20 July 2014

this is the end

it's a question i've heard endlessly since my final flight touched down at dulles, in the ensuing weeks when i quickly went back to normal almost-college kid on a normal almost-college summer. 

"are you glad to be back?"

am i happy to be home, done with my year of nomadism, my year with either the privilege or the burden of never being tied too long to a place? or am i already restless and ready to see more?

it's likely a balance of both. 

it's funny. it's almost like this could be last summer in the blink of an eye. i'm home, working, hanging out with friends when i have time, practicing tae kwon do, eating dinners with family, always intending but never quite realizing big projects like room reorganizing and reading the whole english canon. in a way, i wish it were last june - so many unknown cool places and experiences and people coming up, looking forward to so many things and not even knowing what half of them are yet. but life is also even better now. i have those behind me, i've seen those incredible places, made friends with those impressive people, accomplished everything i set out to do and more. i'm a black belt, i speak french and perfect spanish and even attempted wolof, i can navigate senegalese dirt roads and argentinian public transport and french train stations with ease. i love everything i got out of this year.

for a while now, looking forward has been just a series of exciting plans coming up. of course part of that excitement was that i was on the road, thriving on my ability and opportunity to land in a new place with a new purpose every few weeks. but despite my insatiable wanderlust, i'm equally excited for school and i see no reason to drop that fresh outlook. life is exciting! there are so many cool things coming up! even if the present seems mundane or i don't even know what is in store yet. 

looking back, choosing a gap year was one of the hardest decisions of my life - much more challenging than picking a college - but i can't imagine it any other way. i knew i would have regretted not taking one - and this year was all about living without regrets. better to seize the opportunity now, embrace "yes," than live the rest of my life thinking wistfully, "i wish i'd taken a gap year," with a pang of jealousy in addition to a surge of happiness for anyone i meet who's taking one. (granted, i still feel both of those. can i take a couple more gap years?)

heading off to school is not so intimidating anymore - just another exciting adventure in a whole string of them, and i'm totally prepared. (though i may have forgotten everything i know about calculus, which is stressful.) i'm a little apprehensive about going in with peers who were just last month donning prom gowns and high school graduation caps. that seems like many moons ago, many iterations of my self since. i would be a completely different person if i'd gone straight to college. i'm sure i would have been happy, but i know that with this year behind me i'll be happier still, more confident and self-assured. 

(...even if i'm going to have an identity crisis over the social acceptability and/or winter-weather practicality of gap year pants. in some ways, i'll be a gap year kid forever.)

though i'm publishing it a bit late, i wrote this post on june 29, 2014, exactly one year to the day since creating this blog. i've come so far and learned so much, but i'm still me. and even if i'll never be totally glad that it's over, i'm so glad to have this blog at least partially documenting what i've been up to.

i know i'm so fortunate to have the chance to take a gap year at all, and i'm constantly overwhelmed with gratitude for every opportunity i've been given this year. no matter my struggles, life couldn't be better. 

x, m

p.s. this post, finished on the exact anniversary of my very first blog post, is intended to be my last reflection post on my gap year blog, but i still have a couple more posts in mind with various photos and things. when i get time! 

28 June 2014

paris... take three

my journal, may 11, 2014, begins:

"it's nice how coming back to paris feels familiar, almost like a homecoming. no pressure to pack in all the sights or stress about getting too lost."

we know paris.

after arriving at gare austerlitz, we caught a taxi to our hostel in montmartre, my absolute favorite neighborhood. tamar and i went for a fruitless hunt for food and an atm. i ended up having to lend her my american cash to get her through paris and on a train to amsterdam for her flight home. but while traveling, money issues happen to the best of us... after i literally ran out of all money or access to money with three weeks left in senegal, i'm happy to help in any way i can.

while tamar speed-repacked her luggage at her family friends' apartment, near the musée d'orsay, maddy and i headed for île de la cité.

