Saturday, March 29, 2014

Study Life

Right now I'm sitting in Pamplona's most indie cafe, a Basque place hidden on the edge of Old Town where more women have short hair than long and about half the men have pierced ears. I always wear my Argentina sweater when I come here because it makes me feel alternative enough to fit in.

They serve fair-trade coffee and delicious vegan cookies and cakes, in addition to the standard Navarre fare (i.e. tortilla patata, croissants and pintxos). Right now they're super busy. I'm watching the women behind the counter joking and laughing as they dance around each other to fill orders, and I'm finding myself envious. I've always dreamed of running a restaurant or cafe. I loved my busgirl job at On the Square in Tarboro when I was in high school, even though all I did was polish silverware and take food to tables. I'm invigorated by the rush to get everything done in time — a feeling always tempered by the knowledge that the kitchen would close at 10 p.m. I think the attraction is mostly because I like being on my feet, interacting with people, and of course working with food.

That was my favorite aspect of working at Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans two summers ago, and it's what I'm looking for this summer as well. I've applied to several internships in NYC with nonprofits that do food-justice work, addressing things like nutrition education and food access for low-income communities. I might be teaching nutrition classes, helping with social media and outreach, and/or simply working in an urban garden. No matter what, I want to never feel stuck in an office.

Anyway, I'm here at this cafe right now because I'm studying for my first exam (in just over a week ahhh). I want to announce that blog posts will probably be sparse in the next couple of weeks because I don't have plans to do anything interesting. My life will consist of going to class, running everyday errands and studying for exams. If anything different happens, you'll be the first to know :)

Resigning myself to a sadly predictable (but much needed) two weeks of "normal" life...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Porto, Portugal

pretty Porto, Portugal
The bridge on the right was built by a student of Gustave Eiffel (familiar?)

Visiting Portugal was like eating a big piece of chocolate cake — after a gourmet four-course meal in a fancy restaurant when I should have been training for a marathon instead.

Cake = Portugal
Four-course meal = previous trips
Marathon = final exams

The weekend trip was enjoyable in and of itself — normally I would have loved it — but the circumstances made it a little redundant (gah how ridiculous that I can say that) and guilt-tinged. Not only did I feel the pressure of my neglected textbooks, but getting there and back was extremely difficult (much more so than anticipated) so overall the return on investment seemed sadly low. I feel hesitant to admit all this because the main reason this particular piece of chocolate cake wasn't as sweet as it could have been is that my appetite (like myself) was spoiled by the incredible experiences that came just before it.

Basically I bought flights to Porto because Portugal neighbors Spain and therefore I felt obligated to visit it — which I have since decided is not a good enough reason to go somewhere. But, of course and as always, it was very cool to be able to visit a new country, to learn about a new part of the world and to experience a little bit of a new culture. It's just that even I can get a little road-weary sometimes!

Getting there involved a much-too-complicated routine of many, many hours in multiple forms of transportation. All the time I spent waiting for/in said forms of transportation was tempered by an awesome new playlist by my wonderful friend Sam. When my iPod died with two hours of transit left, I switched to the music on my iPhone, which is limited to the Lion King soundtrack, Mandy Moore's two songs from A Walk to Remember, and "My Happy Ending" by Avril Lavigne. I love Simba, Mandy and Avril, but it's an understatement to say I was relieved to finally arrive in Porto on Friday morning.

I started my time in Porto with a three-hour walking tour — informative and interesting, but definitely too drawn-out. My favorite part was realizing that the Spanish word azulejos, which means "tiles," has the word azul (blue) in it for a reason. Ceramic tiles (a lovely motif in Porto) were originally always painted blue because that was the color of the cheapest and longest-lasting paint available. Picture a porcelain plate — it's blue, right? This is why, and the Spanish language reflects that. I love etymology.

lots of blue tile in Porto
Heavy clouds turned to heavy rain as my tour was ending. By the time I found the restaurant I had looked up earlier, I was soaked (as well as blind from the water droplets obscuring my glasses #geekstatus). But the restaurant was awesome, exactly the kind of place I love to eat at. I lingered for a couple of hours waiting (to no avail) for the rain to subside.

Around 4 p.m. I dashed back to my hostel and shivered in my bed while responding to emails and Skyping friends. Lame, I know, but it was still raining and Porto isn't known for its museums.

