Incredible. Amazing. Inspiring. Rewarding. Life changing. Unforgettable. Adventurous. Stupendous. The adjectives are endless to describe my time here in Madrid, Spain, my home for the last four and a half months. 

There are so many thoughts racing trough my head right now as I am packing to up my life and heading back to the States. You always hear about a study abroad experience and form an idea of what it would be like but for me everything was different than I expected, and I mean that in the best way possible.

As I look back at my blogs I am reminded of my travels, conversations with my Señora, the stress of school, new friends, and so much more. It's all so much to soak in and makes you feel a bit overwhelmed.  I am walking away with a mind full of memories, a heart full of adventure, and a hand full of lifelong friends.

When I first came to Madrid I was afraid. Who isn't. You're away from home, you don't know anyone, your Spanish stinks, and your wardrobe clearly does not match that of a Madrileña. But you know what? You just have to not care. That is the only thing I can say and the only advice that will make your time abroad that much more worthwhile. You have to step out of your shell and be uncomfortable - it is the only way you are going to learn. It's the only way you are going to live. 

While in Madrid I faced many challenges. There are the obvious ones such as language barriers, miscommunications, stress over school work, tough decisions on where to travel and if it is worth the dent in the bank account. Then there were the ones I never saw coming like my father having surgery, then his complications from the surgery and my mother simultaneously breaking her ribs while my father was in the hospital, missing Beat Bucky Week, and not seeing my nephew get so big! They were all hard to face but I am still standing and typing into cyber world. I bring up the challenges because they were the times that made me realize that I had made a few really great friends that will always be there for me.  

I think that is the true amazing thing about my experience. I have done amazing things but most rewardingly I have found friends that support me through thick and thin and truly showed me I had someone to lean on. I came to Madrid knowing absolutely no one. I knew Rachel from a distance. She and I went to Southwest High School in Minneapolis, Minn. together and were in the same Spanish class junior year (her senior year) but other than that no one. I am glad that I came without knowing anyone because it made the adventure that much more exhilarating (also stressful) and lead to only a broader experience of making more friends. Yes, while you study abroad you form closer relationships with some people than others and that has been the case within our small group of eleven, however the entire group is great. 

Besides forming new relationships and learning the Spanish language I traveled.  A common goal of any study abroad student is to travel everywhere all the time. Being the antsy, gung ho explorer I am I had the same mentality. Then I realized: 
a.) I don't have funds for that 
b.) I would get so tired, even at the ripe age of 20 (almost 21 thank you) 
c.) I love Madrid too much to neglect it. 

So, here I give a word of advice, and it is to stay grounded. You can get so caught up with previous conceptions and what other people are doing but you have to be true to you and do what is best for you. I enjoyed every weekend in Madrid because I would always explore and find something new. I wouldn't have been able to see all that I have and have all the conversations with locals if I had traveled every weekend or puente.

Today, for our final day in Madrid, Rachel and I went for a little walk around Madrid and we brought up the fact that everything we were doing was being done for the last time. That is such a strange concept to me right now. I am having difficulty realizing the fact that I am leaving on a plane in ten hours and that the next time I come back (and I will be coming back) will be as a working, real world adult. It's a little too much for me to comprehend. And a little too much for me to even express with words - that never happens. So, for now I am going to let this day pass and let tomorrow come and write a recollection post in the same spot where I wrote my expectations blog post for my semester abroad, at home in Minneapolis sitting in my bed with layers of covers to mask the frigid temperatures. 

Stay tuned. Unless the world is really ending tomorrow. Gulp.  
 
People are everywhere in Madrid. On any given day you see a new fashion statement, new person in your apartment building, and an unfamiliar face in your class. However, even in the densely populated city of 3.3 million you run into the same people who you live by or take the bus with when you are out and about in a different area of the city. 

It is refreshing to wake up and head out the door knowing you are going to have another day of first sightings. I am definitely going to miss people watching and always meeting someone new. Being an extrovert really pays off in the third largest city in the European Union. Though, as much as I love meeting new people in Madrid I look forward to meeting new people at Marquette. I haven't had a semester yet where I haven't made another lifelong friend and I can't wait until I am back at my home base meeting and greeting the new people at my work, in my classes, and my apartment building. It will be strange not having to give two besitos on the cheeks though, I love that custom here. Maybe I can bring it back to the good old 414 and it will catch on... 
 
On the bus this morning I ran into some of my Spanish friends I made here in Madrid and I became a little emotional. I have formed very strong bonds and relationships with people this semester and I don't want to say goodbye. I didn't think it was going to be this hard. 

