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.  
 
As I head out for my last night out in Madrid one thing comes to my mind is how I am greatly going to miss the transportation. It is so easy here and I know I am always a short walk from a metro, bus stop, or even a street that takes me directly to my piso. Madrid's size is deceiving and is completely walkable, but yet it still has great mass transit. I don't look forward to the transportation back home. Pardon my blunt opinion, but it sucks. On the bright side this makes wandering off campus unlikely and means more time on campus and having enjoyable evenings at places that are literally only a few blocks away. That means I can always just dash away without having to figure out any transportation except the form Mother Nature granted me, my own two legs. That will be nice. 
 
Short one today because I am feeling overwhelmed with a difficult final in Advanced Grammar. 

I am going to miss being constantly surrounded by different cultures and languages. Madrid, Spain is a hub for all European cultures and it has been incredible to witness the ability of language and culture to transcend barriers. I find myself thinking about how diverse Europe is and how plain the U.S. can be. However, I look forward to going home and looking more closely at the different cultures there are. I think I will be looking at things with fresh eyes for a while and I'm excited for that. 
 
In the spirit of finals I have decided to write a countdown post on the importance of grades. 

Students at Marquette University found out their final grades yesterday, just when I am beginning to take my finals here in Madrid at the Complutense. Unlike back in the U.S. I will not know my grades until the end of January, a good yet also bad thing for if I did not pass a class I will not have been informed until it is too late to take up another class at MU. But let's just hope that is not the case. 

Here grades are somewhat important to Spanish students. After a conversation with one of the directors here I found that receiving a six out of the 10 point scale that is doing well. I'm sorry but what? When I first heard this I didn't understand. Paloma continues to explain that as long as you pass that is what matters, your GPA is irrelevant. After the explanation I realized I could definitely get used to that. The professors here are not accustom to the U.S. grading scale and do not quite grasp the fact that you need a high grade to pass the class and an even higher grade for it to count for your major. I am not going to miss the continuous stress over whether they will grade on the Complutense scale or our scale, it's just too stressful and I can't count on one hand, even two for that matter, how many conversations and panic stricken moments I have had over this. I look forward to getting back to the normal grading scale. Less anxiety will be had that way. 

On the other hand I am going to miss how calm the professors are when it comes to exams. They consistently reassure us that we will do great. Easier said than done, yes, but it does help. How much faith I have in that statement is questionable, I will just have to wait until the end of January to find out. Cross your fingers for nothing lower than a C people.
 
My mom, ladies and gents, is one of a kind. Her name even proves it: Elin Anderson. How many Elins do you know? Beside's Tiger Woods' ex-wife. The answer is: not many. 

When I was growing up I was a daddy's girl, but when high school hit I turned to my mom for a lot of things that my dad couldn't help me with. Boys, life, what shoes to wear, how to prep my father before telling him I had a car accident, all that fun stuff. She was always there for me, through thick and thin. As much as my mother is there for me as, well, my mother, she is more than that - she is an inspiration. She is one of the most caring, devoted people I have had the pleasure to know who has the heart of a lion. She also has an uncanny amount of determination. When she sets out to do something, she does it and there is no stopping her. Even ask Papa A about that. 

You may be asking why I am being so gooshy and sentimental right now (unless you read the title of my blog post) and the answer is that today is my mother's birthday. She would die of a heart attack if I told you how old she was, so that will be left up to your imagination. Though, I will testify and say she doesn't look a day over 30. I'm obviously not biased or anything. 

Elin doesn't ask for much. She is the kind of person who gives and gives and gives and never wants to take back, so today, Mom, I am giving you the gift of not just the postcard you already received a week ago, and the gifts to come when I return, but also photos, moments, and qualities that I always smile at when I reflect on. Especially today where I am missing out on celebration I always enjoy partaking in. 

