-The Road to Bilbao-

I believe some people just are born with the desire to roam. I knew before I started university that I wanted to study abroad. I never knew where, and at the time I had never traveled internationally. I came from a family that went above and beyond to give me everything I ever wanted. But traveling was not in the budget when I was growing up. So I knew I had to prove how serious I was about studying abroad if I wanted this to happen.

At my freshman orientation at Tennessee Tech University our group leader asked, “What do you guys want to do while in college?” Most of the students answered “study engineering”, “Join a fraternity”, “graduate with a 4.0 GPA.”  I answered “Study Abroad.” To this day my family says I was more focused on that than my actual studies (they aren’t wrong). I told myself I needed to give Tennessee Tech a year or two, to see how I adjust to university life before I try to jump into studying internationally. I assumed during this time I would also figure out what country I would wanted to study in.

My second semester of my freshman year after the homecoming parade my friend and I sat in the campus Starbucks, trying to figure out what language these two exchange students were speaking. I was guessing Portuguese, and assumed the guys were from Brazil. My friend finally went up to them and asked where they were from. The guys told us they were from Spain. Little did I know at the time they were speaking Galician, so Portuguese wasn’t too bad of a guess. I remained friends with the guys until they returned back to Spain that summer. Through our friendship I learned so much about Spain, and was always asking ridiculous questions about their country.

After meeting them I became fascinated with Spain. I guess I had just never thought about that country much at all, nor did I know anything about it. I remember going into the study abroad office and asking if studying in Spain was an option. Unfortunately, at that time Spain wasn’t an option for my major. My infatuation with Spain continued, but I knew I’d have to study somewhere else.

The summer before going into my 3rd year of university I save up money and decide to visit my aunt living in Munich, Germany. I just wanted to prove to myself I could travel alone (somewhat). During that trip I kept telling myself if you don’t message the guys mentioning that you want to see them in Spain you’ll regret it.  I messaged the guys and during the last week of my Europe trip stayed with them for a few days in a small town in Galicia. My friends went above and beyond to show me the Galicia region and introduced me to all of their incredibly kind friends.

I returned to America right before my junior year started absolutely in love with Spain. The walls of my room were covered in the photos from those few days visited. I even had to write a letter to myself for the job I had at the time. Each of us employees were to write about our goals we wanted to accomplish, and were to re-open the letter at the end of the semester. I wrote in my letter “Right now you’re pretty obsessed with Spain. I don’t think this will change any time in the future, so here are some euros because you’re going to be back there soon.” I was a slight bit dramatic in the fact that I actually added about 15 euros in my envelope including the letter.

During this first semester of my Junior year of college I had set my mind on studying a semester in Tasmania. The application process for this university was quite extensive, and I wasn’t in any rush to finish it. The week before the Tasmania application was due I went to the study abroad coordinator to ask what my chances of being accepted to the university were. As this program required a large application fee. She told me that my chances were slim as the the Tasmanian University was quite picky, and there were a large number of applicants. At that moment I assumed I should not waste the money, and maybe studying abroad was not going to happen this far into my years at university. Before I left the study abroad coordinator told me about this new university that just got touch with them about exchange students. As soon as she told me this university was in Spain, I was sold! We checked and they offered the classes necessary for my major. The only problem was that they had never received students from Tennessee Tech before, and the application had to be completed very quickly, in order to go the upcoming semester.

I still remember calling my mom leaving the study abroad office so thrilled about the new opportunity. Although, I had not planned on studying internationally until my senior year of university, I knew I would regret passing up on Spain. Within a week I met with so many professors and deans of the university for signatures and recommendations for my application. To this day I still give so much credit to a few professors that went above and beyond to make sure my application requirements were met.

