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.  
 
I love food. There is no doubt about this statement. If there is food in front of me I will eat it, it's a curse.

Today I will be learning how to cook some of the delicious meals Irene has made for me and I am beyond excited. I already have my notepad and pen ready and the cooking extravaganza does not even begin until 6:00 this evening. 
I am not a good cook, I take after my mother that way who can make the staples: chicken, goulash, pastas, potatoes, etc. but she can make a mean stuffed manicotti and chili. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. 

This semester I have been spoiled. Irene is one of the best cooks I have ever met and I have certainly not starved or dwindled away in the last five months. Her homemade soups and authentic Spanish dishes she learned to cook from her mother have left me stuffed each evening and I dread the day I leave and have to cook for myself. I'm going to forever miss her wicked croquetas and carrot soup. However, I am excited to go back and devour a Chipotle burrito and eat two bowls of my mothers chili after shoveling the snow that is accumulating in Minneapolis.  This is going to be such a bitter sweet goodbye. No pun intended. 
 
I love living with my señora, do not get me wrong. But I am not a fan of idle chit-chat and I find her and I partake in it a lot. There are pros and cons to this and it is something I am going to miss but also something I look forward to not doing. With anyone. This sounds rather harsh, especially being a journalist where smalltalk is very common and very necessary.

I can talk to a wall, I am much like my father in that aspect, but I also am someone who is always on the go and likes to keep going so I can accomplish everything on my list. 

For my career, I can do smalltalk, but in my every day, personal life I try to avoid it as little as possible. With my señora, it is nice to speak Spanish and I really enjoy conversing with her, even the idle chit-chat I find, as of late, I like and I am going to miss that. Except when all I really wanted to do was study. 
 
December 1, 2012 marks the countdown until I leave Madrid, Spain and head back home to Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 21 days I will be on a plane, leaving friends behind in Madrid and a woman who is like my third grandmother and will be going back to my other life. As part of my countdown I will be posting each day something I will miss about Madrid, Spain or Europe and something that I look forward to in Minneapolis, Milwaukee or the United States. After many conversations with my classmates and friends we have come up with many responses for the next 21 posts, but each is a double-edged swords.

I will miss my daily conversations with my señora at dinner and when I come home from school. Her family stories and life experiences have shown me how incredible

I look forward to being able to communicate with my family and friends in an easier manner and in other forms besides email and Skype. My parents recently had a computer fiasco and are not very technologically savvy so they have not been able to install Skype on their own. My friends and I also rely on texting and the fact that we live close to one another for communication, so it will be nice to be back at the good old Marquette and be a block away from my friends’ apartments. 
 
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.

 
It has come to an end. The political ads, the e-mails, the phone calls, the constant Facebook statuses and Tweets, they all are fading into the past and I am quite thankful for that; however, I am more thankful for the fact that our country has the right to cast their vote and participate in a democracy. 

Last night I could not sleep because for the first time I was able to vote and see what impact it had. I followed Twitter, Facebook, the election webpages for CNN, National Public Radio (NPR), Huffington Post, the first ever special election website for Marquette University Student Media and I was becoming incredibly frazzled. Why? Because there were so many different tallies, numbers, percentages, nothing was in sync and all I wanted to know was which was most accurate regarding the Presidential race. 

At 2:30 a.m. my time, 7:30 p.m. Central time it was looking like this: 
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NPR shows electoral votes: Obama 65, Romney, 82
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CNN shows electoral votes: Obama, 64, Romney, 56.
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HuffPost shows electoral votes: Obama, 65, Romney 67.
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MSM shows electoral votes: Obama, 64, Romney, 56.
How did I know which one to trust? I didn't, it was too early to even think about trusting one over the other and all the predictions I was seeing made me anxious because it was too early to call and I just wanted to know. 