My mom is a closet traveler. She loves to go and explore new places and the majority of her life she has been stateside. Before I went to college her and I would go on mother daughter vacations once every two years or so and they secretly have been the best vacations I have ever been on. Besides to Canada on family trips her and I never went out of the country until the summer before college to Mazatlan, Mexico. Elin knows how to have a good time when she is relaxing and enjoying herself on the coast, let me tell you. Other trips have been to Florida, a college tour road trip, Itasca State Park and Duluth, Minnesota many a time, New York City, New York and countless other places. My mother has treated me to many memories, and I only hope to return the favor one day on my dime. 
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Elin and Andrea in New York City, NY summer 2006.
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Andrea and Elin in Mazatlan, Mexico summer 2010.
Family comes first in the Anderson household and my mom and dad are the backbones of the family. My brother and I were always taught that no matter where life takes you and who comes and goes we have each other has constants. Elin reminds me of that every time I call her at home. She is always willing to stop cleaning or come in from gardening just to catch up on my past day or two and then the short conversation turns into a twenty minute conversation. As my time in Spain has passed I have realized how important family is to me. With the many health issues that continue to plague the Anderson clan my dream of doing international journalism has dwindled because I want to be able to be there for my parents and see my brothers family grow. My mom always said to follow my dreams, and I know she has followed hers, so I am going to follow another dream of mine, to always be there there through thick or thin for my mother and never let her down. 
The majority of my family and friends know I have a pet peeve of bad grammar, punctuation and sloppy writing, but the emails my mom sends me crack me up every time. It is not that they are poorly crafted or that my mother is not intelligent - she is one of the smartest people I know - it is just that they are so dang funny and she hates computers. 
  • The subject line is HOWDY almost every time.
  • There are capitalized letters and words done by accident. 
  • A different sign-off is written every once in a while, the standard being MOM.
Needless to say it is never a dull virtual conversation had between my mother and I. 
When I was growing up I never liked being told I looked like my mother. I remember one time when my mother and I were at my Grandma Frans and my grandmother told my mom, her daughter, that the reason she always confuses our names is because every time she seems me I look more and more like my mother. Keep in mind my grandmother saw me about once a week and was as sharp as a tact, which means she is basically right. As I have matured and become older I really do see that we look quite a bit alike, especially when you look at photos of my mother when she was younger. My father will tell you that my mother and I are more alike in other ways, such as our stubbornness and persistence to always be ahead of the game. And the amount of post-it notes and lists we both make. I think her and I kill a tree once a year in the amount of paper we use for lists. 

Prom junior year in high school my mom was so happy to see me all dolled up and it was in one moment when I was with my closest and lifelong friend Lisa where I could see in her eyes that she was proud of the woman I was becoming, and that made me happy. I remember thinking then, if I could be half of the person my mom is then I will consider life a success. I still think this to this day, almost every time she sends me an email or we get off of the phone I am reminded of her larger than life sneezes and big smile. She is one incredible lady. 

So, this is to you mom. May you have the best 30th birthday a lady could ask for. I love you and can't wait to give you a big bear hug like we used to share in four days. 

Feliz cumple mamá, I love ya. 
 - Bugs
 
Each night after I eat dinner around 9:30 p.m. I am ready to sleep. I become so stuffed I can't fathom doing anything but star-fishing on the bed and relaxing for a bit, but I can't. I have to be strong willed and complete more homework and items on my to-do list. After being here for the semester my body has adjusted to eating late in the evening, except the longing to face plant on my bed has not disappeared. At first I was alway starving by 7:00 p.m. and thought I would never be able to adjust to eating so late, however my body has shocked me by its ability to adapt and now I have found that I love eating later in the evening, even when I have more work to do after. I will miss the late night dinners and having a nice study break around 9:00 each night, but I will be taking this Spanish custom back to the U.S. and can't wait to eat later in the evenings, around 7:30 or 8:00, each day. It's a great way to avoid the cravings for a late night snack and munching. 
 
It's a strange thing, social media. It can notify you of the happiest things in life: engagements, birthdays, new jobs and internships. But it also can bring to attention horrendous things like what occurred today in Newtown, Conn. 

My heart and deepest sympathy go out to the families, friends and employees involved in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School where, as stated by CNN in an early report 26 people, 20 being children, were killed by a man who entered the school around 9:30 in the morning. 

This year we have seen a number of tragedies related to gun violence, but I do not wish to focus on the gun violence but rather the tragedy and people effected. Now is not a time to politicize over whether there needs to be stricter laws regarding gun control in the United States, it is the time to reflect on how our country, how humanity needs to pull together and be there for those who have lost someone near and dear to their heart. 