I remember one night after my application was completed, my mom and I talked on the phone for hours about what would happen if I got accepted. My parents were worried that financially going to Spain may be too much. Although, my parents have always given me everything they could, they have been very open about the fact that we were never very well off financially. Seeing my parents work so hard and still struggle made me feel guilty that I would put a strain on them financially. Yet they had not gotten to travel internationally themselves. While I would have money of my own to spend in Spain, what I did not realize was the amount of money you must show proof of to receive a student visa. While money was a big portion of our phone call that night, some of it was filled with crying at that I’d be away from home for half year. I think the fear of safety for my parents and brother while I was gone was something that had crossed my mind. While it never occurred to me that I’d be the one alone living on a different continent, and how much that worried them. We ended that phone call with me saying, “I feel like this is something I will forever regret giving up.” I knew this was not the answer my parents wanted at the time, and it hurt me so much to tell them that their words did not change how I felt about going to Spain.

I felt almost sick to my stomach the week waiting for my acceptance. Sometimes I wished for it to decline so that I wouldn’t feel the guilt of wanting to go anymore. While I knew deep down I wanted to go, and worked very hard to do so. It was late one night at work and I checked my emails to find a strange email written entirely in Spanish (I didn’t know any Spanish prior to going). I used what would soon because my best friend, Google Translate, and found out I was accepted. I was in such shock! I remember pacing in circles in the office crying tears of joy. I called my parents (waking them up) and told them that I was accepted. My mom replied with “Well, now you’ve got to get that visa.”

 

As I finished up my final exams, I planned as if I was moving to Spain in January. Although, I only told a few people, in fear that I would not get accepted for the student visa. It gave me anxiety to think that I was already accepted, had picked my classes, and was apartment hunting, yet if I didn’t get that visa it was all for nothing. In order for me to get the visa I had to hand in my application at the Spanish Consulate in Houston, Texas. Just before Christmas me and two other students accepted to The University of the Basque Country drove twelve hours to Houston to turn in our visa applications. I soon learned that you will never have all your visa documents, and you will constantly be faxing more paperwork after you leave. On December 27th I finally received my student visa, and now it was time to hurry and book a flight. On January 23rd I left Tennessee for Bilbao, Spain. It’s still all a blur to me as to how all this got accomplished so quickly. Just a few months prior I was looking at the photos of my trip to Spain that summer, not knowing when I’d be able to return. This was absolutely one of those cases where, if you keep pursuing something, it happens when you least expect it.

I have now spent nearly half a year in Bilbao, Spain. To put it simply, living in Spain is more incredible than I ever imagined. The fact that I’m lying awake in my room at 3am due to the noise of the Casco Viejo streets on a Friday may seem like a bother to most, but I’m going to miss it. Everyone studies abroad for different reasons, and they each return with a different experience. I had such high expectations for mine experience, that I was sure I was going to be let down.

Although, life in Spain has been crazy and full of hardships, this place is my home now. I love knowing that I am just a plane ride away from the narrow streets I once got lost in, with my friends looking for a pintxo bar. While I can say nothing but amazing things about Spain, Bilbao, the food, the culture, and it’s people, there are things about this experience that I hate. I hate the fact that in just a few days I have to say goodbye. I hate that I won’t be able to walk along the river at night because I can’t sleep. I hate that I was never told that Spain will slow down your typical American pace, and you learn to take your time with enjoying the everyday things. I hate that I’ve grown accustomed to taking the metro to the beach after classes. I hate that I have met people here that I can’t imagine what life was like before we met. But what I hate most of all, is that I can’t take any of these things with me. Even though this visa will expire, and my exams are over, the friendships and memories don’t end just because distance. Spain, you have won my heart a second time and I hope to return to my second home soon!

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-Exploring the Food of The Basque Country-

One major part of living in a new country is being adventurous when it comes to trying new foods.  At times that means humbling yourself and just pointing to the things you can pronounce (a tactic I use far too often). Sometimes going to the grocery store can be just as much of an adventure as going to a foreign restaurant. Although, Bilbao is a quite diverse city, it does not have the international grocery options you may find in places such as Barcelona or Madrid. At times the lack of familiarity can be tough to what you’re craving. But I often find that going to a dozen little stores in search of an item, can lead you to some of your new favorite shops.