Being abroad in Madrid, Spain while the elections were happening, especially my first ever Presidential election I could vote in, was difficult because I didn't get a taste of the hands-on, in the moment excitement. I always pictured myself in the newsroom in the basement of Johnston Hall on Marquette's campus biting my finger nails and live-blogging, that obviously did not happen but the students who were able to did a great job keeping me informed on a state and national level. While I am a little melancholy over the fact that I wasn't in the States  I was also thankful I was not because all day I didn't hear a thing about it. No one talked about it in the streets, in class, at work, it was a relief. Yes, there were multiple newspaper articles about it and my señora was kind informative and told me Obama is the reason most of Europe still takes a liking to the United States, but that was the only point I really spoke about politics. Though, I did see enough "I voted" comments online and have seen enough Facebook statuses and Tweets to gain a sense of the tension that may be occurring on campus and across the country. I guess you can never really escape reality when you follow social media websites. 

When I awoke this morning I was not entirely sure I wanted to know the results, both on a national and state level. Minnesotans voted on two potential constitutional amendments. The first was to clearly state that a marriage is between a man and a women, the other was to implement the concept of a Voter ID. Regardless of whether I wanted to see the results or not I had to look, there was no questions about it. 

First I went to CNN.
Then I wanted a second confirmation and a more visual breakdown of all the states, especially to see who took Virginia, Ohio and Florida. I went to Huffington Post
After seeing both results match up with one another I wanted to see how my former and fellow colleagues at Marquette Student Media handled the reporting and see if their information matched up.  
It sure did and to go full circle I went and checked on NPR's election site. 
For the first time in the whole election process I was looking at the same numbers and the same outcome. It was nice to know I was being informed correctly, regardless of who won or lost. 

After seeing who won the positions on a national and state level I hurried on over to see how the proposed constitutional amendments turned out on CBS Minnesota. Minnesota voted against both amendments, last night when I went to bed it was neck and neck, too close to tell. 
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Fifty-one percent of Minnesotans voted against stating marriage is solely between a male and a female.
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Fifty-two percent of Minnesotans voted against the implementation of a Voter ID.
This morning I woke up seeing clear results and in fact, results that made history. Tammy Baldwin made history twice becoming the first openly gay politician, and the first Wisconsin woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Two states, Colorado and Washington also legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Also, an understated vote took place win Puerto Rico yesterday where nearly 80 percent of the population voted and 54 percent of the voters said they wanted to become the 51st state of the United States. The 2012 elections were not only about the Presidential race, something I feel many people forget. 
In my opinion, it doesn't matter who you vote for or what you voted for, if our opinions are the same that makes a conversation over politics that much easier, if not that is OK with me since I don't enjoy talking about politics anyhow. To each their own. The only request I make is that if you chose not to exercise your right to vote and are going to rejoice or complain about the results being released I think you may need to reevaluate whether you should be since you didn't put your vote to use.  If you want change you have to make it happen. 

Today I watched President Barack Obama's acceptance speech, regardless if it would have been him or Romney, hearing these words made me feel as if my voice can be heard and that there is hope. Especially for Puerto Rico, I would like to go there without the hassle of a passport. 

"Whether I have earned your vote or not, I have listened to you. I have learned from you, and you have made me a better president. With your stories and your struggles I return to the White House more determined and more inspired than ever for the work there is to do that lays ahead. " - Barack Obama, Nov. 7, 2012.
 
There will be a new flock of students taking our place next semester here in Madrid, Spain and after hearing who is coming I think our señoras will be in for a good time. 

Tuesday the students at Marquette University who applied for the Spring 2013 Marquette en Madrid program found out if they were accepted into the program. It's a rarity that anyone is not accepted, but I was still crossing my fingers for those who applied. 

Generally the Spring group is much larger than the Fall, my group is abnormally small with eleven students, and I have a feeling this coming semesters group is going to be abnormally large. However, a large group will make it all the more fun to plan trips, go out in the evening, allow for more familiar faces in class and make for an even better opportunity to get to know students that you may never have met at Marquette.

Right now it may be overwhelming with all the tasks that need to be done before you go, but take some time and say congratulations to yourself for being accepted into a great program. Brace yourself for a great time.  

