Friday, January 30, 2015

Studying to Spanish Sunshine

If I can be totally uncensored, the month of January started off terribly. As many of you know, it took quite a few days to get back to Leuven only to be greeted with the exam period that lasted for the entire month. For the first three weeks of January, the entire city lives inside drinking in the information contained in our textbooks that we have not opened until now in order to prep for the one exam that determines the entire grade for the course. After a few painful weeks of no sunshine and constant studying, my exam period finally ceased. As a reward, I decided the time came for me to finally visit Madrid, the capital of Spain. As a Spanish minor, it seemed ridiculous to have taken me this long to go to Spain. Safe to say, waiting to go to Spain after exams was exactly what this tired student needed. A few hours and a Ryanair flight later, I made it to Spain with one friend in tow. Sunshine and sangria mended this tired soul.

Even in January, Spain radiates sunshine. I can only imagine how stunning Madrid must be in the spring, summer, and hell, even in the fall. For the four days we spent in Madrid, we stayed at The Hat hostel located right off the Plaza Mayor, one of the major tourist sights in Madrid built by Philip II. Sitting on the cobblestone watching children run and play while watching all of the street performers on Sunday was exactly what I needed. Sun warmed my body and reinvigorated my soul. Especially on Sunday, all of the Madridlenos were out and about enjoying the sunshine.

Puerta del Sol

Puerta de Alcala
In Leuven, sun is a hot commodity who rarely shows her coveted face. With this in mind, once we saw the sun in Madrid, all we desired was to spend as much time as possible outside, which meant we needed to visit el Parque de Retiro, a huge park in the center of Madrid right near the Puerta de Alcala. Inside the park, which was in my opinion a well-groomed, cleaner version of Central Park in New York, we wandered down the pathways exploring without a plan. Inside the gated walls, tree lined pathways lead to perfectly up kept foliage that leads to palaces. Inside, there is el Palacio Cristal and el Palacio Velazquez, which now house art exhibits. For us, these palacios were the icing on a cake full of sunshine and perfect weather.

Parque del Retiro

Of course, no trip would be complete without a few museums and this one was no exception. Of course when in Madrid, the Prado Museum is a requirement. Considering it holds a vast amount of masterpieces, this was high on my list of attractions and it did not disappoint. Of course, "Las Meninas" by Velazquez is a must see, as is "The Deposition from the Cross" by Rogier van der Weyden. While these are incredible masterpieces, the highlights for me were the Black Paintings by Goya. While it is not secret that I love classic art especially portraits by Jan Van Eyck, I was in love with these Goyas. In a small room in the Prado, a few of these dark, eerily expressive paintings line the walls and I could not help but feel the dark emotion radiating from the paint. Some personal favorites from this collection were "Saturn devouring his Son" and "The Witches Sabbath." The names of these paintings alone must give some indication of the subject matter and dark complexity. For me, these Goyas made for a nice surprise I did not expect to see in the Prado.

While the Prado is stunning and I am so thankful to see such stunning masterpieces in person, the Plaza de Toros de La Venta and the museum there was the highlight of my trip. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it is a bullring that was built in Madrid in the 1930's. With a gorgeous brick facade and a wraparound terrace, this bullring is s sight to behold. As a vegetarian, I was unsure how I would feel about bullfights but given they are a Spanish tradition, I figured I at least had to give the bullring a try and lo and behold, it became the highlight of my trip. Of course the bullring is architecturally stunning, but I desire deeply to see a bullfight in person, based on the videos and information spread throughout the museum, a bullfight seem so intense and I could not look away from any of the videos or pictures, Given it is such a major part of Spanish history, I could not help but to feel completely inspired by such an important cultural event. During this tour, we walked all along the stadium, seeing everything from the stands, to the President's box, to the stable where the bull is kept and released into the ring.While there were no bullfights going on at this time, I desperately want to go back to see one in person. Seeing the pomp and circumstance of the clothes the matadors wear, to the historical significance, the honor given to both the matador and the bull, and the sheer excitement of the fight is enough to send me into a tizzy to attempt to find another time to go back to Madrid to witness one of these cultural masterpieces in the flesh. For me, the Plaza de Toros de la Venta was without a doubt, the highlight of this trip and gave me a huge dose of inspiration.

The Bullring from the stands

Pretending to cheer for the matador!

With gloomy January and exams behind us, Spain was the perfect way to end the fall term and signal the beginning of a new term here in Leuven. Spain, with its sunshine and beauty, left me feeling inspired and rejuvenated, ready to take on the spring!

