Oliver in Spain: Transitioning back to the States

January 5, 2015

I have now been back Stateside for a little under two weeks, even though it feels like I’ve been back for much longer than that. I figured I’d have a pretty easy transition back to this culture after having traveled so much throughout my life but every now and again there are certain things that remind me I’m no longer living in Spain.

I think the biggest difference I have noticed so far is the food culture. In Valencia I would sit at a café and 20 minutes later a server would ask me if I would like anything to drink or eat. In the States there is a server at your table within two minutes of sitting down. Give me a second to settle in! Similarly, in Valencia I’d finish whatever I was drinking or eating and stay seated chatting with my friends for a couple hours. In the States I feel uncomfortable staying more than 15 minutes after paying the check. It feels like I’m being quietly encouraged to get the hell out. I don’t mean to sound angry with this difference, and I’m not, it is just a very big difference between the two cultures. The US is all about efficiency and profit. The cafés here are thinking, “how many customers can I get in and out of my door in one day?” In Spain you are treated like a family member coming back for a drink. If you frequent the place, it is not unusual for the server to sit with you for a quick chat. I definitely prefer that laid back feeling.

On the other hand, the efficiency of the US was something I missed while in Spain. Sometimes you just want something done, and fast. That simply doesn’t exist in Spain. People will work on their own time and will shut down for three hours every day for a siesta. Going to a store in the early afternoon seems like such a novel idea now!

I haven’t had an overwhelming feeling of missing Valencia just yet. I’m still in the recovery stage of being back with the family. The biggest thing I miss from being abroad is the constant excitement. Living back in the Philadelphia suburbs feels so…lacking…after a semester trailblazing through Europe from one ancient city to another. That being said, it’s very nice to have access to Netflix again!

I’m half way through this break and I am already counting the days to get back to UR. I have seen a few friends here and there and will be seeing a lot more during or New Years Eve celebrations. I can’t wait to get back into the swing of things at Richmond after a nice semester of memories.

Valencia will always have a place in my heart and I am looking forward to going back the next time I’m in Spain. I think I will miss my host family most, but there will be a whole lot to miss in the weeks to come. I imagine it will all hit me hard when I am back into the regular routine of school. I will never forget all of the things I have been able to do through the past four months. It almost seems like a dream but I am pleased to see all of the pictures and words I will have forever as documentation of my experiences. Europe, I’ll see you soon. US, it’s good to be home.

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Oliver in Spain: The Last Week

December 16, 2014

Well this is it…I am staring down the last three days I have in this amazing city before hopping a flight back to the US. These last four months have been life altering, to say the least, but before I get into the emotions I’m feeling and what’s going in my head I want to let you all know what I’ve been crossing off my list.

Since I first arrived here I have wanted to go to the aquarium, L’oceanográfico. This aquarium is the biggest in Europe and the fourth biggest in the world! So with a week left I went with a friend to witness the wonder of the Beluga Whale…amongst many other marine animals. The aquarium most certainly did not disappoint and I left feeling satisfied with multiple shark tunnels, every fish you could think of, and a dolphin show!

Oliver shark
With that off my list I only had to do one more thing: enjoy the Valencia Christmas festivities. This activity consisted of getting a big group of friends together and heading to the center of the city (Plaza de Ayuntamiento), where they had an ice skating rink, a massive Christmas tree, and lights all over the place. We arrived around 10:30 to blaring Christmas music and joyful faces everywhere. I have to admit that seeing Christmas lights wrapped around a palm tree is not the Christmas festivities that I have become accustomed to but you’d be surprised how little it matters as long as you have good company! We ended up ice skating for almost 2 hours before heading off to an awesome Irish pub down the road.

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That pretty much wrapped up the weekend festivities before heading into finals week, the best week of the year…As I’m writing this blog post I have finished all but one exam. The end is near! Unfortunately, that also means the end of my semester is near. I currently have less than three full days left here and realizing that definitely feels a little weird.

Without a doubt Valencia has become a kind of home for me. The friends that I have made here will stay with me for a long time. After all, transitioning to a whole new culture with a different language brings you close to people. I am very comfortable with my host family as well, and will miss them a lot once I leave. Last night at dinner I said how weird it was to be wrapping up my final week here. My host brother responded by saying “Aww…que mal, que triste” (How bad, how sad). I will surely miss our fútbol/basketball sessions.

With that said, I want to say how excited I am to be returning home. This semester flew by but traveling almost every weekend really wears on you and I am looking forward to some R&R. I can’t wait to see my family again, but before thinking too much about that I get to enjoy two more soccer matches (students v. students and students v. professors) as well as one last night out all together.