I also spent a significant amount of time looking up the best-rated vegetarian restaurants in the city, as Portuguese food is very meat-centric. Their classic dish is slices of bread piled high with cold cuts and covered in cheese — not something I was excited to try. But I found several awesome veg-friendly places to eat, which turned out to be the best part of the trip (warning: the rest of this blog post is mostly about the food I ate).

Francesinha, Porto's quintessential (and meaty) dish
For dinner on Friday night I ate an incredible three-course vegan meal at a classy place that would have been very romantic had I not been alone. I simply wasn't feeling social so I didn't bother trying to make friends in my hostel (breaking one of the core rules of hostels #sorrynotsorry). Beetroot salad with arugula and walnuts and a honey-lemon glaze, followed by tofu and broccoli curry on jasmine rice, followed by mango and raspberry sorbet (one scoop of each) plus fresh kiwi fruit. To me this is pure happiness.

Saturday morning was still cloudy but with strips of blue and occasional penetration of sun, so I started the day with a long, beautiful run along the river that borders Porto. From the second bridge I could see the ocean!

After showering I spent the morning wandering around on foot, slurping an incredible apple-pineapple-avocado-spinach-pear smoothie from a smoothie place I found online. I visited a market, saw the cafe where J.K. Rowling started writing Harry Potter (!!!) and walked across the bridge again to take pictures. For lunch I went to a veg cafe where I ate a curry vegetable empanada with an arugula-pear salad and green jasmine tea, all while reading my Italy guidebook (planning spring break woo!).

Porto has lots of seagulls

I spent the afternoon on another three-hour walking tour (covering a different part of town), which I enjoyed less than the first because I've finally acknowledged that tour guides just annoy me. Too many stupid jokes, I think. Saw some statues, buildings and parks, listened to some history... all while preoccupied with thoughts of my next meal (I'm obsessed with food, I have no problem admitting it).

Saturday lunch
For dinner that night I ventured to a different vegetarian restaurant downtown, which had a completely different vibe than the one from the night before. Picture a dimly-lit rustic-feeling room, with dark wooden rafters and heavy stone walls, Hare Krishna-type art on the walls and lights made of recycled plastic. In the corner there's a rug where a woman with dreadlocks is playing a sitar next to a guy with a ponytail playing a primitive-looking drum. Every Saturday night was themed for a different part of the world, I found, and this night was Indian. I ate a yellow lentil soup accompanied by bread with some kind of runny green paste on it, and delicious chai tea.

On Sunday I patiently endured the [train --> plane --> train --> subway --> bus --> car] system of transit that got me home 13 hours later. Despite the (standard) cold, rainy weather forecast for this week, I'm content to be back in Spain for awhile.

My plant missed me!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


How can so many epic weekends happen back to back? It's the people that make these trips so incredible; I'm going by myself to Porto, Portugal this upcoming weekend and I have a feeling it will be fun and cool and pretty but just not as special as these past few trips with people I love so much.

So from Saturday through Wednesday of this week I was in and around Milan, Italy. Massi invited me to visit him at home, and tickets were extremely cheap, so I decided it was worth the two days of class I had to skip. 

On Saturday, I went for a long run around the deservedly famous Lake Como. At lunch I was excited to find out that my first meal in Italy was a classic regional dish — which, surprisingly, was not pasta — it's saffron risotto. (Massi's dad, who is from the Milan area, told me he was 10 years old before he tried pasta for the first time!)

That evening, Massi and I went to a spectacular dinner he had organized as a reunion for his group of friends from high school. It was a classy restaurant with a cozy atmosphere (a guy played piano and sang in the corner, and my place setting had three forks). After many courses of incredible food (I ate pumpkin flowers stuffed with a ricotta cheese cream and a risotto with berries in it) and even more glasses of wine, I was full to the max. The company was great (they had gone to an American high school, so everyone was fluent in English) and I loved the opportunity to meet so many Italians my age. 

On Sunday, unexpected carsickness did not stop me from enjoying a stunningly beautiful drive along the lake, up towards the Alps for a sunny lunch at a restaurant next to the water. The white mountains in the background, the bright blue lake and sky, the green slopes all around, the pastel colored houses with their orange ceramic tile roofs... It was like something out of a travel magazine. I was extremely sad that I didn't have my camera with me for the drive.

