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!

IMG_1466

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.

IMG_4617 - Version 2

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.

IMG_4337

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.

IMG_5317

Advertisements

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.

IMG_4337

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!)

IMG_1361

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

Powers of Porto

As I was coming back from Porto to Madrid yesterday, I wondered if the excitement that wells up inside me whenever I hear the plane’s engine thunder into life and shudder as it speeds up ready to take off into the air will ever leave me. It certainly hasn’t yet.

I visited Porto this week for a few days as a last minute plan, which actually seems to be becoming a bit of a habit. On the Friday night my friends drunkenly invited me to stay with one of their grandparents in Porto, at first I was a curious but doubtful I would actually make it. Nevertheless, the day after (albeit a little hung-over and heartbroken) my curiosity and love for Portugal drove me to book the flights and join my friends.

P1010423

We had planned to all meet up on the way to the airport at a metro stop, as despite flying with different companies, our planes were leaving at the same time; however, with my Portuguese friend’s alarm failing to go off, we were plunged into a mad rush to the airport as she arrived an hour later than planned, but thankfully all of us made it to the boarding gates with time to spare, even with leaving just thirty minutes from the airport doors to the gates.

Even as low as I felt earlier in the morning, that roar of the engine made my heart beat faster and some kind of serenity washed over me. I flew out with TAPPortugal, which turned out to be a lovely choice as it was a small plane, a row to myself, and a free Pastel de Nata with coffee. The landing wasn’t as spectacular as I expected, with a thick overcast sky covering the small city, but I had a spark of hope in me that it was to be a good trip, and I wasn’t wrong.

After we landed, the three of us met with some of my friend’s Portuguese family members for brunch who all greeted me and my other British friend with such kindness, I felt right at home and joined in the parts of the conversation I could understand in Portuguese or shared conversation in broken English. I tried a delicious dish Balcalhau com Nata that had a similar consistency to fish pie, but more creamy and certainly very tasty! We then had a nap and crawled out of our beds and onto the tram to Porto under breaking clouds that slowly revealed the beautiful evening sun. After getting of the tram, we took a slow walk along the river and then chose a café on the waterside, O Muro, that offered a jar of sangria to share (which was slightly watery so a bit disappointing as I’ve known Portugal to usually do tasty fruity sangria), some smoked sausage (linguiça) for my friend and mini fishcakes (bolihnos de bacalhau) for me, both of which were delicious.

When we woke the next day, it felt like a cold morning, but as we opened the shutters, warm light gushed into the room and we cheerfully prepared for our day in Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. First of all, we wanted to catch the view from the bridge so we climbed above the city walking upon the 146ft high Ponte Dom Luís I, we then took the cable car down to the shore on the other side which is known for it’s famous wine “caves”, one of which we took the time to explore in a vinho do porto tasting session, a new and chic experience for all three of us. It certainly was interesting to find out from Taylor’s the bond that the British and Portuguese have over their port wine.

After, we went and had lunch at what Erasmus+ students of my uni have adopted to call “spanish time” (15:00) as they’re known for their late mealtimes. We chose a lovely restaurant overlooking the river and Porto itself to try some fresh fish and then continued on our way, stumbling across some stalls from where we bought some cork jewellery before walking back across the bridge to the have a look at the shops that were still open. For our supper, my friends lovely grandmother prepared us a snack for tea, as she had been preparing us a big breakfast of coffee, bread and different cheeses each morning, consisting of Portuguese sponge cake and chamomile tea.

On the morning of our last day, waiting for my friends to get ready, I had a lovely simple conversation with the Portuguese grandmother where she talked to me about her pets, her family but she also told me something that touched my heart when I thanked for her hospitality, “I do everything with pleasure and I do it with love”, which is something I feel I should use in my own life. Not being afraid to offer kindnesses to people you don’t yet know, there is no need for coldness or aversion, each acquaintance is a potential friendship or good conversation.

Later that day, we went to the beach for the afternoon, arming ourselves with snacks and sun cream, we soaked up the last rays of sun and enjoyed a refreshing wade in the ocean water. We took in the beautiful pastel sunset from a beach bar overlooking the industrial port of Porto and we were cooked a delicious meal of rice, fried chicken, tuna omelette and olives at home before we took an early retirement to bed for our 6:30am flight!

Now, I am never sad to be coming home to Madrid, I love this city and it has done so much for me, but I could have happily stayed in Portugal as now I am feeling holiday blues for the first time in a long time. But that can only mean one thing, right? Portugal could be my next home after my studies finish in England.

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.

Screen Shot 2016-11-11 at 08.39.41.png
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.