We joke about them coming to the United States and then they ask what there is to do in Minnesota. I say, with a quizzical face: "Hike? Fish? Walk around the lakes? Go up north to more lakes?" And they are unimpressed. Needless to say that is not their cup of tea. At the end of these conversations I alway end up saying I will be coming back to them, and it is true. 

I'm going to miss all the ties I have made in Madrid, but I know it is not goodbye, it is a see you soon. 

On the other end of the spectrum I can not wait to be reunited with my friends back home. I haven't seen some of my friends in Minnesota in over six months since I stayed in Milwaukee for the summer for an internship with Tap Milwaukee. I miss them dearly. As for my friends in Milwaukee, they have had a blast in their first semester in off-campus housing and I can't wait to get back and start my experience outside of a dorm too. It is bitter sweet saying goodbye to your friends on one continent knowing you are going back to others, but that is why you say "Hasta luego" rather than "Adios". 
 
One of the best things about choosing Europe to study abroad is that there are countless cultures just a few hours or less away via plane. I have had the luxury to travel to multiple cities and countries in the last four months and I still have a hard time wrapping my head around how blessed I am. 

In the U.S. we have different cultures. The south is different than the midwest and the east coast and west coast are like day and night at times. The same is the case with Barcelona and Madrid, or Spain and France, but there is a difference in how the cultures are, well different. Just a short plane ride north and you are in France where there is a whole other language, lifestyle, culture and people. If you go just a few hours east of France to Hungary you encounter another language that is not even remotely related to any romance language. It is incredible and the U.S. has nothing like it. I'm going to miss the weekend adventures to new cultures and the constant exploration but I look forward to sitting still for a few months until graduation this spring. Who knows where I will end up come the end of May.  
 
This post is a bit materialistic, I am warning you. Also, it has the potential of being a bit disturbing. 

Today I was straightening my hair and a large chunk fell out. I knew my straightener wasn't the best, but I didn't think it would do that to my hair. I researched the manufacturer and now, after four months of being in Spain, I learned that you should not straighten your hair every day with this specific straightener. In the U.S. I straighten my hair once or twice a week, but here being blonde and having curly hair really makes me stand out so I usually opt for using a flat iron. So today, I guess I look forward to not having to straighten my hair and letting it be au naturel. 

I am going to miss getting all dressed up each day though. In the U.S. we dress much sloppier than Europeans and each day I struggle to not give in an put on my Sperry Top-Sider Boat Shoes, and have yet to give in. I think I am going to try and keep up my nice appearance once I get home. That means no sweatpants or yoga pants unless I am going to the gym. Let's see if that happens. I give it a week.
 
In Europe people walk where ever. Their is no rhyme or reason as to what side of the sidewalk you should walk on and people don't step over to the side if they are going to stop, instead they just stop right in front of you and you have to dodge to avoid a collision. The only place where there is a protocol is in the Metro where on escalators if you are not in a rush you stand still and to the right in your ascent to the next level, the space to the left is reserved for those in a hurry who can walk up the escalator. I am not going to miss the lack of reason their is to which side of the street you walk on, I look forward to the rule of when you walk, you walk on the right. However, I am going to miss the incredibly efficient public transportation that is offered in Madrid and throughout Europe (see former blog regarding the ease of public transit). The transportation in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and heck the whole U.S. pales in comparison to that of Europe. We could learn a thing or two from the Europeans. 
 
When you go to a restaurant in Europe, especially in Spain, your wine will cost less than your water. That was definitely something to get used to. When you order a glass of water, it comes in a bottle with a glass on the side, but the glass does not have ice cubes or a straw. Wow, I know I'm blowing your mind right now. I am not going to miss paying for water or the lack of ice cubes and straws and I relish in the idea that will be able to receive a glass of water free of charge. With ice cubes and a straw. Holler! But I am going to miss the cheap cost of vino. That's is wine in Spanish, folks.
 
Nothing screams Christmas season for someone who isn’t living in a winter climate like 30-degree weather and hailing snow. My short journey to Brussels, Belgium was a nice wakeup call for what I will be facing in just thirteen days when I am back home in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I was told Brussels was an ugly city by many people, including travelers I have met who live in Belgium and even some who live in Brussels and I can’t say that they were wrong. They were absolutely correct. In Brussels there is not a ton to see and the main reason I wanted to go was to go to their world famous Christmas Market, if that wasn’t there I don’t think I would have gone, and I don’t think I will ever return...

We arrived late Tuesday night and were greeted by a sharp wind and dropping temperatures. It was a flashback to a normal winter that we haven't faced in Madrid, Spain. Upon arriving at our hostel we decided to go grab a quick dinner and rest up for the fun-filled day we had planned for tomorrow.

On Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. sharp we began our search for Belgian waffles and we found a restaurant called Grandmother’s Waffles, also known as Mokata, online and on our map that was supposed to be cheap and authentic. So we set out in the freezing cold to find us some good eats. Much to our demise it began to hail, then snow, then rain and after an hour of searching for the restaurant we ducked into the nearest, most authentic looking restaurant that advertised breakfast food we could find. This was a bad decision on our part as everyone was going into the same restaurant and we ended up waiting an hour and a half for our waffles. They were OK, but not quite as warm as I was hoping they would be. The chocolate was to die for though. 
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Andrea with her first real Belgian waffle in Brussels, Belgium.
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The result of waiting an hour for your first Belgian waffle.
After our breakfast turned lunch we headed to the Musical Instruments Museum and learned about the evolution of each musical instrument through geographic region and era. The main reasons the majority of the group wanted to go were a.) the cost: free every first Wednesday  and b.) the temperature, everyone wanted to warm up. I wanted to go because I am an Orch Dork and former Band Geek who played the alto saxophone and bassoon. It was really interesting as we had a cassette tape with us and each instrument you stepped up to synched with what would play in your ears. One thing that was very different about this museum was the fact that there were no English translations or explanations. I absolutely loved this because it reminded me of my time in Budapest, Hungary where I literally had to communicate with hand gestures. Before this trip my experience with language barriers was minimal and it was hard to adjust to the fact that there have been several language barriers but, as I said before, it is actually fun not knowing the local language because it really stretches your brain and makes you step out of your comfort zone. 
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Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium.
After about an hour in the museum we left and headed towards the main attraction: the Christmas Markets. The maps for Belgium are not the easiest to follow so we wandered for a bit towards the general direction and soon bumped into the delicious smell of vin chaud (hot wine), bratwurst, hot bread, and grilled onions. The smell was overwhelmingly mouth-watering. Everyone was filled with joy when we saw the Christmas decorations and the colorful lights. We don’t have the merriment in Madrid like they do in Brussels and all of us couldn’t help but become a little giddy – even the boys. 

Once we became filled with the Christmas spirit we began to look for those unique gifts – the boys opted out from this for the most part. Along the first street were multiple vendors selling ornaments, winter clothes, and food. When we reached the end of the first street we were a little concerned that this was all there was going to be. We knew there was supposed to be an ice rink and Ferris wheel, but we couldn’t find it. After speaking with a vendor, who had the most gorgeous Indian ornaments, we walked a few blocks and came upon a winter wonderland. Four rows of shops lay before us and the Ferris wheel, lit up in the jolly green and red,  towered over the ice rink at the very end of the streets. We took our time in making our way to the end, wanting to look at all the vendors, weigh our options, take in the sight of Christmas, and embrace the sensation of the vin chaud on our cold hands. I am proud to say I found some wonderful gifts for my family and friends at the market. They were pricey but all handmade and one-of-a-kind. Cross your fingers they like them. 

After making a few purchases we splurged and went on a Ferris wheel ride. It was so incredibly cold and anyone who knows me I am fine with heights. Until I get up to the top. I was a little afraid and hand to hold on to my friends while we stopped at, wait for it, the top. The view was incredible though and we all were put into the Christmas spirit even more. After the chilly and fearful ride we ate dinner and Rachel and I, the true Minnesotans that we are, shared a ginormous bratwurst with fried onions, ketchup and another spicy sauce. It was gone within ten minutes. You could say we were a little hungry. 
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Rachel Arneson at the Christmas Markets in Brussels, Belgium.
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Amanda, Emily, Alissa, Tor and Rachel with their vin chaud.
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View of Market from Ferris wheel.
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Rachel and Andrea with their joint bratwurst for dinner.
By this time we were a tad bit chilly, the only time we had inside was at the museum and lunch so we decided to head to Café Delirium, a famous bar that is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most choices of beers at a single establishment. The total number of beers they offer, you may ask? The answer is 2,004. The bar even has a syllabus that lists all of the options of beer. Emily, one of the girls who seems to have friends studying abroad everywhere, was told by a friend who studied in Brussels that the tradition is to close your eyes, open the book to a random page, point to a beer without looking, and when you open your eyes the beer your finger has landed on is the beer that you order.

Apparently this isn’t the wisest decision according to the bartender. When I went up asking for my beer he asked how I had chosen it. Little to my knowledge he said my beer was really old and had the chance of tasting bad. Instead he brought out his favorite beer, Gouden Carolus Classic, and gave it to me. I am a big beer fan so it was an enjoyable experience. 
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Café Delirium, Brussels, Belgium.
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Larger than life beer caps on the ceiling of Café Delirium.
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Signs in the upstairs of Café Delirium.
Information on Gouden Carolus Classic*:
This Mechelen Emperor’s brew is a traditional beer of the fox hunting of Charles Quint but named after his golden coins, is still being brewed with dark, very well-balanced malts according to the classical infusion method. The aromatic malts and high fermentation process combines the warm roundness of wine with the light freshness of beer. Because of its high density of 19° Plato, the Gouden Carolus Classic is classified under ‘special beers’. It’s also highly appropriate for culinary purposes like stew, game and even sabayon. De-li-cious!

