Building Castles in the Air

I am writing this sat in my lovely house in England that overlooks fields that stretch as far as the eye can see, but I began writing this just over a week ago when I was still in the hustle and bustle of sunny Madrid. A place that over time has taught me that there are so many good and open people in this world and such beautiful places beyond the imagination. It has also taught me that life isn’t just about living to work, but working enough to live and thrive. And I have certainly learnt how to thrive!

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Taking my Erasmus year in Spain has undoubtedly been the best decision I have ever made. Travel has always been in my blood and I have ever wished to have the confidence to get myself out of England by myself and set my life up abroad. I choose De Montfort University largely because of DMUGlobal and the opportunities they offer around the world, including Erasmus and as soon as I stepped into their first presentation about Erasmus, I knew it was for me. The only issue was is that I wanted to go for a year and I wasn’t able to transfer my credits from the year abroad to DMU, thus I would have to do an extra year. But as I felt I had been let down a lot by my English university experience, I decided to take the leap and go for it anyway!

The next dilemma that came was choosing the place out of a huge list of universities around Europe. I was torn between Dusseldorf, Bordeaux, Oulu and Madrid, but since I always had a soft spot for Spain and desperately wanted to learn Spanish, I chose CEU San Pablo in Madrid and there my journey began.

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I visited Madrid beforehand to choose a flat to live in and visit the city and university, both which impressed me but I still didn’t have huge expectations. When I arrived it was hot. Really hot. Madrid seemed hugely intimidating and rather lonely, it was hard opening a bank, finding everything for the flat, getting the transport card, finding the uni and not being able to speak any Spanish.

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But just a couple of weeks in, I was falling in love with Madrid and the people there were wonderful. My time in Madrid went from strength to strength and without me even realising it for a long time, I was living my dream. I had my own little flat, a foster cat, I was learning Spanish slowly but surely, Madrid at my doorstep and at the weekends I took day-trips to neighbouring cities, or if the girls were up for it I went on bigger trips to other countries or the coast. At the start of this year, I did have a wobble after a break-up, moving flats and all my friends leaving from the first semester. But after an amazing trip to Porto with great friends and an eye-opening adventure in Morocco where I had the most amazing time ever with more wonderful company, things just carried on the uprise until the day I left.

Now, it is time to awaken from this wonderful dream and whirl of emotions, experiences and evolution that has been my life for the past 10 months. It’s time now to work hard and study hard so I can accomplish this as a real lifestyle when I finish university. I know that Madrid is a once in a lifetime experience, but this is not the end for me, it’s just the beginning of an international lifestyle.

I have never been so inspired to travel and meet more people as now, and I have no doubt that there are more adventures to come. The only thing I am questioning is not when, but where?

Although not everyone will have the same positive experience of living abroad as this, some of you may not even be interested in travelling and will find your happiness elsewhere in careers or studies or families. But I hope everyone has the chance to find their own Madrid.

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My 8 Favourite Places in Madrid

So my time here in this beautiful city, Madrid, is reaching it’s final days so I wish to share with you my favourite places here that I have discovered over the past nine months, all of which make living here particularly special for me.

If you are still living here and haven’t been to these places yet, they are definitely worth taking a look at before you leave. If you are visiting Madrid, choosing a few of these to go to will make your stay here even more charming.

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Opera

The first tourist stop that most people make in Madrid is Puerta de Sol, which is a beautiful plaza that is the literal centre of Spain. However, one of my favourite plazas in Madrid is that Plaza de Oriente that is very close to the metro Opera. Not only does it recognisably contain the famous Opera house, Teatro Real, but it is framed by some of the grandest buildings in Madrid in an arch, with the largest palace in Europe as it’s backdrop. To the north of Plaza de Oriente, there are beautiful gardens (Jardines de Sabatini) linking the palace to Plaza de España. Just a short walk to the south, near the end of Calle de Bailén, there is a small park with a magnificent view of the Palacio Real hanging over the city that I find particularly stunning, as well as inside the palace itself. I must when visiting Opera at night there is something magical about the majestic buildings lit up against the dark sky.

Parque Cerro del Tío Pío

If you want to see the best sunset in Madrid, Tío Pío is undoubtedly the place to go. Although it is quite a trek if you live anywhere north of the centre in Madrid, it is a trip worth making. This park is just a ten-minute uphill walk from metro stop Buenos Aires on the blue metro line (linea 1). At first this park may not catch the eye, but after climbing to the top of one of the small hills, a breathtaking view of Madrid can be seen like no other in the city. It is the perfect place to visit with a loved one or a group of friends with some vino to watch the sun go down over the sleepy city.