My next post will be submitted from the States, about a week after getting back home. I’ll let you all know how much I am missing Valencia then, I’m sure it will be a lot, and let you know how I’m transitioning to being back in the States.


Oliver in Spain: Last Travel Experience

December 11, 2014

As soon as December hit I knew I had just over two weeks to make the most out of my remaining time in Europe and I knew that I wanted to spend my last weekend abroad in Valencia, so that left me with one weekend left to travel. After countless weekends of travel all over Europe (an unreal feat that will only hit me once I get back Stateside), coming to the realization that one excursion remained was rather shocking. That being said I knew exactly where I wanted to go, Florence. For some reason, and I have no idea why, this city had been on my list of places to visit the entire semester. I was able to gather a group of 8 close friends who were all thinking the same thing, “one weekend of travel left? Let’s do it big.” The plan was put into motion and a day later I had my tickets booked for Italy. Cities featured on this trip: Pisa, Florence, and Rome.

The first week of December absolutely flew by with our excitement for Italy and before we knew it we were crammed into our small seats on a RyanAir plane ready to take off. Just under two hours later we landed in Pisa raring to go and immediately hopped a bus to go see the tower, you know, the one that leans. We had already booked our bus into Florence so we had about a four hour gap to get to the tower, take your typical touristy pictures, grab lunch, and get to the main bus station.

As we were riding along the bus we were distracted by the beautiful Pisa sights…well actually Pisa doesn’t really have much to offer so we were just chatting until we stopped and some local said, “Tower. Now.” We hopped out of the bus and walked a few minutes until we saw it. Prior to laying my own eyes on it I wasn’t very convinced that it could be leaning that much, but wow. The degree of this tower just does not seem to add up. I still can’t wrap my head around how this tower seems to ignore the law of physics. After taking three pictures and waiting an hour for the girls to create a massive portfolio of every pose imaginable we made our way to a quiet restaurant. We sat down and ordered shortly after, pizza and wine for everyone. For the next four days there was a theme of pizza, pasta, and red wine for everyone. Not the worst order.

Leaning Tower

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

pizza

The first of many pizzas

That night we made our way into Florence. Our apartment was a 20 minute walk from the bus station so we took that opportunity to get some fresh air and see a little bit of this city. From the first minute, my standards were through the roof and Florence did not disappoint. Five minutes later we were walking past the massive Duomo, lit up by a full moon.

Florence duomo

The Duomo in Florence

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A side view

A little tired from all the travel in one day we decided to sit down for dinner. This was the best dinner I have had all semester, and not just because of the amazing food. Somehow we decided to go around the table telling our favorite three memories of our time abroad and then raising a glass to it. All of the memories from the entire semester came back and we spent hours laughing with one another. I am truly thankful for the friends I have found this semester and I know I am going to keep in touch with every one of them.

a little dysfunctional

My friends: A little dysfunctional, but that’s nothing new.

We all woke up the next day and while the girls were taking their time getting ready the guys were making plans: Duomo, City Center, Michelangelo’s David, Ponte Vecchio (Bridge), and finishing the day by looking over Florence as the sun set with a marvelous view thanks to the Piazzale Michelangelo. The entire time we were walking around the city I had a huge smile on my face. Looking back on it, I can easily say that Florence is one of the best cities I have ever visited. I love that place and I want to go back ASAP! Here are some pictures to give you a glimpse into the beauty I was seeing at every stop:

The face of the Duomo

The daytime face of the Duomo

The David

The copy of Michelangelo’s David statue that stands outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

View off the Ponte Vecchio

The view off the Ponte Vecchio

Florence city view

Florence at almost sunset

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Me in Florence. What a view!

Unfortunately, we were only in Florence for a day and a half. Fortunately, our next stop was Rome. We took a three hour train into the city of Rome and took a short metro stop to our apartment. By now, traveling had become second nature. The feeling of getting into a completely new city and figuring your way around it is liberating. That night we took an initial visit to the Colosseum and saw the impressive building in all its glory. The Colosseum lit up in the evening is a special sight. We proceeded to walk around the city for a long time and found our way into a church, the Pantheon, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (random, I know, but a very impressive building), as well as the Spanish steps. Dinner? You guessed it: Pizza.

Colosseo

The Colosseum in the evening

Interior of church

The organist in this church was playing Christmas music!

Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities

The Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities

Pantheon

The Pantheon!