ate mediocre cheese crêpes and argued our way in for free to a random historic building that turned out to be the most boring museum in existence. actually it's the conciergerie, a former prison, but i'm so glad i didn't pay. we stumbled upon marie antoinette's tomb, which we had no idea was there (throwback to da vinci in amboise... how have we just come across so many important graves in france?) then we hightailed it outta there; we had to go meet T.

palais de justice.

next door was the sainte-chapelle, the real reason i'd dragged maddy to l'île, a place i'd been wanting to go ever since grandad brought it up a few weeks prior. the stained glass is stunning. unfortunately, i only had about 30 seconds to see it. unlike the conciergerie next door, the chapel turned out to really only be free for eu residents, and i couldn't justify paying just to run in and out. it was immensely frustrating to come all this way and not get to go inside, though i snuck a peak through the giant wooden doors as we left.

outside the sainte-chapelle

weighed down somewhat by tamar's many pounds of luggage but more so by the impending thunderstorm, we headed on a long-anticipated pilgrimage.

a little bit of senegal, in a very different place.

i don't think i'd ever been to jardin de tuileries, by the louvre.

to ANGELINA. a perfect cup of hot chocolate, and an indulgence so worth it for today.

aside from a money-changing ordeal that took far longer than it should have, we headed directly from the garden to gare to nord, to see T off. well, we all had nutella crêpes by the station, too. one last hurrah.

This Is The End.

it wasn't the same once tamar was gone. but we did get to check into our room at the hostel, a bit seedy but with a fabulous view of the sacre-cœur.

maddy had never been to the sacre-cœur before, and it was one of the most special stops on my time in paris with mom and laura in march. it doesn't close until late at night, so we summited the steps at sunset.

inside was magical and full-circle for me. i love that you can't take photos in the basilica, so the only souvenirs i have are two memories, one in march with my three moms (mom, laura, nora :) ) and the second in may with my best friend. it was emotional, actually, and the whole moment kind of took me aback.

i didn't really need to take photos; i'd taken them all almost two months earlier. but this one spot is my favorite spot in the city, and i was excited to share it with maddy, see it one last time.

maddy and i spent the last night of our gap year buying bread, cheese, and chocolate at an epicerie and eating them in the hostel kitchen as we eavesdropped on the conversations of our argentinian fellow guests, privately laughing at how many mate tea-making accessories the porteños had brought on with them to europe.

hard to believe it's over. i feel like i spent the whole year so aware of where and when i was and how unique those circumstances were, yet the end was still an adjustment and i'm still processing all my reflections.

good night, paris.

on may 12, we used the last day of our eurail passes to hop on the train to charles de gaulle. 

x, m

¡Por fin, Barcelona!

The last new city of our gap years.

Ten months, four continents, dozens of cities, and a couple best friends - it all culminated here.

It had to be legendary. Everything felt momentous.

Barcelona did not disappoint.

We arrived on the evening of May 7 at Barcelona Sants, whose gleaming tile floors, high-end retail shops, and bevy of balloon-toting family members made it seem more like an airport that a train station. We were exuberant, strutting out to the taxi stand like the Cheetah Girls. (Though our primary nickname for our motley crew will always be "the wombmates," after our stay at Wombats in Munich.) 

Barcelona is legendary. We had three whole days to explore. Getting to a Spanish-speaking place was exciting for me - but Catalunya no és Espanya?! - I wasn't expected all the signs to be not in Castilian, but in Catalan! I quickly learned and memorized the patterns that differentiated català words from their castellano counterparts. But I don't think I ever fully recognized the difference between oral Spanish and Catalan - instead I spent a lot of the trip overhearing "Spanish" that I couldn't quite understand, and being hard on myself for it.

No matter what blog, guidebook, or website you read, there's really only one hostel in Barcelona: Kabul Hostel, on Plaça Reial. We'd made sure to book weeks in advance to ensure our beds in the rotating 22-person dorms. It was worth it, because the location was - pardon my pun - unreal.

