Fall

I visited Seattle for the first time in the fall. The weather was still temperate and sunny, the days were still long and the late afternoon light was perfectly golden. The city’s natural beauty was fully on display, and I fell in love.

ImageI know what you’re thinking–how can you possibly make it through another rapturous essay on apple picking, pumpkin spice lattes and changing leaves? But while I’m a sucker for all these things, I love fall because it’s been the season of so many good memories.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with fond memories of my first college term. I had no idea what to expect of the campus, the people or even my major, and I was pleasantly surprised to immediately love everything about the University of Oregon–even its retro student union, overly enthusiastic football fans and giant lecture halls. All of us who start college in the fall probably think of autumn as a time of year for fresh starts and self-discovery.

ImageTwo years later, I had one of the best autumns of my life studying in Paderno del Grappa, Italy. I spent much of the semester traveling all over Europe, and one of my most vivid memories is of the varied weather. It was practically summer one weekend in Florence, but two weeks later, my soaked ballet flats squelched all over Dublin during a daylong downpour. We wandered Paris in mostly T-shirts in October, but we needed to buy more layers and lots of mulled wine to  keep from freezing a month later in Köln. It was thrilling to experience Europe while the seasons were changing.

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ImageThree years ago, in the fall, my favorite people came together on the scenic rooftop of my first Seattle apartment.

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ImageAnd the next fall, when there was no more roof, we settled for a cramped kitchen.

ImageAnd to start this fall, some of us made a pilgrimage right back to the place where my love for fall started…at the University of Oregon.

Image…We were a little overwhelmed.

Waiting at the Venice Mestre train station

I’m ready for a vacation!!

It’s down to the wire here at the Istituto Filippin. There are four academic days left until we leave the CIMBA campus for good and jet to our homes back in the States. We’re getting weepy, but surprisingly, we’re also glad to be going home. We’re all, as we’ve said to each other for the past week or so, “over school” and for the time being and we’ll be happy to get a little ( or in my case, a lot) relaxation time before hitting the books next term.

Budapest Hungary Chain Bridge

I never knew how much travel could take out of me. The fact that, during this whole program, there was never really a “break” in terms of mental or physical relaxation because we were either studying or traveling the whole time, has really gotten to me. My back is sore. I’m probably sleep deprived, but I can’t tell anymore. This week, made up of three days of classes and three days of finals, has pushed me even further to the limit. I’ve been typing nonstop for three days, and I’ll probably continue to do so until Friday, the day before my last paper is due. In the meantime, I have to figure out when (and HOW!!) I’ll pack, where to get a hotel near the Venice Mestre train station for easy access to the airport in the morning, secure a CIMBA yearbook, fax my course syllabi to my home university and–tear!–say goodbye to everyone. Wish me luck.

This term, though it was technically much longer than any term at U of O, has gone by faster than any other. I feel like it was barely a month ago that I came here, sweaty and confused, with my huge suitcase and my shy smile, dubious about whether I’d be able to call this place home. I needn’t have worried. In fact, I should have been more concerned about how I would leave without pulling out a generously sized Kleenex box. I’ve gotten to know 89 American college students, four tabacchi employees, a pastry shop owner, two taxi drivers, a pizzeria owner and a jewelrymaker, and to have known these people so intimately for three months and then to never see them again seems so odd.

Waiting at the Venice Mestre train station
I’ve seen nine countries, flown on 15 planes, taken a dizzying amount of train trips all over the place. (And even with all that travel time, I still learned valuable things in my classes!) I should feel worldly, but instead I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the world has to offer. I’ll be back–I hope–to conquer Rome, to ride the train all the way down the Rhine, to discover the undiscovered parts of Eastern Europe, to freeze my butt off in the Scandinavian countries, and to revisit every inch of London.

In the meantime, I’ll be glad to return home, where Mexican food tastes good and where my pillow-top bed awaits. I hope to see all of you soon.

Expatriates: Still sort of American

You might say George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are among the greatest heroes of American history because they had the courage to stay loyal to the U.S. through the worst, but I’d have to argue that Margo, Sharla and Giancarlo are just as heroic for mustering up the courage to leave the freest country in the world.

Though the notion of moving abroad permanently excites me, the concept remains just as foreign to me as Italy itself. We CIMBA students have been in Italy for nearly three months and are well-versed in tabacchi products and prosecco wines, but we’re still awed at the idea that an American could drop everything to live in Italy indefinitely. So, naturally, the panel of four expatriates that sat before us one night last week intrigued us all.

Waiting at the Bassano del Grappa train station

Sharla, an expat who has lived in Italy longer than her 15-year-old daughter has been alive, said she literally hasn’t seen “this many Americans in decades.” Though she was there to answer our questions, she wanted to know about us, about our lives as Americans, something with which she has been out of tune.

I was surprised, in fact, by how very American they all still seemed, considering how far removed they are from American culture. They, like us, sometimes missed things like bagels and chipotle–though the longer they live there, “the smaller the list gets,” according to Margo, and “now when I go back to the U.S., sometimes I want a spritz”–and there are certain ancient Italian practices they still haven’t gotten over, like working around inconvenient store hours and siestas.