Lago

Just one part of Casa de Campo, the largest park in Madrid that stretches for miles and miles, Lago is the perfect escape from the city’s heat in the summer! With many different activities, it is perfect for anyone and everyone. There is the option to either go for a short stroll around the lake, sit and relax with a glass of tinto de verano overlooking the palace and cathedral, mountain bike or hike through the many trails in the park, take the cable cars over the large park or even go swimming at Piscina de Lago (my favourite part of lago!)

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Malasaña

Oh Malasaña… what a quirky, fun barrio it is! I must say this will be one of the neighbourhoods I am sure to miss the most when I return back to England. If it is a bar crawl, food crawl or vintage shop crawl you are looking for – Malasaña has it all! I keep finding new quirky things there each time I visit, for example last time I stumbled into this shop (Pinta en Copas) where you get free tea and coffee as you unleash your creativity by painting your own piece of pottery. There is nothing much more satisfying than getting some work done at one of the laid back cafés such as Café de la Luz or Toma Café, then browsing through the vintage stores such as Magpie Vintage or Templo de Susu, having a healthy lunch at Bluenasaña or the Greek & Shop, moving onto to a natural ice lolly for desert at Lolo Polos then meeting friends at one of the many unique bars in this wonderful place to sip sangria or cocktails until it is time to move onto to the party in one of the neighbouring barriosChueca or El Centro. Day well spent!

El Retiro

This may just win the prize for my favourite park in Madrid, which is a hard place to earn as Madrid boasts such wonderful parks. But there is something about El Retiro. This park is located just off the centre, bordering Atocha, Banco de España and Ibiza, but by stepping into this park it takes you miles away from the feeling of the hustle and bustle of the capital city in just minutes. Although El Retiro is slightly busier than the other parks, it is easy to see why. With its beautiful vast lake, the Crystal Palace, exquisite statues, sculpted gardens, la Rosaleda (a charming collection of roses), and last but not least the Monumento a Alfonso XIII which often attracts talented buskers that never fail to transport me to another world in the beautiful surroundings.

La Latina

Not only do I love the way this neighbourhood’s name sounds “La Latina”, but I also love the relaxed, cool vibe that comes with being here. Every week this barrio hosts a large flea market, which is definitely my favourite way to spend a Sunday morning in Madrid, wandering through all the wild and wonderful stalls before stopping off at Mercado San Fernando in Lavapíes for lunch or relaxing in La Latina’s square (Plaza Cebada) listening to the free live music with a bite to eat from the Mercado de la Cebada that backs onto it. But La Latina is not merely good for a lazy Sunday morning, but it’s also great for the bustling nightlife too! Walking though the streets at night in this neighbourhood is like no other, with the excitement for the night to come radiating from the buildings and the streets hard for anyone to squeeze through due to clusters of locals and visitors alike pouring out onto the streets from the bars (such as Leka Leka, La Buha or Los Pajaritos) in animated chatter – even in the dead of winter! 

Gran Vía

Coming up the stairs from the metro to Gran Vía never fails to take my breath away, whether it be on a peaceful winter morning or at dusk on a teeming Friday night, it’s magnificence always touches me. Callao tends to end up being the meeting place for a good day or night ahead, with the Schweppes sign towering above the plaza and the stained glass windows above Desigual, Plaza del Callao always makes it’s statement. Gran Vía is the place for shopping, with all the brands scattered down its elaborate street and Fuencarral leading off it with alternative and hip stores. It is the place to be. But Gran Vía is also the place for parties, with international clubs such as Independence, Moondance and ‘locals’ club Star Coyote that are hosted on the infamous street or nearby.

Parque del Oeste

Quite different feeling to that of Casa de Campo, although it is no where near as large as it’s neighbouring park, Parque del Oeste has many different elements all interlinked through beautiful walkways and maintained gardens. At the top of the park towards the north there is part of the park that rests just beneath the Faro de Moncloa, an observatory tower that allows visitors to see all the way across Madrid in an 180˚ glass observatory zone. At the bottom of Parque del Oeste is the Templo de Debod, a 200bc gift from Egypt rebuilt in Madrid in 1972, it is a place that feels like no other, arguably in the whole of Spain. Because of its high position, the temple is also a wonderful place to watch the sunset as guitarists or saxophone players that leave their impression upon the young night often serenade it.