After two months of living in Spain I’m by no means a pro at authentic Spanish or Basque food. I’m not even remotely close to finding all the things at the store that I miss from home. But I have recently gotten in a habit of shopping at the same places and having a few favorite cafes. I’m sure what I find here in Bilbao is far different than some other traditional Spanish cuisines. The Basque country has many traditional dishes unique to this region of Northern Spain. I thought it might be helpful for anyone new to the Basque Country or planning on visiting one day to know what to expect from local dining and grocery options.

One of the most unique dining aspects to Spain is the tapas. Although, if you ask for tapas in Basque Country you will be pretty much letting everyone know you’re not a local. In Basque Country tapas still exist but are instead called Pinxtos. Pintxo (pronounced peen-cho) is Basque word translating to “pierce”. This may be because typically these appetizer sized foods are served on a toothpick. Pintxos can be found at almost every bar or café. They are pretty hard to miss as well, as they are usually displayed on plates or clear cases on counter tops of the bar. Pintxos are perfect for a mid-day snack or with a few you could even count it as a meal. Pintxos are perfect for those that are not perfect at Spanish or Basque because they are premade on the counter, and easy to point to. Pintxos are occasionally free with drinks, or on a certain week night depending on the bar/café. Pintxos are typically some type of sliced baguette with cheese, some with different types of meat, or even made into tiny burgers.

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Next may just be my favorite Spanish food of all time ,Tortilla de Patatas! In Spain they often cook with eggs and potato and Tortilla de Patatas may be the best combination of both. I like to call these Tortillas the Spanish omelet. Although similar to omelets, Tortilla de Patatas rarely ever contain meat. This dish is definitely the ultimate comfort food of Spain. They typically contain eggs, potato, and onion. Tip to those that hate onion as much as I do simply look for the ones labeled “ sin cebolla”. Tortilla de Patatas may be one of the most common foods served in Spain, and can be found at nearly every traditional restaurant. There are even pre-made versions on the dish at most grocery stores.

Other great finds at local Basque cafes are any type of seafood, cheeses, and chocolate. Although there are barely any fast food style restaurants in Spain. The website JustEat is a life saver for those used to convenient food. JustEat offers delivery (rarely without delivery fees) from local dining options near your location. The only downside to this, is that is you don’t have a somewhat decent understanding of Spanish is may be tough to make the transaction.

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Grocery shopping here in Bilbao is sometimes a struggle compared to the way I used to shop back in the States. As most all European cities, Bilbao has far more pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks than cars on the roads. I often get caught in Bilbao’s rainy weather unexpectedly while trying to lug all my groceries to my apartment. In Bilbao the go to grocery store has to be Eroski. There may possibly be more Eroskis in the Basque Country than there are Dollar Generals in the southern U.S. Bilbao is also full of panaderías (bakeries), frutería (produce shops), and candy shops.

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The first thing you may notice when you walk into a Basque grocery store is all the CARBS! Baguettes usually are the first thing you will see when you go into any grocery store. Although, Spain has a decent amount of gluten free friendly products it’s hard to stay on a strict diet with all the amazing fresh breads. Just about as common as breads here would have to be doughnuts. Doughnuts and any sort of cake style sweet is sure to take up a few aisle of a Basque Grocery store. Lots of local fruits and vegetables is definitely a plus to living in Bilabo. Some of the best citruses and avocados I have ever had were from Spain. One of my favorite attributes of Spanish grocery stores is the fact that literally everything packages or not is from Spain. For the items that were made/grown in another country there is a small photo of that nations flag typically beside the price label.