Type of beer: Dark special beer
Colour: Ruby red
Alcohol: 8,5% VOL
Hops: Exclusively Belgian hops

* Information from Brouwerij Het Anker  
We relaxed for about an hour, sitting in the old basement of the bar with larger than life beer caps on the ceiling and gabbed about our remaining time in Europe. It is still hard to wrap our minds around the fact that we are leaving so soon. Some of us are ready, some of us aren’t. I fall within the former. I haven’t seen my family in four months and spend the whole summer away from them. It is time to be reunited. 

The day took its toll on us and we decided to call it an early night and headed back to take warm showers and bundle up under the covers. The next day we repeated Wednesday due to a lack of a game plan. We headed back to the Markets, the only difference in the day is that we actually found Grandmother’s Waffles and it was delicious and cheap and went on a scavenger hunt for chocolate.

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The great Grandmother's Waffles Belgian waffle.
After devouring the waffles we went on a search for inexpensive chocolate for our family and friends. Some of us chose to purchase the expensive chocolates that are more like delicacies for locals and others, such as myself, stuck to the more affordable but still good quality chocolate. It will just have to be a surprise as to whom they are for! After the hunt for the perfect chocolates ended we made our final stop at the Christmas Market and called it quits to relax at a small café where it was warm for the remaining few hours until our flight later that night. 

All in all, Brussels was a great place to go for five things: waffles, chocolate, beer, the Christmas Market and a wake up call for the weather back home. I wouldn’t say it was good for anything else. I wouldn’t say it was a waste of money, that would be rather harsh, but part of me thinks that at times it kind of was. However, after talking to my father and listening to his wise words of wisdom, I realized that not every place I am going to travel to is going to tickle my fancy. Case in point: Brussels, Belgium.
 
Yes, I was just in Barcelona, Spain and now I am headed to Brussels, Belgium for a two-day trip to partake in some holiday shopping at the Christmas Markets and indulge in waffles. Sue me. Actually, please don't because I could not afford that at this point in my journey. 

We leave tonight on a Ryanair flight (gulp) and come back late Thursday evening, also on a Ryanair flight. Prayers are appreciated. We really do not have anything planned whatsoever for Brussels and in all honesty, that feels extremely nice in comparison to Barcelona where we went all day for two and a half days. 

We know we want to spend some quality time at the Christmas Markets, ice skate, look at the incredibly tall Christmas tree at the Markets and be reminded of Rockefeller Center, visit La Grande-Place (an UNESCO World Heritage Center site) and then go to the Musical Instrument Museum, where it is free the first Wednesday of every month. What a coinkydink! But other than that we do not have many plans and we all are content with that. 

Many of us have several papers to write so some of us decided that Thursday in between our check out time and catching our flight we are going to find a cafe with Internet and hunker down. Homework in Belgium? Why not!

This is my last trip outside of a day trip to Aranjuez, Spain on Friday and I am a little sad that my traveling has come to an end. However, I have been blessed to have such wonderful excursions and a great group of students to share them with. It is hard to believe that I have been to so many different countries and cities in my short time here and it is coming to an end so soon, but it is time to say goodbye to Europe and hello to my home in the United States. 
 
Call me sentimental, or a young aunt, but ever since I have left the United States I have missed one little guy more than I ever thought possible, my nephew Nolan. He has been growing up so fast and I have been reading all about my brother and sister-in-laws daily adventures in parenting on their blog, but it is not the same. Seeing the pictures of him on Halloween dressed up as the cutest monkey I have ever seen (I could be a little biased) made me a little sad because I was missing out, and the photos of him trying to eat peas but just not liking them made me miss him and also made me wonder how many other stories I have missed out on hearing. I can't wait to see Nolan and see firsthand how much he has grown! I only hope he remembers who I am since it has been a little over six months since I have seen him! 

On the other hand, I will miss the three girls I tutor in English once a week. They have progressed so much and The youngest and shyest of the three has finally opened up and starting practicing her shapes. Her favorite is a heart and every Wednesday she wears a pink long sleeve shirt with a bejeweled pink heart on the front and points at it saying "heart."  The girls, ages five, six, and seven, are a joy to work with and I can't help but wonder if they will remember me, their first English tutor, and how much their next tutor will have as much fun with them as I did.