 

Although I have been here almost 10 months, there are still things that even I have not done but plan to do in the next couple weeks that may be worthy of this list, this includes to:

  • Drink the famous milky cocktail in the cave bar El Champadaz near Moncloa.
  • Visit Mercado Antón Martin and Barceló
  • Watch the sunset from Circulo del Bella Artes
  • Eat the homemade tortilla from La Buha
  • Watch a flamenco show at La Taberna de Mister Pinkleton
  • Listen to the live jazz music in Café Barbieri
  • See the turtles and oasis in the Atocha Railway Station
  • Watch the guards change at the Royal Palace

Finding Contentment

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman

Now this is a little off topic, but as I mentioned in my last post, I have been having a rough few weeks in Madrid and I believe it’s important to talk about the dark side of travelling and the effect it has on oneself as well as the beautiful moment.

So a friend of mine taught me a term the other day that I had heard of before, but never really understand completely, “self-sabotage.” Now for those of you who are unsure of the meaning too, it can be anything from procrastination to self-harming, but the area that I am talking about is in connections, when you self-sabotage in a relationship (be that with a family-member, friend or lover). This is when a person’s ‘survival mode’ kicks in, where one goes into stress-response and fears getting emotionally hurt. It’s when you feel as though you’re inadequate as a person, the fear that you cannot handle rejection/loss, or the feeling that you have to give yourself up to be loved. As a result of this, you end up freaking out and putting the other person down, becoming angry and pushing them away.

At the time I thought, ‘but why would anyone do that’? It doesn’t make sense. Well, that was until I did exactly that just a few days later and in that moment I realised that in fact, I often do.

Now when I care about someone I do so deeply and I would do anything to avoid hurting them, but unfortunately I can also be painstakingly volatile to those very same people. What I say in these moments of anger, I often don’t mean and it sadly doesn’t represent me as who I feel I really am. I know that I am far from perfect. I am lost. I am insecure of myself as a person. I am sensitive. But one thing I know is that making people feel bad about themselves is not something I take any joy in at all. Unfortunately, because of my fiery nature, this does happen and it’s the people I love the most that I do this to. I self-sabotage.

During my time in Madrid, I have built incredible friendships with people that I admire hugely, and all I can wish is that when I am their age (just a few years away, oof) that I can find some of that inner-peace that they possess. I feel that making these connections is one of the most brilliant parts of travelling and living abroad.

These wonderful people have taught me that to build strength and flexibility, we should open our minds to people and ideas we don’t like, and pick fights with those we do. And that is exactly what I am trying, to open my mind and my heart to everything. I know for them it cannot be easy to be friends with a lost person who is confused and contradictory at best, yet they take it in their stride. Although in the situation aforementioned I feel I have pushed one friend too far with my meaningless outbursts, which has really made me realise that this isn’t who I want to be and I have to make a change in direction to become that person I am contented with.

But don’t take this post in the wrong way, I am in love with my life right now and I feel such joy at times it’s unreal. I am incredibly lucky to have these moments in my life at such a young age. I am proud of myself for overcoming crazy anxiety, selective-mutism and bouts of depression and to feel the way that I do now and the confidence that I have is something I could never imagine in a million years. To be living in another country, in a beautiful city such as Madrid with such wonderful friends was something of my dreams.

January

It has been a crisp, cold January here in Madrid and already 2017 for me has already been filled with heartbreak, passion and regretfully many Netflix binges to escape the reality of exams.

This city feels different already, like a shell of it’s former self, a self of just a mere two weeks ago. Now I feel somewhat alone, it’s just me and my foster cat living in our little flat in the middle of the bustling city; many of my friends have returned to their home cities dotted around Europe; my ‘boyfriend now is undoubtedly an ‘ex’ and I have been shutting myself in from the cold with a good old cup of tea in my hand and revision papers scattered everywhere. Nonetheless, I believe that this is nothing that a good trip can’t fix, and I plan to do just that on Tuesday.

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Mi piso y gato

Christmas in England was just lovely. It had been four months since I stepped on my home country’s land and I have to say despite how much of a home bird I thought I was, I didn’t really miss England last year. In fact, I felt disenchanted, broken-hearted and down right embarrassed of my country at some times.

That was until I actually went back home, now it was only for two weeks, but I feel different about my country already. It was just lovely to be back and see the Christmas lights shining bright on the houses, to see the cold air coating the garden in a splendid blanket of frost and to be able to hug and ride my lovely dogs and horses. England can be beautiful.

The weirdest thing is that when I went back I felt so different, yet home was almost the same and that is something that once frustrated me but now it is wholly comforting.

I hope for this year to be a happy one once again, I mean the luck of the little yellow king I found in my Roscon de Reyes must be true, right?!