Although it’s pretty much impossible to find prepared foods such as pre-cooked grilled chicken, biscuit/cookie dough, pie crust, or many to-go style lunches. These stores often do carry a few Mexican, Asian, and Indian food products. Basque grocery stores are not only famous for their low prices baked goods, but their seafood as well. I’ve ate more crab since I have moved here than I thought was humanly possible. You can find very fresh cuts of any type meats here (although mostly chicken). The cheese sections of the store here still seem to amaze me with the variety from sheep, goat, to even a lot of lactose free options. While all of these Basque grocery items are amazing, few compare to the overwhelming selection of chocolate. I would be a liar if I said I don’t have at least a bit of chocolate everyday here. Believe me when I say it completely worth every calorie too!

Although I wouldn’t trade living in the Basque Country for anything, there are still some foods I miss or cannot find living here. One of my biggest struggles is finding smoothies. Many Americanized cafes here offer “smoothies”, there are either juice or a milkshake. Not once have I had an actual smoothie since moving here. Don’t even get me started on the struggle to find a blender to make my own at home either. Some of the grocery store items that are rare to find but are occasionally possible are peanut butter, brown sugar, apple sauce, chocolate baking chips, Italian dressing, flaxseed, chia seeds, marshmallows, and oats. While somethings here are the exact same as in America, but just packaged differently. For example, Dorito chips are very popular here although the US. Version of the red bagged nacho cheese chips are sold in a light orange bag and labeled Tex-Mex flavored. Most American candies or frozen foods are almost impossible to find. Reece’s cups, tater tots, canned soups, or American style ham or sausage are just a few examples of foods that simply don’t exist here.

For everything I miss from home I often find something new I love here just as much. That is definitely one of my favorite parts of living abroad, just appreciating the differences. My biggest tip for anyone new to Spain or the Basque Country, is just to try it all because that’s the best way to learn. There is nothing better than going to a new place and finding something you can’t live without!

-My Roman Holiday-

To start off, I’m no expert on Rome! I realize I was only in the city for a three-day weekend as a tourist, but I will say I learned a lot about seeing the sights of Rome in those three days.  I bought a flight to Rome after many late nights of staying awake talking to one of my best friends (and fellow exchange student) here in Bilbao about how much we just wanted to travel every weekend we could while living in Spain. My friend and I made a list of our top five European cities we just had to see during this semester, and it just happened to be that Rome was on both of our lists. So we looked for the cheapest flight to Rome and booked it that very night.

This spur of the moment flight purchase gave us less than two weeks to plan for it. I had the bright idea of only looking for a place to stay about how close it was to the city center. Other than that the only real planning we did was figure out what places in Rome we really needed to see during our visit. The list consisted of The Colosseum, The Vatican, The Trevi Fountain, and as many gelato shops we could possibly stop at. So we assumed because our list was a fairly typical and simple Rome tourist sight-seeing list that we would have no problem seeing each one of these with ease. We assumed wrong!

In the days leading up to leaving for Rome we asked some of the other exchange students at UPV Leoia what bus takes you to the Bilbao airport. We thought we would test out the bus, and make sure we did it correctly the day before. Of course when we got to Moyua (the biggest area of Bilbao) to test out the buses we thought “Hmm we don’t actually need to test this bus route. Let’s go get a latte and hot chocolate like we do every single time we are procrastinating, and forget about it.” I honestly think we just got too confident in this whole “We take buses and know what we are doing just like a real European” mindset.

So the night before we leave for Rome my friend spends the night at my apartment. We plan on waking up at 4am in order to leave my place in time to walk to the bus stop to get to the airport in time for our flight. We get to Plaza de Federico Moyua and look for the bus stop. It sounds really simple until you realize this plaza is a giant circle with about eight different bus stops. I was very quick so say let’s just pay for a taxi and get there the lost American student way. But fortunately my friend speaks much better Spanish than I do and she was able to ask this girl that suitcases walking to this bus stop if it was the stop for the airport. We were incredibly fortunate and this girl was very helpful and we talked to her the whole way to the airport. Nothing far too interesting happened on our flight to Rome, another than me handing my friend on of my ear buds and desperately trying to find the perfect take off song for the start of our flight. After sleeping with my head awkwardly smashed against the mini fold down table for two and a half hours we land in Rome.