This summer in Wisconsin we as a state came together to mourn the lives lost in the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek only weeks after the shooting at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater. I was an intern this summer at the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee, Wisc. and never had I witnessed such compassionate reporting but more importantly compassionate souls. 
 
Today's shooting is one of the deadliest school shootings our nation has seen in its history. I can not imagine the sorrow the parents of the children whose lives were taken too soon feel. I can not imagine the feeling of receiving a phone call or text message that delivered such horrendous news. I simply just can't imagine at all. 

This evening when I went to gather more information about the elementary school online their website directed me to this message:
Due to an extremely high service demand as a result of the events that have occured today, this website is temporarily being redirected to this page rather than the school system's usual home page.
To help deal with the events of today, there will be a memorial mass this evening at 7:00pm at St. Rose Church.

As a journalist my mind goes to one thing: fact-checking and the hunt for information. As a compassionate person my mind goes to a more important realization: people care. That is what I want people in Newtown, Conn. to know today, that we care and are their for them to lean on. 

Regardless of our political standpoint, our stance on gun control, or our views on whether mental health is an illness, there is one thing these families and classmates need to know - that we are here. 

I also am proud to say I am a student of Marquette University where today the flags fly at half-staff and the university sent out a Peace Prayer to be said by the students, faculty and alumni. The actions of Marquette show that there are at least 12,000 people who are sending their support and condolences to the victims out east. 

So, I ask you all today to set aside the negative energy and the political banter and show your support. You can prey, you can talk to a friend, or you can write it out like me, but whatever you do don't forget to show the compassion humanity is capable of because there are people out there who are waiting to see it. 
 
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A wonderful surprise from Dani, my intercambio, today. American staples I miss: Heinz Tomato Ketchup, peanut butter, and brownies.
Try explaining what a brownie is to a Spaniard and you will finish feeling exhausted. 

After that failed attempt try explaining what peanut butter is, and you will receive a weird look. 

Then, go to the next level and try explaining the importance of Heinz Tomato Ketchup to a Minnesotan and most likely they will not just give you a weird look but also tell you you're weird. 

This was my experience with my intercambio one of the first times we met. For those who don't know what an intercambio is, it is a concept created by our director where you exchange cultures and languages with someone from the country you are studying in. In my case I practice my Spanish with Dani, my intercambio, and Dani practices his English with me. We talk about cultural differences, stereotypes, ask questions regarding verbs and tenses, and yes gab about ketchup. Our conversations terribly deep and sophisticated. 

Today, after I was having a bit of a rough day in regards to exams my intercambio appeared in our Marquette University office. Much to my surprise I asked what he was doing here and he handed me a bag. Still confused he said told me it was a bag filled of things I said I missed from the United States. I was so taken aback by his generosity I had no idea what to say except one thing: What is it? He laughed and told me to open it but only after he left. The anxiety was killing me. I had no idea what to expect. My friends told me it had to be peanut butter, we all know how much I love that crunchy and creamy food staple. I mean, what college student doesn't? 

Before he left he told me he wrote me a letter and to only read it after he had left the office as well. I was in a state of confusion and had not expected this at all. He said goodbye and quickly ran out of the office, and when I say ran I mean a pace between a speed walk and jog. I think he was nervous that he may have misunderstood my food obsessions months ago. 