Because I still felt nauseous from the winding mountain drive, I ordered a plain spaghetti pomodoro for lunch (the lamest thing I've ordered at a restaurant since I was a child). But even that was delicious! Pasta in Italy is cooked with lots of salt in the water, which makes the noodles salty. Another observation: Italians (and me!) like pasta al dente, which means a little chewy — not overly soft like restaurants sometimes serve it in the States.

We drove back to the house for a short break before going to Massi's aunt and uncle's house for dinner. There we ate creamy risotto followed by a variety of platters that included a mozzarella/artichoke salad, a salad made of artichokes and botargo (fish egg delicacy), another kind of soft Italian cheese (very strong — I usually love most cheeses but this one was too much for me), lots of crunchy round rolls of bread, and cooked asparagus with parmesan. We were all still full from lunch, but of course we ate more anyway. We also drank sparking red wine, which I don't think I've had before. 

The next day Massi and I took the train into Milan and he showed me around the city:

Arch of Peace

artsy fountain pic
La Galería
La Galería floor
You're supposed to grind your heel in the testicles of this mosaic bull on the floor in order to avoid the bad luck of the man who designed the Galería (he fell to his death from scaffolding just before the project was completed).
We went to a pizza place for dinner with his parents, and I crashed early while the family stayed up to watch Roma play in a fútbol match.

On Tuesday, I accompanied Massi and his dad on a couple of errands before getting lunch in the village where Massi's mom grew up. Of course the one man sitting on a bench outside the restaurant knew Massi's grandfather and was excited to talk to us while we waited for our food. I ate penne with a spicy tomato sauce, followed by a salad and a plate of four types of cheese (I wish I had written down the names). 

That afternoon I did homework while Massi was at an eye doctor appointment, and then we walked around downtown Milan before meeting up with a couple of his friends for dinner and drinks. An "early" bedtime of 12:30 wasn't early enough for my 8:30 a.m. flight this morning. I got up at 5 a.m. and went through a 10-hour cab-bus-plane-train-train-cab routine, arriving home just in time to do my standard Pamplona run through the parks. I really need to start using some self control with what I eat — I'm starting to notice the effects of all that pasta and cheese and chocolate...

Because I'm crazy and a poor planner, I'm leaving again tomorrow (taking a train back to Barcelona after attending class). I'll have two days in Portugal and then I only need to fit in one weekend in Paris before I leave the country again — back to Italy for Easter Week. The life of a foreign exchange student in Europe!

Barcelona, Part II

On Thursday (after a wonderful lunch with a visiting UNC professor in Pamplona), I took a bus back to Barcelona. Since my flight to Milan was early Saturday morning, I had to be in Barcelona for Friday night anyway — so I decided to make a real visit out of it. I went on Thursday night so I'd have all day Friday to walk around on my own, visiting museums I hadn't gotten to see with Brooke last month.

At the "Xocolat" (Chocolate) Museum, my ticket came in the form of a chocolate bar. I was happy before I even saw the exhibits.

Most interesting fact I learned: The consumption of chocolate has turned into an indicator of the standard of living in developed countries. The highest indexes of consumption per person a year are the following: Switzerland (why am I not surprised), 10 kg (there's probably 10 kg of Swiss chocolate in my desk drawer right now); Great Britain, 7 kg; Germany, 7 kg; USA, 5 kg; France, 4 kg; Japan, 3 kg; Spain, 2 kg.

I also saw, among many other random selections, a chocolate Messi, a chocolate Sagrada Familia and a giant chocolate iPhone.

I also visited the museum of inventions and ideas, the museum of history of Barcelona, the museum of history of Catalunya, a couple of markets and a pretty park. I spent two hours of the afternoon walking around with my friend Sam, who goes to UNC but was in Spain with his dad for spring break. It was amazing timing that our itineraries overlapped enough for us to meet up!

