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

Moving Forward

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world” – Freya Stark

I hope everyone gets to feel like this someday.

I have finally found happiness. Don’t get me wrong, right now I am still heartbroken, afraid and lost, but the overwhelming wave of joy and love for my life and the people around me that I get is so strong sometimes I feel I could burst. I used to be afraid of this feeling, like the sun beating down on the back of our necks, I feared the passing clouds that rushed to impede its warm embrace. But that’s all the clouds are, passing. Happiness comes and goes, and that’s okay.

I was about to make the wrong decision, go back to the person who had used me for months and attempted to control what I do, but unfortunately for him, I am stubborn. And thank you also to the guidance and actions of those who truly care, I didn’t go to him.

Instead I took the plane ticket that I had bought to see him in Malaga and I went alone. My flight was at 8.45 in the morning, and I had finished my very last minute booking of accommodation and transport around 2am. After 3 hours sleep and my head and heart racing, I took the metro to the airport bleary-eyed and jumped on the tiny plane that took me across the country. One of the best decisions I have made, only falling short of my decision to live in Madrid.

When I arrived in Malaga, I had no expectations, I had booked a hostel on the beach (Bella Vista), which was just beautiful. As I walked through the immaculate streets I was pleasantly surprised by the winter heat, 20C, a whole 15C warmer than Madrid! I dropped my bags off at the hostel to a kindly Frenchman and his fiery Spanish wife (plus my thick winter jumper and parka) and had a bocadillo and a cana on the seafront. I then walked along the still, calm coast simply enjoy the warm air and the gentle waves lapping over my bare feet.

My time in Malaga was very peaceful and pleasant, a perfect place for a time of reflecting and healing. I met an inspiring man who was originally from the Caribbean and had made his success as a Media Production Manager in London and a sweet girl from America who was studying in Scotland and was on her first trip. I had delicious food in a vegetarian restaurant (Vegetariano El Calafate) and treated myself as I was wandering around the shops in the old town. I was sad to have to leave the warmth and peace of Malaga so soon, but I was looking forward to my next adventure meeting my friend in Granada.

As I waiting for the bus I sat next to a woman who I assumed was waiting for a bus too as she was so well presented, but a couple of glances over and a shaky “hola” I fathomed she was homeless, clutching her trolley with few possessions and a distant smile on her face. Not long after I had taken this seat, a brash charismatic gentlemen came over dressed in fine clothes but with the smell of alcohol on his breath, he greeted this lady in perfect English with such gladness, it was clear they were old friends. The man then turned to me, I nervously replied with short answers first of all; selfishly worried they would ask for something from me. But no, how wrong I was, the man admitted his alcoholism had led to him loosing everything and that he too was homeless yet he did not want anything from me as I was a student. We talked about my trip and studies, their families and how they were managing with the winter cold. After the man had left, the woman turned to me with tears in her eyes and thanked me for not judging them and commented how much she admired her friend for his kindness. I soon had to leave for my bus, but I thanked the woman for her company and wished her the best. This exchange made me realise that you really do meet inspirational people from all walks of life while you travel.

When I arrived in Granada I again was taken aback by the cold weather, around 2C, as I had barely eaten that day I didn’t feel well, so that night I curled up in the cold room and only awoke when my friend arrived. On the Wednesday, both of us shattered from the journeys from Malaga and Madrid, I took a walk around Alhambra, had a delicious lunch with mulled wine in a lovely café (La Fontana) near Alhambra and met up later with my friend to watch the sunset over Granada and wandered around the beautiful Arabic stores near the river.

The rest of the trip, we visited the different cathedrals and the city centre, walked up to San Nicholas plaza at night which has the most beautiful view of the palace and Alhambra, I bought some Arabic styled earrings, had a henna tattoo and ate a fairly priced delicious three course dinner in an adorable hippie restaurant (Kasbah), recommended to us by a chatty shop owner from Derby, the city where I grew up in.

We also took a bus up into the famous mountain range, Sierra Nevada, where I admired the skiers on the slopes and felt like a child again playing around the thick snow. We took a ski lift up to the top of the mountain that could also be used for non-skiing visitors, which offered the most stunning views across the mountain range.

I then had to make the trip back to Malaga to get my plane to Madrid on the Saturday, a drive through mountains and tiny Spanish villages greeted me on my way, and when I got to Malaga I simply took my time enjoying lunch in the warm sunshine and arrived at the airport early to take a stroll through the airport shops, taking testers of lotions and vino tinto.

Although I had a great trip, I was pleased to be getting on the plane because I know another beautiful city is waiting for me on the other end, my home; Madrid.

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Ashamed of my country

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” – M. Gandhi

In the aftermath of the results from the US election, the whole world is left in shock as Donald Trump takes the keys to the white house, maybe the exception of this shock is Britain. Having our own moment of foolishness earlier this year with ‘Brexit’, we are well aware that anything is possible. Many of us are now aware what it feels like to be ashamed of our nationalities, something we once uttered with pride, now a shattered emblem upon the floor.

American and British citizens are arguably more united than ever through recent events, yet also are in despair of each other’s decisions they have made for their countries. Half of Brits believed the Brexit scare would pass. Half of America believed the Trump nightmare would end. But here we both are, many of us ashamed to show our faces to the rest of the world. The world looking to us with disappointment.

Yet this feeling is nothing new, we are only experiencing a taster of what it feels like to be blamed for something that is out of our hands. We placed our votes. The rest of our nations decided against us and we are feeling the wrath of their decisions.

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The first results that come up on Google.

But we would never hold innocent people accountable for someone of their race who commits terrible crimes, would we? This hasn’t been happening for hundreds of years to minority groups, has it?

We should not feel ashamed for our countries decisions; the shame should be felt from our own discrimination of other races. For example, Muslims have been looked down upon and made to feel shame for “.006625%”[i] of their population being extremist, when over 50% of Americans and Brits voted for promoters of racist, xenophobic and misogynist ideals.

As of now, nobody knows what is going to happen with Britain out of Europe or America with Trump as their president. But those who did not vote for these matters are not to blame and we should not be ashamed that we have been let down by our countries, but rather be the catalyst for a positive change and show the rest of the world that we are not all racist and many of us are just as devastated by the hate crimes that are happening as a consequence of these right-wing movements as the groups they are targeting.

As for myself, although I have fallen in love with Spain in a time I feel failed by my own country, I still cannot wait to be on that plane at Christmastime and see the rolling hills and patchwork farms of England, and oh-my-goodness I am well overdue for a good old Sunday roast and a hug from my family! This is the Great Britain I still love.

People should not be basing their pride in their nation, particularly in these disjointed times, but rather be proud of their own personal achievements and views.

[i] https://www.quora.com/How-many-extremist-Muslims-are-there-when-compared-with-the-wider-and-world-wide-Muslim-population

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!