After reading the letter I was filled with the longing to stay in Madrid forever. It reminded me of all the great connections I have made here and how much I am going to miss his and I's weekly conversations and excursions to different parts of the city. 
The letter was a great start to the entire gift and after reading it I could not wait to what else was inside. Immediately I saw ketchup. Not just any ketchup either, Heinz Tomato Ketchup. Here in Madrid we all have been having a hard time with the lack of ketchup. And the strange taste of it. Also, the color. It is just really not the same here. I was overwhelmed with joy when I saw the bottle and the label. The first thing that popped into my head was, Now I can actually enjoy my nuggets when I splurged on them for lunch! I kid you not. It's the little things back in the States that you take for advantage. 
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Heinz Tomato Ketchup Fiery Chilli.
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Jif Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter from Dani.
After the ketchup, which later upon further inspection has "fiery chilli peppers" in them, was peanut butter. Those who know me well know I love my peanut butter. Obviously Dani could not get my favorite,  Market Pantry Creamy Peanut Butter from Target, but he purchased the next best thing: Jif Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter. How the heck did he find this when I searched high and low for it over a month ago? Answer: Taste of America, the self-dubbed Original American Supermarket. I should have used Google
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A two-bite size brownies. Scrumdiddlyumptious.
Under the delightful peanut butter and ketchup were ... Wait for it ... Feel the suspense ... Do you really want to know? ... OK, I will tell you ... Brownies! Oh thank Bajesus. I had not seen a brownie in over four months. This summer I baked them all the time in the evenings when it was cool enough and in Madrid we don't eat a lot of junk food. Except for Príncipe cookies, those are deadly. When I saw those sixteen two-bite size brownies with chocolate frosting I about died. OK, that is a little strong, but I did become extremely overwhelmed with joy. Who knew a pastry could make you feel so such happiness. And the desire to eat them all, by myself. Luckily, in public you have to have self-control so instead I opened them and shared them with those who were in the office. However I will not release the details as to what happened to the ones no one helped me eat. Let us just say they did not go to waste. 

Dani made me realize something else today, that one person can really change the way you think about something, or someone. I never thought I would miss our conversations so much. Or the funny way when we both don't know what one another are trying to say and then hover over his dictionary to search for an appropriate word. At first I thought the intercambio would be awkward and was nervous, but we became friends within minutes once he tried to crack a Simpsons joke without success and I had to break the news to him that Bart Simpson is not the badass he once was on primetime T.V. He then broke the news that my chances of Pasapalabra were slim to none. A girl can dream though, can't she? 

Now, 16 two-bite size brownies later (don't worry there are some left), with two unopened containers of condiments I am going to wait to open until I get home, and four months of wonderful experiences here I am glad that I have stepped out of my comfort level and had an intercambio with Dani. Sure, he may not understand my love to peanut butter and jelly minus the jelly, but I also don't understand why going to Arizona to see the desert is on the top of his bucket list when he has been to Egypt. We all have our quirks and he and I laugh at them. Maybe I will make him a peanut butter sandwich to show him what he is missing out. Then we can talk about a rendezvous in Arizona. 

If you're in Spain and want to try a brownie, hit me up at my piso, I'll be nommin' on them. 

 
Today we hit the single digits. What. A. Scary. Thing. 

I have mixed feelings about going home. I want to see my family and friends and get back to my normal life where I have no time to rest, but I also want to stay here and keep practicing Spanish and experiencing the culture. Oh how a mind and soul can be torn. So, in the spirit of being indecisive and unable to make up my mind this countdown post is related to modes of communication. 

In the United States I don't like how I am never unreachable. Some times I just want to shut my phone off for a few days but know that would not be goof for a.) my mother's sanity and b.) my career. Here, I am reachable by email, social networking and my small Yoigo cell phone that has no data plan and currently does not work. I like it but I don't like it at the same time. When I really need to get a hold of someone my phone either does not work or I have no euros left on it. However, I like the fact that I can go about my day and have no distractions and walk along the streets and not be texting, but rather looking at the scenery around me. It's nice to have both hands free the majority of the time. I'm going to miss being unreachable because it means I won't have time all to myself where someone couldn't interrupt me. However, I am looking forward to having my data plan and GoogleMaps directions at the tip of my fingers. Being directionally challenged is hard. I also know that my mother will be at peace when she knows she can just call my normal phone number and hear my voice. It will be nice to hear hers too. 
 
Yesterday on the bus I saw a girl with the same Christmas socks I just had to throw away in the garbage because I wore them too much. A hole had formed and despite my hopes that it could defy the rules of physics and wear and tear, the hole grew. They were bright red socks, with green, gold, and blue presents on them, atop each present was a different bow and white snowflakes covered the ankle joint area of the socks. The snowflakes made me think: BAM! Christmas time! Needless to say they were pretty cool. 