We land in Rome and I look at the time to only realize it is two hours later than the time I told the owners of the flat we were renting for air b&b that we would meet them. So as soon as we get out of the plane I message the owners and apologize for my mistake and ask when the would open it up for us. Unfortunately, they would not be free for two more hours. My friend and I packed out backpacks to the so full it was painful just to avoid paying for a bag for the flight. So because we had these wildly large turtle shells strapped to our backs and we thought about the fear of pick-pocketers we thought it was best to chill in the airport for those two hours. My friend and I sat there and got sort of realized once we got to the apartment we really didn’t have any plan of what do to after that. So my friend gets on her laptop and quickly researches somethings to do. Me being the helpful travel partner that I am went to the well-lit bathrooms and did my makeup.

Our two hours of waiting goes by relevantly fast for our overwhelming exciting to just be in Rome. We realized our best option to get to the flat we rented was to take a taxi. We assumed you could just walk up to one of the dozens of taxis parked outside and get in. We soon got rejected by each one of them due to the fact that they were all reserved. We go to the help desk to ask about taxis and get sent to the bottom level of the airport. As we get off the escalator we are approached by two men asking us if we need a taxi. My friend answered yes and we showed them the address to our place. The both got together and google mapped it, and said yes, they could take us there. We were told to follow the older man to his car. As we walk through what felt like a mile of the airport and go down to the tunnel to the parking garage I begin to think about the movie “Taken” and how neither of these men have name tags and are parked in a parking garage. I quickly start to worry and tap my friend on the shoulder and tell her I don’t feel right about it. We decide to tell the man that our friend was going to meet us at the airport and we didn’t need his service anymore. The man didn’t know English so he called his boss to have us explain and after much frustration we just walk away from him. I’m not trying to claim these men in the airport were harmful or frauds, but everything was very suspicious.

We then got to that bottom floor once more, go outside, and instantly have tons of taxis to choose from. We get into a taxi and just sigh with relief. We made it and we are on our way to our flat. We soon realize that The Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport is incredibly far away from the city. If you have ever been in a major city and taken a taxi from the airport you know that the price is normally outrageous. We cringed the whole ride to the flat as we watched the price rise. By the time we got to the flat our bill for the ride was nearly sixty euros. As we step out of the taxi the man we are renting the flat from is waiting for us on his Vespa all Italian-like and everything. We walk into the most beautiful little villa full of luscious greenery and sunshine. We get a quick tour of our adorable little flat. As the owner leaves my friend and I quickly start to unpack and as usual let our moms know we have arrived safely. All of a sudden my friend begins to panic and realized we can’t find her phone. We both search franticly through our bags, the sofa cushions, the walk way into the villa, any corner we could think of. We soon come to the conclusion the cell phone got left in the taxi. My friend like any young adult six thousand miles from home would be, was super upset that we would never be able to track down the taxi for her phone.

We kind of just sat in the flat hour about an hour and regretting the whole spontaneous adventure.  I thought that if there is nothing we can do to make this day any worse we might as well go walk to the coliseum and see one of the sights we had talked so much about. I guess in my mind because we got a flat in the city center that we could walk to every major point of Rome without too much trouble. We walked out of the flat and literally started walking. We just meaninglessly starting walking, and following people assuming we could get to the coliseum. After nearly an hour of walking, I use many international data (very bad idea) for google maps. I realized we were still another hour from the coliseum. We got about fifteen minutes from the coliseum and it was getting really hot and confusing, so we turn around. Now because I could I could write about six thousand words on what we did the rest of the trip I thought I would make the rest of this blog about my personal Do’s and Don’ts of Rome.