Early Sunday morning we found out just how close we were to the Vatican City by walking 20 yards from our front door and passing through the Vatican Wall. Walking into the main plaza (Piazza San Pietro – St Peter’s Square) of the Vatican we found ourselves in the midst of hundreds of people. At first we thought this was a normal occurrence on Sunday, then we were informed that in 30 minutes the Pope was going to address everyone. What luck! Needless to say, we stayed put and shortly after the Pope appeared from a window. He was speaking in Italian so I wasn’t able to pick up on much (I thought Italian and Spanish were more similar than they are) but I did understand a few things!

St Peter's square and Pope

St. Peter’s Square

Pope

The Pope!

Seeing the Pope in person must have drained our resources of luck because we soon found out that everything in the Vatican Mueseum was closed because of a holiday. That meant no Sistine Chapel…! After a minute of sulking we rebounded by heading back to the Colosseum to actually go inside the building (we watched Gladiator the night before and were in the mood to get an even closer look). Our luck came back to us with free admittance. Without a doubt the Colosseum meets up to its hype.

Colosseo interior

The interior of the Colosseum

Oliver and friends in Colosseo

Me (far right) with my friends at the Colosseum

That was a very brief overview of my four day trip to Italy. There was a lot more that I got around to (including an impromptu dance party at a random book store in Florence) but I can’t include everything or this would turn into a thesis length blog post. Everything in Italy was amazing and Florence lived up to everything I had hoped for. That was one of my favorite excursion, thanks to great company and beautiful cities. I can’t wait to get back to Italy.

As I write this I am trying to get my head around the fact that I only have about a week left in Valencia. Everything is starting to feel very bittersweet because we are trying to do as much as possible, knowing that we don’t have much time left in Europe. Valencia has become a home for me and I do not think I am ready to leave it just yet. I will be enjoying this week to the fullest but I know my next blog post will be very difficult to write. Now I’m going to go play fútbol with my little host brother!


Oliver in Spain: Traveling Solo

December 1, 2014

I just got back from my first major solo trip and, with the exception of a few hiccups, it was very successful! It was a three day trip to London, England in order to spend some time with one of my best friends from UR as well as see some family that is based around London. The best part about this trip was the feeling of independence that was running through my system the entire time I was flying or on a train. A semester studying abroad has this kind of independence but so far I had travelled with other friends on my program, so I was never truly by myself. They were a welcome crutch to keep me on track and focused. Additionally, when you are traveling with others you can easily split up the responsibility of various legs of the trip between each other. A great example of that was this past fall break with Will and Chris. Each of us were responsible for one of the countries we visited (my responsibility was Prague).

This time around it was just me booking flights and trains. It was a brief trip, only three days, but since I flew into Gatwick Airport (over an hour outside of center city) instead of Heathrow it had its fair share of drama. You don’t realize how reliant you are on having wifi or 4G internet access until it is taken from you. That is exactly what happened to me and it caused me all sorts of issues. However, even with all that everything was going smoothly until I had to catch a 7:30 am flight out of Gatwick Sunday morning. I’m going to summarize this by saying I had to take three different taxis to get there because the train station was closed and I had no other options. I have never been so stressed from travel then I was this Sunday morning. But thanks to Christmas music in my headphones and a refined travel sense (due to the 10 or so other trips I’ve done in the last three months), I managed to stay calm and figure it out. Needless to say, I took a long and deserved nap as soon as I got back into Valencia!

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With all that, I think I should probably talk a little bit about my weekend! Matt is one of my closest friends so I was very happy to see him again and spend a weekend in our collective favorite country in Europe. He’s always been an Anglophile for some reason, so we got along pretty quickly, considering my English heritage. This late in the semester he was happy I was visiting because it meant he didn’t have to do all of the cliché touristy stuff like Big Ben and the London Eye. We took a train out to my see my Grandpa Friday morning and see a little bit of a classic small English town, Ipswich. The rest of the trip was spent visiting various small pubs across the city. I couldn’t really have planned a more relaxing weekend in London. As much as I love the city, I would never study abroad there…my god it is an expensive city.

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I have only one more trip away from Valencia planned, and this semester has blown by. Next weekend I will be heading to Pisa, Florence, and Rome. I’ve been wanting to see Florence for years so I am already counting down the days. I’m starting to think study abroad goes so fast because mid week is spent looking forward to the trips on the weekend. After this weekend, I only have one more weekend in Valencia. Things are wrapping up here pretty fast so I have to get to that Valencia aquarium (biggest in Europe)!