First cab ride, from the station, through the business district, by the water, and finally onto La Rambla.

For our first evening, we we set out to explore La Rambla, an iconic main boulevard right by our hostel. The famous poet Federico García Lorca called it "the only street in the world which I wish would never end." It almost seems like it never does.

 By day, La Rambla is shaded by trees and crowded with street performers, vendors, and tourists. At night, the lamplit promenade is bustling with restaurant patrons and British-backpacker promoters for nearby clubs, eagerly pitching their establishments to anyone under 30 who will listen. Early morning, no matter the day of the week, it's full of stragglers returning from (or perpetually continuing) the last night's festivities.

Exhausted but enthusiastic about the idea of traditional Spanish food, Tamar, Maddy, and I were intent on finding an acceptable and affordable selection of tapas and a pitcher of sangria. (When in Spain...) For tapas, we ended up right by Plaça Reial at a tiny little bar that was closing right as we arrived, so we were only allowed to eat the food and use the plates as long as we ate outside the cordoned-off restaurant, standing and awkwardly perching our food on a little ledge as they cleaned up inside. It was a strange and somewhat nonsensical arrangement, but the food was worth it!

Various bites of deliciousness. I had a tortilla española and a goat cheese-spinach puff pastry.

Over our pitcher of sangria right in the middle of the trafficked La Rambla, we spread out a map of Barcelona and charted out the next three days. On a side note, because of Barcelona's reputation for street crime, it's impressive how conscious people are, and how service workers look out for foreigners. As we were drinking our sangria, the waiter came out to ask Maddy to move her wallet from the table, where it was sitting at her side but was, apparently, still too easy to swipe. We were a little chagrined but much more grateful!

Wednesday night was a struggle - unappealing hostel showers, too many roommates... and I dropped my iPhone on the floor of the hostel's bright yellow bathroom. My smashed screen was beyond recognition, but at least the low point for the trip was over with. Things could only look up from here.

Thursday morning was slow at first, as we had to spend hours trying to switch hostel rooms and dealing with broken lockers. So our day finally started around noon, with a short walk down La Rambla to what became my single favorite place in the city - and possibly my favorite market in the world. La Boquería is a tiny bit of heaven.

Walking in, we were immediately taken by the astounding array of fresh juices from crazy, creative combinations of tropical fruits, adorned with color-coordinated straws. Naturally, we bought them, immediately.


We weren't even sorry when we realized, upon further exploration, that these juice stalls were everywhere, butting up against each other just like the patrons in the teeming, multi-block market, and most offered a slightly better deal than the one in the very entrance.

Just an excuse to buy a second cup, not long after the first!

Empanadas, reminding us of Argentina. Full circle.

So much deliciousness packed into this tin-roofed, labyrinthine utopia.

A candy-colored ice cream counter whose flavors included mojito, mango with rice milk, and chocolate con chili. It was the most interesting ice cream I've ever tasted, and I mean that in the best possible way. Like, the flavors were so complex and perfectly balanced.

We'll have to come back for the apple ice cream-stuffed apples.

Every variety of chilis.

Candies and dried fruit were also popular items.

We finally had to extract ourselves from La Boquería - those 1- and 2-euro coins are deceptively valuable, and they were flying out of our pockets fast, no matter how delicious the deals.

For the road: fresh coconut pieces, because I'd never eaten them like that, and blackberry-coconut juice.

Anyway, the market was a five-minute walk from our hostel. BLESS. We were back three times a day, and yet we still didn't try everything.

Off on a circuitous walk through the Gothic neighborhood to the best Picasso museum in the world.

Typical shopping finds on La Rambla.

We ended up spending three hours in the massive converted house. I viewed every single work of art in the place, literally. In addition to the evolution of works from each era of the master's life, I loved the special exhibit with a couple dozen diverse pieces by myriad artists inspired in some way by Picasso.