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European Education Clashes

‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn’ – Benjamin Franklin

 As an ERASMUS student, I have met some great from all around Europe (Spain, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland, Belgium, Italy, France and Scotland) and I have learnt many things about different their European education systems and the influence this has personally on each individual.

Finland previously has been idolized by Europe for their education system being the top in world, and even though they have lost their place to Asian countries using extreme methods to get the best grades (with 16 hour school days in South Korea), they are still considered the best in Europe. Surprisingly, despite its astronomical student loans for university goers and little focus on foreign languages, England is second in this ranking. In fact, it’s even sixth in the world!

So what are these rankings actually based on? In a BBC report on this subject, it states they “include the OECD’s Pisa tests, and two major US-based studies, Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and Pirls (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). They also include higher-education graduation rates, which helped the UK to a much higher position than in Pisa tests, which saw the UK failing to make the top 20.”

But stats about how many people have graduated and generalised test results don’t necessarily mean that it is the ‘best’ education system, what about student satisfaction? Surely this is important? For international students, Ireland has been ranked highest for student satisfaction at 9.04, whilst England is dragging behind the Scandinavian countries at 8.75. This seems to ring true from the pride I have heard from students from Scandinavia and Ireland about their education institutions.

Coming from an English university and studying in Spain, flaws can be seen in the Spanish higher education system, but England can certainly learn important qualities from Spain. I have gone from eight-hours a week lecture-time, only writing essays and exams for my course, to twenty-one-hours a week including essays, presentations, group-work, practical work and exams, which allows for more development in important skills such as communication and technology.

Nonetheless, I do feel I have stepped back to feeling like 16-year-old me in my first year of college, the way the Spanish university students behave does surprise me with the loud talking in class, messaging their friends on Facebook instead of listening to their teacher and making-out in the hallway. But maybe that is simply just difference in culture, which is something I certainly don’t want to criticise. However, the exams set by the teachers have questions with no room for interpretation, which highly frustrates me as a student reading English Literature and Media, Culture and Communication Studies (wow, that’s a mouthful!) as in my subject everything must be interpreted and backed up by extensive independent research, which simply just doesn’t happen here.

Of course, I am enjoying this laid-back attitude and thriving from the lack of stress that overwhelmed me in my first year of university in England and I have heard similar feeling from my friends here, particularly German and Swedish. But, I mean, where else is it acceptable to wander off and enjoy some delicious tapas and vino tinto in their school cafe during afternoon break? Or have a picnic in El Retiro park for lunch and not have to worry about appearing 10 minutes late to class? I certainly know I am enjoying my time here and I am picking up wonderful practical skills I simply never would have the chance to do back home in England.

I believe we all have a lot to learn from one another.

Horse-riding in the Spanish campo

“What if I fall?” – “Oh, my darling, but what if you fly?”

As an avid horse lover and equestrian, I was concerned that my time here in Madrid would be horseless. Luckily, this isn’t the case, and thanks to a wonderful group on Facebook (Madrid Pet Lovers, you should check it out if you love animals and live in Spain, I have somehow acquired a lovely foster cat through this group!) I found other likeminded horsey people who recommended different stables to me and even arranged a ride together that weekend, exciting!

My parents were visiting on that said weekend, so at first I was reluctant, but my mum (even more of a horse-lover than me) sent me off with my step-dad, Marlon, and off we went out to the stables in the Spanish campo with the girls from Madrid Pet Lovers. Surprisingly, the stables wasn’t too far out at all, just 3 stops from Sol on the Renfe Cercanias to Cantoblanco Universidad and a 20 minute walk across roads and tunnels until we reached grassland with horses grazing peacefully and the most beautiful grey Andalusian dancing in the ménage with his rider.

Then in came some horses from their last ride, the Spaniards high up on their mounts, helmetless and carefree. As each of rider jumped off, they handed over their horses, I got a big bay horse who looked kind and gentle. At first, I was a little disappointed as I would have liked a grey Andalusian, but I felt relaxed on him, so my disappointment soon went as I settled into his rhythm. My step-dad had decided beforehand that he didn’t want to ride and would instead walk the trail taking photographs, hence the amazing pictures.

As we left the yard, I immediately felt confident on this big horse, so not long into the ride, I felt comfortable enough to push him into a brisk trot, keeping up with the speedy Spaniards ahead! It was such a lovely place to ride, one side was a view of the mountains stretching out far, and on the other side was the skyline of Madrid, the three tall skyscrapers glowing orange in the setting sun.

I soon asked if we could go for a gallop, so me, Louise and Sabrina went off onto the stubble and encouraged our tired horses into a steady lope, not pushing them too hard.

When we got back into the stables, it was with a huge grin on my face and a big pat to my horse, it had been such an amazing hour and a half!

