even walk over to the wall of flowers and give an offering, but none of that happened. I'm not saying it is good or bad, it's just not what I expected. 

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Wall of flower offerings before the mass began at 11:00 a.m.
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Number of flower offerings grew until it filled that evening.
Following the beginning of the procession and the first round of incense being swayed into the air and wafted by the public the heavily decorated gold wagon with a statue of Almudena was brought out from the center isle of the church and down the red ramp for the Madrid community to see. Suddenly the crowd began to clap, then the clapping turned to singing lead by the priest inside the cathedral. While the singing continued the clapping regained momentum and I watched as people in the crowd began to radiate happiness with their smiles. Those who were close to the ramp stretched out their arms to touch the flowers on the wagon and reached further to wards the top, as if every inch that was closer to Almudena would change their lives. The passion during the entire festival was profound. I have never seen so many people in one place to pay respects to a patron saint, or any saint for that matter. At this point I felt really lucky to be a part of a community celebration that I would never get the chance to experience in the United States or possibly ever again. 
The statue of Our Lady and the entire procession then left the Plaza de la Almudena and walked through the streets of Madrid. The street procession went through the standard route of Puerta de Sol, Plaza Isabell II, and the Plaza Oriente. As we left the streets were beginning to become less crowded but people followed the patron saint down the street at a gradual pace. One last glance behind me showed the flowers adding a brilliant hue to the overcast sky and an aroma that reminded me of newly blossomed flowers in my garden at home. All I could wonder right then and there was , Who could ever be bored in Madrid?