#BougeMirrorSelfie, yet again. We don't need to talk about how my finger was bleeding at the time thanks to shards of phone glass that had ended up in my pocket...

An early dinner at Maoz Falafel was the way to go... as long as you still had your pita, you could fill up and re-fill up on the Middle Eastern salad bar as many times as you wanted. And that we did.

Our next stop was a bit of a hike - Parque Montjuic, in the southwest of the city.

But because it was situated on a hill, the view was unbeatable.

We sat on a bench for probably an hour watching a stuntman and his camera crew.

Opposite Day tree??

Lucky for us, Maddy had heard from a studying-abroad sister-of-a-friend about the best bar in the city, Le Cyrano. It's so unassuming that, even with the name and address and after walking 45 minutes to get there, we almost didn't bother to go inside. But it ended up being quirky but amazing: a grandmother at the bar, no decor except the exposed beams in the white plastered walls, circle tables full of hip groups of friends just hangin' out. It's a pour-your-own-drink bar and, better yet, you can help yourself to unlimited popcorn as long as you stay. YES. (Sensing a theme here?)

We felt like locals.

Our new room in the hostel included the roommates from Hell - seven or eight French women who were so self-absorbed, so utterly uncourteous that sometimes M, T, and I were simply paralyzed by disbelief. They stole our beds, moved our stuff, yelled at us in French then assumed we wouldn't understand when they trash-talked us to each other. They got mad at us for using flashlights at night and turned off the light while we were packing at 10 a.m., gave lectures about respect, wouldn't let us whisper but a few minutes later proceeded to shout. None of my friends and I had ever before gotten in any sort of hostile confrontation with people we don't even know. And to think that IAR in Florence looked bad... Needless to say, for the remaining 48 hours, we avoided our dorm at all costs.

Friday morning: headed to the sea to check out La Rambla del Mar, a floating boardwalk and shopping center.

In front of the port.

We sat and sunbathed for a while.

Then commenced a scenic walk... after a pit stop.

(Guess where.)

There's this one prepared-foods seller in the back corner who speaks four languages and makes an awesome spinach spanish tortilla that I ate two or three times during our short sojourn in the city. By day three, he lit up when he saw us approaching! We were good at being regulars.

Marzipan in every shape and color imaginable.

More Argentina!!

We ~rambled~ our way towards Barcelona's most famous building.

Nope, not that.

Not that, either... I'm pretty sure.

LA SAGRADA FAMÍLIA. Gaudí's masterpiece, 130 years into construction but still decades from completion.

The cranes are as much a part of the attraction as the gothic spires, the mathematically precise but not at all geometric arches, the almost-melted and distorted figures and shapes.

At first, we headed up the Torre del Nacimiento for a bird's-eye view.

Weirdly close up in the tiny, irregular balconies and viewpoints.

And the inside of the Gothic cathedral? Literally awe-some.

There was a museum in the crypt housing some of Gaudí's early designs, other sketches, and mathematical reasoning. We also saw his tomb, though by this point I was self-diagnosed with acute Museum Disease and had to station myself on a marble bench while I waited for Tamar to view every artifact, as she does.

I did amuse myself a bit comparing the Catalan, Spanish, and English versions of each description, and this was one of our favorites:

Imagine the entire population of Chile like, "Calm down, everyone, we're workinggggg on itttt." 

Continuing our Gaudí tour, we headed to a new part of the city for the iconic Park Güell, of tiled-bench fame. We didn't have tickets - or patience to wait in line - for the really famous part, so we chose instead to enjoy it as we would any park in any city: wander, people-watch, slow down and appreciate.


Graffiti on cacti. That's a new one.

Just barely over the wall.

I have no idea how long we sat on this stone structure, legs dangling over a precarious edge.