Now, here are some tips that the majority of students here have mentioned along the way: 
  1. Don't pack a lot, it sounds redundant but everyone repeats their outfits and soon no one even notices. Plus you will want to bring a lot of things back, save space!
  2. Follow the guidebook that is provided to a point, we found a lot of discrepancies with it. You can wear what you want here, yes colored jeans and skinny jeans are in, but so are flared jeans, khakis etc.  Everyone here has their own personal style here,  you can too.
  3. Girls don't bring heels, you don't use them. Guys a nice pair of shoes but nicer more stylish tennis shoes are popular. Oxford shoes are the way to go, along with boots.  
  4. Bring tennis shoes because you will be doing a lot of walking tours with Ricardo the art professor, no one cares if you look "American".
  5. Get ready to eat a lot of delicious food, so much for a diet. There is no gym here unless you pay for one.
  6. Don't by a Eurrail pass unless you plan on taking the train multiple places with people and you have planned trips ahead of time, bus and plane are the most frequents modes of transportation for weekend trips. 
  7. It's chilly at night, if you don't want to buy a light jacket, for sure bring one! 
  8. Flannel pajamas keep you nice and warm at your señoras
  9. A backpack for trips on the weekends is more common than a carry on. Each cheap airline here has different measurements and they are generally smaller than the carry ons in the United States. Backpack is a safer choice.
  10. Make a list of places you absolutely want to go, time goes by so fast! But don't forget you're here for Spain. 
 
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Green tea Irene brought to my room.
There is a cold running around at school and within the Marquette group, naturally I have caught it. 

Today I woke up feeling absolutely terrible and as general habit I went to the bathroom to take some medicine but realized there was no medicine cabinet and that I wasn't at home in Minneapolis like I thought. I even I reached for the invisible medicine cabinet in my groggy state of mind, it was a smooth move. 

After realizing I had no Ibuprofen, and that I wasn't in Minnesota at all, I went back to my room and starfished my bed, facedown in the pillow. For those of you who don't know what starfishing is, it is when you spread your body like a star and fall onto your bed for maximum relaxation. It's highly recommended by doctors, and by doctors I mean me. 

After laying like a starfish for a few minutes and my throat and head continued to throb I realized I needed to sleep more and go to school a bit later than usual. In the U.S. I am used to bouncing back with the help of cough drops, an Ibuprofen and a cup of coffee but here it just doesn't cut it. I went to a farmacia and asked to purchase some medicine but because I was unsure as to what everything said on the label I was hesitant to buy it. I now realize I take Walgreens for granted. My señora didn't have any medicine so she offered me some tea when I got back from school and I anxiously waited for it at the counter in the kitchen on my stool. At that moment I didn't realize how much I missed having a mother figure around to make me feel better. 

The day has passed and it is now time for me to finish drinking my second cup of tea from Irene and catch some  beauty sleep. My mom even emailed me to tell me to go to bed. Amazing how far you can be away from home and still have a mother's presence, whether it's your real mom emailing you or your señora bringing you a cute tray with your tea and smiling to make you feel better. 
 
My professors here have to think there is something wrong with my face. The constant look of intense concentration and confusion coupled with one eyebrow raised is becoming my permanent look. I think I need to learn how to say, "I need a brain massage," to go along with a joke I told myself today, "Perdón mi cara," or "Pardon my face." (I'm funny guys, I know). I also have never tested the theory of cracking an egg on a sidewalk on a hot summer day, but I imagine it feels a little bit like my brain being fried after two straight hours of history, politics and art lectures in Spanish and then repeating for grammar and composition after a 30 minute break. 

A classmate of mine said it gets easier after a few weeks. You won't be so stressed to catch every detail of the lectures, your Spanish will improve and your ear will become acclimated to hearing Spanish rather than English. I'm sure this is completely true, but for now all I want is for my face to go back to normal and starfish my bed when I go take my siesta.