DON’T: Use uber or taxis unless you have to in Rome:

Some cities are small and it’s much cheaper to uber everywhere. Rome is not that city! Rome is very spread out and not cheap to get from one sight to another. Our second day of being in Rome and racking up uber charges we walked to the Train/Metro/Bus station. This station alone was about ten times the size of the Bilbao airport. This station is also full of pick pockets so keep an eye on your backpack! We asked around and found out that this tiny little newspaper stand sold 24,48, and 72-hour metro, tram, and bus passes. Yes, I said a newspaper stand! When you live in Europe for a little while you begin to realize nothing is sold where you expect it to be. We bought the 48-hour pass for only twelve euros. This was a great investment and with a little street smart and decent map reading skills you can get all around the city.

DO: Eat wherever and whatever you want in Rome:

Some major cities often have overpriced food near major touristy sights. This is not the case for Rome. Everywhere we ate was fairly inexpensive for the locations. In addition, the food in Rome never once failed my expectations. So calorie counting is beyond unnecessary here. With all the walking you can eat carbonara and gelato for every meal without gaining a pound.

DON’T: Fall for the people at the Vatican or the Coliseum that make you pay to “skip the line”:

I’m not going to say they are all frauds, because I have heard that if you buy these passes online ahead of time you really can skip the line. But these people will harass you the whole time in line speaking any language you can imagine offering line skips and occasionally a tour. This is tempting with the long lines for either of these places. But we witness that many people who skipped the lines had to not only pay the person offering this too good to be true deal, they pay extra at the gate, and the tour doesn’t really exist.

DO: Go to the Coliseum on the first Sunday of the month:  

This day is free for entry and although many websites try to claim the coliseum is not open on Sundays, that is far from true. We got incredibly lucky and went unknowingly on the first Sunday of the month. We went two hours before closing and made it in with about an hour to spare. From photos I have seen I the past I don’t believe it was nay busier than normal that day either.

 

DON’T: Try walking back to your flat after dark:

This completely depends on where you are located. We personally had a flat in a fairly nice area. But as I have mentioned before Rome is quite large and you will more than likely see that the areas of town you walked through during the day soon get much scarier at night. My friend and I got chased and cat-called may times and learned to walk as close as we could to out flat, and order an uber from there.

DO: Go to hole in the wall places:

Rome has many hidden antique and bookstores. If you are anything like my friend and I this will become one of your favorite parts of Rome. Our favorite place was this little antique bookstore called Acquisto Intere Biblioteche located right near the Vatican. This place has some high quality and very unique postcards, posters, and old Italian magazine reprints. That is not to mention the thousands of antique Italian literature that lines the walls.

DON’T:  Stay in a hotel:

In Rome air b&b is much cheaper and more spacious typically as well. The flat we stayed in was amazing and only 183 U.S. dollars for three nights. This was a full sized flat with a kitchen, pull out sofa, and bunk beds. If anyone would like to know more about the flat we stayed in feel free to contact me for information.

 

Overall out time in Rome was incredible! Nothing compares to seeing the Coliseum for the first time at night and nearly crying at the sight of it. You will love the history, architecture, food, and the kind people of Italy.

 

My New Life in Bilbao

My new life in Bilbao has been a bit of a whirlwind. For every amazing and timeless moment, I experience, there is always a far more embarrassing one to follow. Although, the photos may show the easy side of my life here in Spain, the reality of it is far different. For every Instagram post of a mountainous hike or a beach trip is usually hidden a wild story of getting lost, falling asleep on the bus, a dead cell phone, and a lack of Spanish vocabulary. I wanted to show everyone all sides of what it’s like to be a 20-year-old female living abroad. I love reading travel blogs, but rarely do I find the ones that include the realistic side of the journey. I’m thrilled to share my good and bad experiences here in the Basque Country!