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Unfortunately, since that ride I have been back twice and have ruined my nerves a little. The second time by falling off a rearing horse before it took off and vanished out of site in seconds, along with my friend on her horse, which was a pretty scary ordeal for me as I had not fallen off a horse since I was 12-years-old, an accident where I was left with a life-changing injury (a story for another day). The third time, I was nervous after my fall, so each time my excited horse leaped forward into canter or threw his head around, I froze in fear, anticipating him to buck or take off.

But now I hope to take riding lessons here in Spain to get over the nerves so I am able to go on an amazing ride again in the Spanish campo once again!

Toma Cafe

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in Madrid, with my laptop on my knee after researching different columns for my ‘Opinion Journalism’ course, I decided I wanted to get out of the flat.

But what to do on a rainy day? After considering a soggy walk in the park, messaging a friend for suggestions for a group activity and endlessly waiting for their reply, dragging my reluctant boyfriend away from his game to do something, I settled on visiting a coffee shop on my own.

Now for most travellers, this is an everyday part of their life, but this was actually the first time I had decided to visit a coffee shop alone for no other reason but to take some time out. So first of all, I was panicking frantically searching for reviews of cafes in Madrid for solo travellers on TripAdvisor to no avail, although one cafe did catch my eye called ‘Toma Cafe,’ a seemingly quirky cafe just a few stops away from Canal on the metro.

So off I went, armed with my big fluffy hooded parka and bag with my ‘Diverso 1’ (my A1 Spanish Textbook) and my travel journal, unsure of what to do with my time alone in the coffee shop. Even though as a previous waitress in a coffee shop in England myself I have seen many people enjoying a cup of coffee or a spot of lunch alone, albeit elderly.

When I arrived at the cafe I must admit I walked past it the first time as it looked too crowded to sit down, but I circled back, kicking myself as this stupidity and entered the cafe.

To my surprise, as soon as I walked in the tiny cafe, I spotted many people having coffee alone. Some reading newspapers, others watching the world go by and a couple of people working on their laptops. So having a new found confidence, off I went to order my drink. I was pleasantly shocked to find out in this cafe they have cappuccinos, flavoured lattes and even my favourite – chai lattes – as well as selection of unusual and traditional cakes. I couldn’t help but order a ‘Chocolate Guinness’ Cake I had spotted out the corner of my eye with a cheeky grin from the friendly server. Well, maybe I had been staring at the cakes for a little while, mouth watering…

I then scuttled off to a chair on a long bench where two other people were sat alone and placed myself in the middle and began sipping my delicious chai latte and nibbling on the surprisingly tasty and moist slice of cake. I was completely contented, in fact, I preferred being alone in the coffee than if I had gone with a friend. I simply enjoyed my time away, amongst a crowd of different languages… french, german, spanish, english…, my journal in hand to jot down last weeks events, the lovely mellow pop playing complimenting the sound of the rain outside and the smell of proper coffee, no more ‘cafe con leche.’

So thanks to Toma Cafe, I will now be an avid solo coffee shop visitor, so thank you!

 

Living the Dream

“Don’t dream your life; Live your dream”

So before I arrived in Madrid for my year as an ERASMUS student, I was numbingly apprehensive about what to expect. My hopes weren’t sky high as my experience at university last year, my first year, was difficult for me both emotionally and physically.

So as me and boyfriend, Sam, packed our bags and said our tearful goodbyes at East Midland airport, I was excited but not overwhelmingly. Our first stop was Malaga to visit Sam’s family and there I had the most amazing few days, I was that kind of content where I felt I was in another world. A solace before the difficulties that were to come.

In Madrid, we have a beautiful flat paid six months upfront as we had no doubt in our heads that Sam would find a full time job with no issues, as he is bilingual with years of working experience behind him in both Spain and England. Or so we thought.

I have completely fallen in love with the city. I love the laid back attitude; I love how many languages I hear each day; I love the Andalusian horses; I love the metro; I love ‘tinto de verano’; I love walking to university as the sun rises; I love my lime green kitchen; I love the parks; I love the lilac bin bags that smell like parma violets and most of all I love the people I have met here. I finally feel as though I am living my dream and I have found what I am here to do in this life: travel!

Yet, unfortunately, we are now in our second month here and Sam has failed to secure a job, which is placing a huge shadow of our adventure in Madrid. He has gone back to Malaga and earned some money to keep us afloat, but otherwise money is simply draining out my student savings account and it pains me to think what our future holds here.

But for now I shall continue to study, learn spanish and meet new people in this beautiful city that never sleeps.