We told the cab to take us to Casa Batlló next; we could walk home from there. What we couldn't do was shell out another 24 euros (after a pricey Sagrada Família ticket, this was even pricier) to go inside, so we just appreciated the outside for a while. Why must Gaudí be so unattainable, even just for a tourist?

Though with our alternate hours of walking and stopping to looking at cool buildings, we did get a lot of good time to talk in.

Our route back, and in search of dinner, took us by the cathedral, where we stopped and watched a charismatic group of breakdancers.

And by a roundabout method even less algorithmic than our wild pasta chase in Florence, we finally ended up at La Perla de Oro, a restaurant we'd spotted on our first night that's popular with actors at the local theater. It was our only dinner out in a while, but we made it count with bocadillos (basically dressed-up panini) that were to die for. Goat cheese, tomato, olives, and herbs can never be a bad combo. The waiters were beyond sweet even though we'd ordered the cheapest thing on the menu. My favorite part was that as we left, they called out, "¡Hasta luego!" I really hope they're right.

«la dernière bière de la gap year.»

And the last night of our gap year was, naturally, a Guinness at an Irish "literary pub" on La Rambla. As bittersweet as the moment was, I was ending the best year with the best people, and I couldn't be happier. And aside from a few possible tussles with the aforementioned Satanic roommates, we were in bed as early as possible in order to maximize a very important Saturday.

A Saturday whose Boquería adventures including making "amigos" with the young guy at my particular favorite fruit stand, who gave me a hug along with my strawberry passionfruit.

A gorgeous, sunny Saturday when we had tickets to the "Monumental Zone" of Park Güell, and were happy to go back. One day in the park just to be in the park, one day to see all the sights.

Dragon Stairs.

The Dragon.

A First Communion?

Inside the Hypostyle Room.

Finally, we'd ascended to the famous, snaking, intricately-tiled bench.

Each section was different than the last; different colors, designs, shapes, and styles characterized the segments, though they seemed to flow seamlessly, connected by an invisible thread, the hand of Gaudí.

And, oh... are we college girls in Europe or something?

(Every sorority girl ever who studies abroad in Barcelona takes the same photos in this same exact spot. We were happy to oblige, by this point abandoning any pretense of irony.)

As with many places in this city, the bench was great for people-watching.

Sleep, selfies, soccer, and everything in between.

In Barcelona, we did a ton of walking as always but had to rely on taxis for the first time, getting to and from spaced-out places like Park Güell and anywhere else. But on the way back downtown this time, our cabbie hit a motorcyclist, and after a bunch of other cars honked, slammed to a stop, charged us, and abandoned us on a random street corner. The motorcyclist seemed okay, if a little scraped up, so we bolted - but we still had a significant way to walk.

I love the palms on this street by the sea.

Confused at our situation.

Plaça Reial.

Sad selfie, leaving our last city.

We left in the afternoon for the train station, where we hopped on a several-hour ride to Perpignan, France. Our stop there was stressful, as we had only six minutes' connection to rush to the hourlong train to Cerbère. Cerbère was beautiful, a vacation escape, a border town... HOLD UP. We only realized while standing idly in the deserted Cerbère station that the stressful route that the SNCF agent in Tours had booked us on was completely irrational. Our train from Barça to Perpignan had run through Cerbère, we'd sprinted only to get on a train in the wrong direction, and now we were waiting for the privilege of traveling the same exact stretch of track, over an hour's trip, for a third time. We'd gone into France, then retraced our route almost to Spain! And when we go on the overnight from Cerbère to Paris, it was empty... because everyone embarked at Perpignan.

We paid nine euros, too, for that superfluous ride. The situation was so absurd we had to laugh, now that we were safely on the overnight, luggage stowed in the prime storage spots.

At least seeing Cerbère was a privilege. It was gorgeous. Pretty sure Maddy's already looking into real estate there for her retirement home.

Train rides will always be wonderful. It was sad to be on my last one, at least for a while.

x, m