So, a few words of advice for those traveling abroad to a country where you aren't familiar with the language: 

A.) Don't worry about writing down all the notes, just listen for a bit and then write down what you remember. 
B.) Take deep breaths, you aren't the only one who doesn't understand, and don't be afraid to ask questions.
C.) Talk to your señoras - mine is a gabber and I love practicing my Spanish with her because she corrects me.
D.) Learn the fun way! Our group goes out to local places and learns local words and some have a class where they learn slang for part of it and then we all share!  
E.) Have fun. You're in a foreign country.
 
Old people are the best. Trust me on this one. 

My grandma Fran Masson was a lady with spunk. She couponed better than anyone I know and her and Alfred Dunner were two pees in the same pod, even ask Macy's. Her take home strawberry blonde hair dye experiment gone awry the day before my grandfather's funeral is still one of the funniest memories I have of her and the nights where I squirmed when I saw her dentures in a glass by the sink in the bathroom will never be forgotten. Whenever I think about these things all I can say to myself is, #totalgrandmafranmove. That was a joke, Twitter speak annoys me, but when I do recall the many memories I had with her I can't help but smile. No one can ever replace their grandmother, and you certainly can't replace your mom either. Frances was a rock star and Elin, my mother, is one of a kind, and now I have met the Spanish version of them both combined: my señora, Irene. 

Irene, a woman in her seventies has lead an incredible life. She is one of 13 children, a mother of five and a widow of her husband she knew since the age of two. She played tennis her whole life until her knees gave out, and her pride and joy now are her two granddaughters and one grandson. However, Irene isn't just a woman who likes to be a grandma that spoils, she is a woman who has faced a lot of challenges in her life and isn't afraid to share them. 

The time was approximately 6:15 p.m. when another Marquette student and I arrived at Irene's home near Argüelles, the closest metro stop. She buzzed us up and then we got lost, thankfully she found us. We then dropped our suitcases in our rooms and sat in her plush red chairs that remind me of the ones you see in Pride and Prejudice. I sank into her comfy chair and after a few introductions and talk about our families I asked Irene how many children she had. She said, "Yo tenía cinco, pero perdí una y ahora tengo cuatro." Irene's youngest daughter died from brain cancer at the age of 37. She left behind a daughter and a husband. Three months later Irene lost her husband and just last year she lost her final sibling, a sister, whom she said she adored. 

The whole time all I could think of was my grandmother. How Irene has the same hair color before my grandmother attempted her one-stop home beauty salon. How my grandma always shoved food at me when I came over and how Irene does the same. Irene even says I will never get fat walking around Madrid so I should eat all the dulces I want - you can't not love a woman who says that. She even gave safety advice like my grandma except this time it was about not being mugged on the streets compared to my grandma assuring me it's better to go 45 in a 55. Needless to say my grandma drove in the right lane. 

Irene took the whole conversation with stride. She reminisced on her times with the family she lost with a twinkle in her eye that conveyed happiness in the chance to share her stories with someone new. You could tell by the way her smile stretched from one side of her mouth to another that she was going to be a positive influence and an absolute blast to live with. Her laugh fills the entire room and she even said she likes to dish out fashion advice, something my grandmother and mother would do all the time. Also, being the indecisive person I am this will be great.

After being given two more croissants with dark chocolate she asked if I wanted another before leaving and I said no. She tilted her head and gave me the, oh-stop-you-are-beautiful-the-way-you-look look but gave no protest and proceeded to say she loved the game show Pasapalabra. I chuckled at this. It's like being with my grandma all over again and watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy

Irene and Fran are quite possibly the same person. Grandma was a whippersnapper and Irene is like the Energizer Bunny. Did I mention she just broke her back too but refuses to stay still and not do anything? Yeah, Irene doesn't take no for an answer. My father would say that is a trait that runs in the Masson women. I guess Irene and I were meant to be together. 

For now all I can say is every older person I have met in my life has rocked and that's not an exaggeration, all people from Minnesota are nice. I think I want my new best friends to all be 70 and up, so if you don't meet that standard we can't be friends. #sorryimnotsorry.