Oliver in Spain: Morella and Madrid

December 1, 2014

Two weekends ago I went to Morella on the last school organized excursion. UVA in Valencia had organized three free excursions for all of the students and I took full advantage of them. The first was to Peñiscola (a town on the beach about two hours north of Valencia), the second was to Xátiva (a small town about two hours south of Valencia), and Morella is a tiny mountainous town, two hours northwest of Valencia. Each of these three excursions presented an awesome opportunity to see Spanish towns that you would never visit otherwise. Whenever anyone visits Spain they only see Madrid and Barcelona but these small towns scattered across Spain offer a more authentic trip. The people who live in these towns do not have much exposure to tourists, so being almost conversationally fluent in Spanish (as I am) is a huge benefit. Each of these towns has history dating back to the 8th century and so we followed a tour guide around for a couple hours to understand the cultural history of each place. I think Peñiscola was my favorite but Morella was a close second.

Since Morella is so high up, the weather is awfully cold (and by awfully cold I mean about 50 degrees Fahrenheit…Valencia has made me weak to cold weather), but to be honest the cold breeze was a welcome change to the regular 70 degree, sunny weather of Valencia in November. Parts of this small town of less than 3,000 inhabitants date back to 1000 BC but the majority of it dates back to Moorish history of the 8th century (like the majority of Spain thanks to the Islamic conquest). The town had a quaint feel and after touring the fort on the top of the hill we sat down at a local café for some food and drinks.

A view from the fort on the top of the mountain

A view from the fort on the top of the mountain

I finally knocked Madrid off my list this past weekend after being on there since hearing about my acceptance into the Valencia program. Contrary to popular opinion amongst my friends, I actually preferred Madrid. I don’t know how to explain why, but it just felt more organized and put together. I think Barcelona felt too spread apart for me with no real purpose if that makes any sense. Then again, I was only in both of these cities for two days each. We blitzed Madrid by seeing the King’s palace, the cathedral, and retiro park (central park of Madrid). However, the best experience was the free tickets on the 7th row of an Atlético Madrid game. They won 3-1!

55,000 screaming fans

55,000 screaming fans

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I’m definitely sad to realize that this past weekend to Madrid wrapped up my Spanish trips, as next week will be London and the following, Italy. The end of this semester is now less than a month away and it is starting to fly by. My experience so far has been life changing. I always knew I could be this independent but to be thrown into a foreign speaking country three months ago and to see how I’ve come out of it on the other side has been a very rewarding experience. I’m growing as a person day by day and it feels amazing. That being said, there is no doubt that this weekend will be hard because I will be away from my family this Thanksgiving for the first time. A shout out to them: I miss you guys so much and I’ll see you in a month! These last four weeks are going to be a ridiculous whirlwind of good times.


Oliver in Spain: Here come the Parents!

November 13, 2014

This weekend I was lucky to host my parents in Valencia! But, before I get into that I want to talk a little about my weekend in Barcelona.

Last weekend, along with 10+ friends on my program, I took a train from Valencia to Barcelona. While most of my friends rented an apartment for the weekend I stayed with my friend Tom, who has been studying there this semester (saved me about 60€). I had never been to Barcelona before and so I was thrilled at my first chance to head up the coast to this huge city. After spending the previous 6 weeks in Valencia, Barcelona looks like New York City and my eyes lit up at night. While in this city I checked off four big things: Park Güell (the mosaic gardens by Gaudí), Sagrada Familia (the crazy looking church), Camp Nou (CF Barcelona’s stadium), and a live Porter Robinson concert (A big EDM DJ).

Park Güell is located towards the North of the city on a hill with an unbelievable view of Barcelona. The park dates back to 1914 and is an example of the brilliance of Gaudí’s organic focus in architecture. The park, while brief, is full of mosaic tile walls, plants, and views.

View from Park Güell

View from Park Güell

Tile lizard by Gaudí

Tile lizard by Gaudí

Sagrada Familia is easily the most unique church I have ever witnessed in my life. After touring Europe for the past two months I have seen a whole lot of churches and cathedrals, but none of them looked anything like this one. It is another one of Gaudí’s organic works that results in a type of melting aesthetic with various towers and statues. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it inside the church, which I regret, so I will just have to come back!

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

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Seeing a CF Barcelona game had been on my bucket list since I started playing Fifa back in 2007. Finally, 7 years later, that dream came to fruition. Unfortunately Barça lost 1-0 in a less than spectacular game but the atmosphere of Camp Nou made up for it. This stadium is the fifth biggest in the world with almost 100,000 Catalans singing for their team. I’m glad I was able to check this one off the list. (P.S. Barça comes to la Mestalla on the 30th of November to take on Valencia. It’s a clash of top 3 teams in La Liga and I recommend you all tune in!)