Barcelona is a gorgeous city.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

From here to there and back again: The How

AKA The Stories of My Struggles and Successes in Transit

Pamplona To Geneva — in 20 Easy Steps!
1. Walk from class to the bus station.
2. Take a bus to Soria (2.5 hrs).
3. Take another bus from Soria to Madrid airport (2.5 hrs).
4. Enter terminal (1 hr before flight departs); go through security.
5. Look for gate number on big screen.
6. Not seeing flight listed, inquire at information desk.
7. What do you mean, this flight isn't here?!
8. Panic at the thought that you're in the wrong airport because flight boards in less than 30 minutes.
9. Get escorted backwards through security.
10. Run to bus outside that supposedly takes me to the correct terminal.
11. Fidget nervously for 10 seconds, then tell bus driver estoy muy tarde and podemos ir ya?
12. Request rejected; apparently the bus is on a schedule and can't leave for three more minutes.
13. Yes, this is the fastest way to Terminal 2.
14. Try hard not to look at watch, fidget fidget.
15. Finally en route to Terminal 2 (takes AT LEAST six minutes to get there)
16. Run to security line, squeeze past everyone "porfa, ¡estoy tarde! ¿puedo pasar? gracias, gracias"
17. Dash to gate just before it closes. Slump, relieved, in seat.
18. From Geneva airport, take train to Nyon
19. Ask nice-looking stranger for his cell phone to call Léa to tell her what time to meet me at the Nyon train station.
20. With Léa, catch a bus from Nyon to her house in the area outside Geneve.

Getting home: bus —> train —> plane —> train —> other train —> taxi

Pamplona to London: A Miraculous Itinerary
5:00 a.m. Alarm
5:45 a.m. Call taxi for 15-minute ride to train station
6:25 a.m. Train departs Pamplona
10:10 a.m. Arrive in Barcelona
10:45 a.m. Craving sushi but no restaurants serve lunch til 1 p.m. Settle for back-to-back coffees with croissants at two different cafes
12:15 p.m. Catch train for 25-minute trip to airport
12:55 p.m. Big screen in terminal says that gate information will be posted in 40 minutes. Fail to consider the important fact that my flight should be boarding in 30 minutes. Check screen 40 minutes later, says "BOARDING" in flashing letters.
1:35 p.m. Speed-walk to gate
1:40 p.m. What do you mean, the gate closed 10 minutes ago?? I've been waiting for 45 minutes to find out where the gate is!!! Please please please let me board, please please please pleaseeee
1:43 p.m. Shuttle bus driver drives back to gate to give me an exclusive ride to the plane on the tarmac.
1:46 p.m. Hurriedly board plane, pumping adrenaline as if I had literally dodged a bullet.
2:00 pm. Plane takes off.
3:35 p.m. Catch train to Liverpool Station to meet Brenna
5:00 p.m. Subway to Brenna's apartment

Getting home: subway —> train —> plane —> train —> BlaBla Car*!

*See separate post on the BlaBla Car system

Climbing into Strangers' Vans

What kind of shoes do pedophiles wear?
White Vans!

Good thing that stranger's van I climbed into this weekend was green...
(Not as sketchy as it sounds — read on to find out why)

BlaBlaCar is a ride-sharing system popular in Europe, where individuals create profiles on the BlaBlaCar website and post about road trips. Anyone who needs a ride somewhere can search by destination and date, and the website lets you message them to work out a meeting place and price. Passengers pay drivers a reasonable amount, usually less than what a bus or train would cost. Everyone benefits because the driver gets company on his or her drive, as well as makes a small profit, and the passengers benefit from a cheap, convenient and comfortable way of traveling. Brooke and I used this system for our weekend trip to Valencia and for our ride home from Barcelona. I was nervous to use it on my own, but the website has a strong accountability system, requiring users to register valid email addresses and cell phone numbers, as well as upload pictures and personal information — and everyone posts comments and ratings of the people they meet using the system.

Every time I've done this, the drivers and passengers alike are always friendly and kind, plus it's an awesome opportunity to meet locals and practice Spanish! It was even more fun alone, because I was under more pressure to speak Spanish (rather than talking to Brooke in English or letting her speak for me). I gave the driver a favorable review, and he gave me a five-star rating too!!! He said:
Ha sido muy agradable viajar con Caroline, súper puntual y buena compañía, espero que volvamos a compartir viaje. Saludos!
Which means: It was great to travel with Caroline, she's super punctual and good company, I hope we continue to share journeys.

I am a five-star traveling companion YAY!

Monday, March 10, 2014


Highlights of London:

My trip to London this past weekend was more about these two women than anything else. Brenna (on the right) is studying in London this semester, and Yasamin (on the left) is there for spring break with a group of other UNC students. It was the perfect time for me to visit.