My grandmother and I had a habit of giving one another holiday and destination themed socks and this happened to be a pair she had given me several years back. When I saw the girls socks peaking out from the cuff of her jeans I became a little excited. I know that is strange, really strange actually, but I couldn't help but think how wonderfully random and coincidental it was that when I just threw a pair of my favorite holiday socks away, another person was sporting them. My grandmother obviously had great taste if a female Spaniard had the same socks and decided to wear them when it was still light out. But then my excitement hit a roadblock and I found myself asking: Do they have Macy's here? That is where Grandma Fran always purchased them...

After mulling over where the girl purchased her socks my stream of consciousness brought me back to the dinner table Monday night with Irene. How are the two related? I'm not quite sure myself yet. 

I was not having the best evening and for the first time in my whole time here I just wanted to be home with my family but Irene had a uncharacteristically sad look on her face that made me snap out of my own stupor. Monday, December 10, 2012 marked the 20 year anniversary of Irene's husband's death. When she told us tears began to swell in her eyes and she tried to discretely wipe them away with her black sweater that had red roses on the sleeves. A peculiar choice for a day of such significance. My roommate and I had no idea what to say to her. My thoughts switched back and forth from English to Spanish and I became frazzled. I didn't want to see such a wonderful women be so sad. At this moment she reminded me of my grandmother when it was the anniversary of my grandfather's death. Grandma Fran never let it show, but inside I knew she was torn to pieces each St. Patrick's Day. Irene, unlike Grandma Fran, showed her emotions and wanted to talk about it. So, after my brain became less frantic I muttered out the most pathetic thing possible: Lo siento. I have been here four months and all I could muster up was an "I'm sorry" to my favorite señora in the world? It was a shame but she smiled and was glad we cared. 

Irene is a strong women and adores her children, even her unofficial children like myself. When she began to talk about the memories her and her husband shared I couldn't help but smile. She explained how he died, how the following months were hard for her, and how she just had to keep busy otherwise she would become overwhelmed with sadness. One reason why she began hosting foreign exchange students was because she didn't like how the house was so quiet after her husband died. She said he brought so much life to her life, and then she smiled that big smile and chuckled. Clearly she was having an internal dialogue or recollection of memories. After dinner she didn't do the dishes, nor did she hum a happy tune per ritual, instead she talked on the phone with her daughter for a few minutes and headed to bed. It was disheartening to see her in such sad spirits and not like herself. 

The next morning Irene was up bright and early gabbing away on the phone with, what I am assuming was her daughter who lives in Switzerland by the conversation. She had a smile on her face and sipped her coffee as she sat on the couch. As I left for school Tuesday morning I was relieved to see her in a happier mood. That night at dinner we then shared memories we had of Christmas and what traditions we had. Irene became very excited when she was talking about all the toys she had purchased for her two youngest grandchildren and how she has to go to Zara to look at for a nice piece of clothing or accessory for her niece and then a jewelry store for a necklace for her daughter. 

After telling me all of the things she had to do in preparation for the holidays I told her my sock story. She laughed. 
She asked how something so simple can make me think about such unrelated things. I didn't know the term for stream of consciousness, but I think she understood what I was trying to get at. At one point I honestly just told her I was weird, and she said everyone has their quirks. She continued to laugh for a bit and said she was feeling much better today. She said it is much better to talk about how she is feeling with someone than to let it bottle up inside. She is 100 percent right, something my grandmother and I could learn a lesson or two in. Suddenly the sad disposition I saw the night before came back and Irene quickly explained why - she didn't want us to leave. She looks forward to having the new girls in January and is thankful that the weeks between our departure and their arrival will be busy, but it still eerie to be alone in her apartment with no one there to talk to. 

Not long after reassuring her that the holidays will be fun Irene asked me if I was ready to go home. I couldn't lie to such a sweet woman so I said yes, but that I was going to come back and see her and while I was back at school I would write to her. She understood that I needed to go back home, she is a mother after all. So then, after I finished my clementine at the dinner table in the kitchen she bid me goodnight, but not after saying she liked the pair of Christmas socks I had on. I told her they were from my grandmother. She laughed. 

Man, I'm going to miss her.