Camp Nou

Camp Nou

Tom and I at Camp Nou!

Tom and I at Camp Nou!

Coming into Richmond, Porter Robinson was my favorite DJ out there. EDM music was everything, and is still huge, for kids my age so saying that this guy was a top tier talent is really saying a lot. After a two year hiatus, he released a new album with a more artsy focus. This was the tour he was on when I saw him live in Barcelona. The guy killed it. His live show lasted about four hours and it would have been impossible to even try to stand still in that club. Needless to say, I’m a bigger fan of Porter Robinson than I was before.

Now on to having my parents in Valencia this past weekend. I met Mom and Dad in the airport friday afternoon and could feel how excited they were to be in Valencia with me. It had been about two months since I had seen my parents, so naturally my mom almost cried upon seeing me. We had a busy weekend of sight seeing including the cathedral, the río park, the city of art sciences, the mercado central, tapas, and much more. All of that was a lot of fun but none of it compares to the Sunday lunch we had with my host family. My host mom cooked a four course meal and filled us up with local food and good wine. Acting as a translator between my two families was an unforgettable experience. Needless to say, we all had an awesome time and I am sad to see them leave. Mom and Dad, I’ll see you in a month and a half, but until then I’ll be hitting Madrid, London, and Budapest!

Parents and I in front of Palau de la Música

Parents and I in front of Palau de la Música

Mom and Mark!

Mom and Mark!


Oliver in Spain: Personal Growth

October 27, 2014

My previous posts have been full of various activities and travels that I have been experiencing throughout the last two months and my future posts will probably be along the same vain. That being said, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the changes in my confidence, maturity, and self-awareness.

I have now been out of my comfort zone of the American East Coast for a couple months and I have been having the time of my life. But, this semester hasn’t always been fun and easy, the first two weeks were some of the most challenging weeks I have had in my life. Entering a completely new country with a different language was a bold move that threw me into the deep end from day one. I was picked up by my host mother upon arrival and immediately was thrown into Spanish conversation (keep in mind that I hadn’t spoken Spanish since April of last year…). This was quickly followed by a full introduction to every member of my host family. Needless to say, my brain was spinning by the time I lay down for the night.

The next few days were no easier. I was transitioning to a new culture while also not being permitted to speak English in class, at school, or at home. It is hard enough to get to know people that speak the same language as you, but becoming friends and even family with people while only speaking Spanish is easily the hardest thing I have ever had to do. The first two weeks were very difficult, but by week three I was beginning to find comfort in my language abilities.

For all of you who are reading this and are looking to study abroad, I have some advice. Whether you are in a country that speaks your language or not, you will feel overwhelmed. Every country has its own, unique, culture that you will not be used to. Whenever I was feeling overwhelmed I went outside. No matter where you are, fresh air is huge to relax your senses. Go for a run or walk around your new city. It will calm you down and will help to familiarize yourself with this new location. Also, reach out to the students on your program. They are going through the exact same things you are and will be a good resource, even if it means just talking football or baseball.

Overcoming something like this has an incredibly positive effect on your persona. I have never felt so self-assured in my life. Booking flights and apartments, navigating a new city during fall break, and approaching people who know zero english come easy. These are all things that I would still be very hesitant to do had I stayed in the States this semester. As my friend Andy said, “necessity brings about greater development than anything else.” You come to rely on yourself a lot when you have no comfort zone and you have not found someone to trust yet.

I apologize for all of the text but I wanted to inform you guys on what has been going on in my head since coming to Valencia. It has been tough at times, but you don’t grow without facing challenges.

Now for the fun:

This weekend has been full of sports for me, specifically the Valencia Open and another football (soccer) game! I spent pretty much all day friday at the Ágora, a small building that houses the Valencia Open. In this building I checked off one the biggest ticks on my bucket list, watch Andy Murray play. Murray went on to win the tournament!

Ágora

Ágora

Saturday night I went to my second Valencia football game, and it did not disappoint. In this derby game, Elche (another team from the Valenciano region) came to la Mestalla and took a thrashing from los Che. The final score 3-1! Valencia now stands at fourth place in la Liga, only two points away from first place Barcelona.

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Finally, I cannot believe I have not posted a photo of Paella yet, but here is a picture of my Sunday lunch!

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This coming weekend I will be heading to Barcelona, so if the post is delayed I apologize in advance! Talk to you all soon.


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