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon. Brenna met me at Liverpool Station and together we took the Tube back to her apartment.

Brenna's apartment building and the neighboring church. Note the cute British taxi cab driving past.
We sat on her bed and caught up for awhile and then she had to go to an opera for class, so I went out and walked around a bit on my own. She lives in central London, only a short walk to Oxford Street. So I walked up and down, dazzled by the extravagant commercialism as much the majestic old buildings.

The next morning I had to finish writing a column while she went to work out, then we went to the farmers market across the street from her apartment. I am insanely jealous of this, which happens every Thursday afternoon and features more booths of baked goods and proper lunch food than raw fruits and vegetables.

Again, I was simply dazzled. Spain is perfectly modern, but its cities simply don't have the diversity of an international metropolis like London. I was positively giddy about the Thai vegetable curry I found, followed by a delicious, giant slice of carrot cake.

At 1 p.m. we met up with Brenna's friend Andrew, another UNC student studying in London, and together we took the hour-long journey to the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studios! I loved learning about the production of the movies, like how they did the special effects, and seeing the sets and costumes. We also got to see the incredibly elaborate and detailed model of the Hogwarts castle that was used for the wide panorama shots in the movies.

Sad because Hogwarts isn't a real place
When we got back around 6 or 7, Brenna and I bought some food in a nearby grocery store and had a girls night in, watching Ten Things I Hate about You immediately followed by Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. I was so happy.

Yasamin arrived in London on Friday, so I met up with her at the subway station near Brenna's apartment and we spent a lovely day wandering around the city, visiting parks and markets and the Tate modern art museum.

in front of the Thames! 
Our drawing got projected on the wall of the museum cafe!
love her
Sad because this art looks like someone tortured Ramses 
Can't beat modern art
tru luv
The next day, Brenna and I spent the morning in a similar way — hopping on and off the Tube, exploring the city on foot.

found Big Ben!
pretty park (see the Eye?) 
my view as I enjoyed my second amazing Thai lunch on the river

our post-lunch Brazilian dessert
 I met up with Yasamin in the afternoon. Brenna went home to do some homework, and Yasamin and I went off to unsuccessfully search for affordable tickets to a musical. We decided to see a stand-up comedy show instead, which turned out to be a bit crude but mostly funny. I returned to Brenna's apartment for one more night cuddled in her narrow single bed, and then headed out on a train back towards Pamplona the next morning.

Tl;DR: One weekend, two of my favorite people, beautiful city, Harry Potter, pretty parks, modern art, outdoor markets, Asian food, happiness.


Sun has come back to my life.

Pamplona enjoys an average of three sunlight hours each day of January and just four in February. By March it's five hours of sunlight a day, and in April it's six. This is because the median cloud cover ranges from 87 percent in January to 71 percent in May.

According to my cursory online research, early March is the magical turning point for weather improvement, and today was SUNNY AND WARM.

I was in class from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., but I skipped my 12-2 class because I couldn't go back inside after stationing myself on the grassy slope outside the communications building, which faces the sun. I didn't even try to make myself get up. I was pinned down by the rays of light caressing my face and arms.

Brooke, upon hearing from someone who had seen me outside that I wasn't going to class, immediately left "to go to the bathroom" and joined me. She stayed outside with me for the full two hours, returning only at the end to collect her belongings from the classroom. Then we went and got gelato, followed by a jug of sangría enjoyed at a table outside.

I went to my 3 p.m. class a little tipsy, but it's just a lecture so it didn't matter. I was high on sunshine. After class, I came back to my apartment, scarfed down some chips and salsa, and then took my blanket into the park behind my apartment for a nap in the last hour of sun.

grass and sun: all I'll ever need to be happy

It's like until now, I was simply surviving each day. I think I might secretly be reptilian. Sun is to me what it is to snakes and lizards.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Switzerland Part III: Nyon

Because she's a wonderful host, Léa woke up early with me on Monday and took me on a tour of the charming neighboring town Nyon. Founded by the Romans in the first century B.C., it's a pretty little lakeside town only a short bus ride away from Léa's house.

After walking around the town for a couple of hours, I hugged my dear friend goodbye at the train station and (barely) caught my flight back to Spain.