El Parque del Retiro

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Third time's the charm

4 airplanes.
4 cities.
3 flights.
3 airports.
3 days.
3 airports.
An Amtrak train, a car, a taxi, and two shuttles.
A night at a friend's in Staten Island
A night at a hotel in Newark.
Too many lines. Literally, hours of waiting in lines.
1 outfit.
No toothbrush.
An explosion.
One trip to Belgium.

After a nice relaxing holiday in Ohio, the time came to return to Belgium for the spring semester. Little did I know that it would take a lot more to get there than I bargained for. On Tuesday morning, I flew to Philadelphia to then fly to Newark, or so I thought. Due to snow, my flight to Philly was delayed, but my connecting flight to Newark was supposed to be fine. After landing in Philly, no flights seemed to be leaving, so the time of our departure kept getting pushed further and further back. After four hours of waiting, US Airways cancelled the flight to Newark, which meant I would miss my flight to Belgium. In panic. I called my university coordinator and travel agent in order to book another flight. Of course, I know no one in Philly and my new flight leaves tomorrow night from Newark, so I need a place to stay for the night. While waiting in the US Airways line for almost two hours, I texted a friend on Staten Island to see if I could stay the night with her and I would take the Amtrak to New Jersey. Thankfully, my angel of a friend offered to pick me up and allowed me to spend the night. US Airways was of no help and wouldn't pay for my Amtrak or a hotel or anything really, so I proceeded to get my bags from the baggage claim. Of course, they wouldn't give me my bags, saying that they would be sent to Newark. This meant that I would not have any clean clothes, or a toothbrush. Nothing. After this, I took a driver with two other students to the Amtrak Station where we rode to New Jersey. My friend picked my up and we spent the night at her house, catching up and seeing some of her friends. Overall, it was a good day, minus all of the stress from traveling.

On Wednesday afternoon, my friend and her mom and I grabbed lunch at the diner before they took me to the airport. They also took me to the airport the first time I went to Belgium, so it seemed only fitting. After making my way through security, I sat by my gate and proceeded to study for my exams. Due to something freezing on the plane, there was a delay with boarding and takeoff. However, this didn't bother me, since I was finally on my way to Belgium and I could watch a movie while we waited on the runway. (I watched "Boyhood" which was superb.) Eventually, we were cleared for takeoff. Just as the plane left the ground, a huge flash of fire erupted over the right window and the plane fell down onto the runway after being in the air for a few feet. No one panicked, but we knew something was wrong. In my gut, I knew I wouldn't be going to Belgium on this aircraft. In the calm of the aircraft, we waited for the call from the captain, while emergency crews inspected the plane, According to the captain, the engine on the right wind blew up and we were deplaned.  No flight to Belgium for me. After deplaning (such an odd term), we waited at the United counter to see what would happen next. I made another call to my coordinator and told her I would keep her posted. We ended up waiting in this line for over three hours, since I was one of the last to get off the plane. United booked us a new flight the following day, a flight just for us, as well as giving me a hotel room and a meal voucher. After over seven hours of waiting in lines and waiting on the plane, I arrived in my hotel room at 1:30, again with no other clothes or a toothbrush, since my bags were checked for my final destination. In the time I had been waiting, I could have been in Brussels by then. I spent more time waiting in lines that I did anything else. At least I had a bed and a shower to rest from another eventful day.

After sleeping in Thursday morning, I met with a few women from my flight for breakfast. I had no one else with me, so I made friends with my fellow stranded passengers and we talked about how crazy this entire situation was. After relaxing in the hotel for the afternoon, we took a shuttle to the airport in hopes to finally get to Belgium. After passing through security and grabbing some Chinese food, we found ourselves a the gate with all of our fellow travelling friends. Boarding the plane, I hoped that this would be the lucky time. Since this wasn't a full flight, I got two seats to myself, which was a full row. Miraculously, this plane actually took off!  I lounged in the comfort of my row, watching movies, studying, eating, and attempting to sleep. After a few short hours, we made our bumpy landing into Brussels early in the morning. People were shockingly more upset about turbulence than they were about the flames on our previous flight.Without a hitch, I grabbed my bags and the Snow Doctors retrieved me from the airport and I made my way home. Finally.

Honestly, I never thought getting to Belgium would be so hard. I never thought I would do it all on my own. I never thought I would have to do so many things just to make one flight. Even though this was a major inconvenience, I never cried or really felt bad. I felt stressed and that I was inconveniencing a lot of people and myself, bu tI couldn't help that. All I could do was laugh and just see it as a part of the adventure that is travelling through life. While I never hope to do it again, it sure makes a hell of a good story.