Today is my dear friend Elise Angelopulos’ birthday. Some say she was born to be a New Yorker, but I say she could quite possibly have a pretty happy life as, dare I say it, a Minnesotan.

Elise and I have a rather strange friendship story.

We both are journalisms majors at Marquette University, we both were in the same freshman journalism practicum as well as news media writing class, we have the same advisor, we have the same love for travel and Spanish and we both studied abroad for a month the summer of our freshman year in Italy for journalism. There it just so happened that we were assigned to be one another's roommates, not knowing anything about each other except the fact that we were two different folks who practiced quite the different strokes. 

Elise and I are quite the opposites at times: I am a Birkenstock wearing, nature lover who is from Minnesota and apparently says “jeepers” too much and she is a high heel wearing, fashion forward New Yorker who says “orange” really strangely. I guess you could say we are a match made in Heaven. After Italy we became very close, mainly due to our love for food, wine and ability to stress over minute things, and ever since we parted ways at the airport in Rome at the end of June we have been in constant communication or in each other’s company. When we returned to the United States from Italy we texted and chatted on the phone like we had been friends for ages. When we returned to Marquette for sophomore year we both lived in one another’s rooms in Schroeder and found a mutual hated for Economics and love for Chipotle and shopping after a test in Economics – journalists don’t do math, especially these two journalists. 
  
Being away from each other this summer was hard and now that I am abroad and she is studying abroad in Madrid this coming semester, we won’t have our daily bonding time and weekly life chats about how we will both be single women, starving journalists and living together with a bunch of cats. Like I said, two peas in a pod.

Now today is her 20th birthday and I am not there to ring in the big day with her. Once again I am missing out on celebrating a birthday of someone I really care about. I won’t miss that, and I look forward to being able to say happy birthday to someone in person and give them a big bear hug. It is hard to be away when something big is happening at home, especially when it involves people you really care about and miss.

I will miss, however, waking up to emails and messages from my friends and family that say, “Thinking of you” and “Miss you!” because it always made my day that much better. You feel special when someone sends you an email, and even more special when someone sends you snail mail.
 
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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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Pedro Córdoba (right) and Carmen González (left) dance a live Flamenco at Casa Patas in Madrid, Spain.
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"Carmen" dancers. Photo from Ballet Flamenco Madrid.
Flamenco, a popular form of song, dance and music that originated in the southern region of Spain, Andalucía, is a part of the Spanish culture you can't help but love. It's not hip hop, it's not pop nor is it Broadway, it's pure theatricality melded into a classy jam session. Or at least that is how I tend to think of it. 

Since I have been in Spain I have seen three very different flamencos, each equally elegant and full of life. The first was "Carmen", a theatrical rendition placed in Seville in the year 1830 where one gypsy, Carmen, uses her beauty to seduce three different men and eventually all four turn against one another. The show lent itself to a more dramatic performance that had more of a mix of dance and acting than the other two. Being the first flamenco I had seen I was enthralled. The colorful layers of the dress, the red lipstick carefully applied to the dancer's lips, and the men who move carelessly around the women all were something new to take in. It brought me back to the days when I danced and made me miss it. The dancers moved, stomped, clapped with assurance that was inspiring and set high expectations for the next flamenco at Casa Patas Flamenco en Vivo

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Pedro Córdoba dances a serious flamenco at Casa Patas.
Casa Patas had a different vibe, a smaller stage with tables and chairs compared to Carmen's theatre. Our group sat in the front row and sipped on sangria while Carmen González and Pedro Córdoba, stomped, clapped, swirled and moved aggressively but somehow daintily at the same time. González's dress was all black, the only color visible was from her red lipstick. The mood was low-key, you could tell it was their job but they had fun doing it. Here the singers sang from their heart and did improv, taking turns at making jokes and egging the singer on. The guitarists enjoyed the quarrels between the singers and strummed the guitars with passion. A solo performance during the intermission kept the music and ambiance flowing.  It was a lighthearted and enjoyable performance with some serious kick to it, no pun intended.  

The next flamenco we would go to would turn out to be the most enjoyable so far, even if I couldn't see the stage. It was after a long day of sightseeing in Granada at Jardines de Zoraya. Two singers, two dancers, a drummer and two guitarists crowded the small stage and the beautiful thing about it was they all had smiles on their faces that exemplified their enthusiasm. They began with a song featuring the guitarist and drummer and up next came the young female dancer, dressed in black but per usual the red lipstick popped and her earrings added more color. She clapped her hands then twirled them together near the center of her chest before spreading them outwards and then above her head. Towards the end she moved back to her chair but remained standing as she danced in place for a few moments. She took a bow and soon the man took his turn. The atmosphere was more relaxed and you could visibly tell the performers did this for joy and referred the lively music compared to the previous Flamenco's serious tones. One woman who sat in the front row tapping her foot and clapping while also nodding to the beat. She had a look of approval as she stared at the male dancer's feet which were moving like a high speed pendulum. I'm going to take a stab at her past and say she was a great flamenco dancer growing up but somewhere along the way she found a new calling and lives vicariously through young dancers. The entire performance flew by in what felt like a matter of minutes though it lasted about an hour. The groups consensus was that the performance at Jardines de Zoraya was the best of all three. They danced with their heart and appeared to have the most fun doing it, all we need to be like them is a life of flamenco lessons and a miracle. Though that still may not help me.

Videos of the flamenco dancers at Jardines de Zoraya