“In America you can be like, ‘Oh, it’s 2 a.m. and we need milk, let’s go get it!’ Here, you have to plan ahead for everything,” Margo said. Added Giancarlo, “planning business things like meetings is really frustrating.”

Though they live lives I thought I couldn’t imagine, the expats echoed my thoughts every few minutes with one of their comments about living here in Italy. Sharla said, “When I go to the States to visit my family, I feel more Italian. Here I feel more American.” I, too, feel more American than ever here, but compared to many of my schoolmates who’ve never ventured outside of Oregon, I’m practically a native European.

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Heroes, though their status seems loftier, are just as human as the rest of us. No exception here. These expats did something unthinkable to most of us at CIMBA, yet somehow they were just like us.

When Margo mentioned peanut butter longingly and the whole room sighed with her in moans of gastronomic pain, I realized that, while we students haven’t left our home country for good, we’re expats in many respects too. I envied these panelists their ability to just up and leave for something completely foreign, but in a way, I did the same thing.

Fisherman's Bastion at night Budapest Hungary

Back to class

I returned from another great travel week on Sunday, and once again, I had barely enough time to rest before the work rained down on me. On top of keeping up blogs for two classes and getting all my homework done, I had to deal with class scheduling woes in the wee hours this morning while attempting to wash my clothes in broken machines. I’ve also just accepted a position as a student blogger at the U of O and I’m now dealing with very unfun employment paperwork, made doubly unfun by the fact that I don’t have access to a lot of financial information I need while abroad. I think this week, with all its stresses, is a preview to the stresses I’ll be experiencing when I go back to Oregon for my next school term. I’d better get used to it.

I can barely remember as far back as the day we left for the second travel week–Nov. 8–but I’ll try to recall as much as I can.

Dohány Street Synagogue Budapest Hungary

Our first stop was Budapest, which proved to be a lot like I pictured it to be: a slightly more Eastern version of Prague. In fact, it was even geographically similar: a river, the Danube, ran through the center and on one side, on a hill, was a castle and the old town (Buda) and on the other side was the sleeker, newer town (Pest) with a Jewish quarter. The difference in the Jewish quarter: there were more small synagogues scattered over the district in Prague, and here, the focal point is one synagogue in particular, which happens to be the largest one in Europe. We inadvertently signed up for a tour, but were glad we did when we learned the Gestapo set up a communication station right in the pews of the synagogue, as if in an effort to crush the spirit of the Jews as much as possible. Monuments like these are just impressive, gilded empty shells unless one knows the incredible and terrible history behind them.

We wandered around the streets of Pest for a little while before we crossed the Danube via the Chain Bridge to get to Old Town. We took a tram up the hill to the castle, which reminded me of riding up the Shadowbrook tram after an atmospheric dinner, and we were slightly disappointed upon arrival: the castle wasn’t really set up to display rooms as they were in royalty’s heyday. Instead, each segment of the castle was a different modern art museum or renovated concert hall or something else that involved completely gutting all the rooms to give the building another purpose. We thought it was odd, but we saw some beautiful streets ahead of us, so we walked away from the castle to explore the rest of the old town.

Fisherman's Bastion at night Budapest Hungary Pest at night Budapest Hungary
After grabbing a coffee around 4, it was already getting dark by the time we ran into St. Matthias Church, classic gothic but for its Eastern tile-patterned roof. Even more impressive was the nearby Fisherman’s Bastion, a balustrade that somewhat resembled a sandcastle and began to light up just as we arrived. Not only was the structure magnificent in the evening glow, but so was the view of Pest from up high on the bastion, especially as other structures–the bridge, parliament, huge hotels along the water’s edge–began to light up too.

I’ll talk more about my other visits during the travel week–Vienna, Prague and a spontaneous day trip to Bratislava–when I’m back in control of the work situation. Before then, you can read the update to my class blog on one particular morning in Prague.

Prague revisited

By 4:30 p.m., all I could see from the train window was black. Staring out the window on the way to Prague had been my last source of entertainment; my iPod was already out of battery and I’d finished the one book I took with me on the travel week. Now all I could do was pull out a map of Europe and stare listlessly.

Perhaps that’s how, after about 20 minutes of staring, my eyes focused on Dresden, Germany.

I’d begun to think about my traveling companions, two girls who wanted nothing but to shop at American department stores and read at Starbucks during our entire three-day stay in Vienna. Would they do the same thing in Prague? Even if they changed this time around and showed enthusiasm for seeing the sights, I knew I wouldn’t be too thrilled to tag along. I had already visited every important Prague monument three years ago with a touring singing group. I wanted something new. I wanted something German.

I already had it all decided when the train screeched to our stop: I would take a day trip to Dresden, a two-hour train ride away, on Saturday to ease the monotony and my frustration. I didn’t know what Dresden had to offer, and my German still wasn’t up to scratch, but what the hell.

I was even happier about my secret pact when, as we came up from the underground near our hostel, I felt the dry, penetrating cold of the night air. Dresden must be warmer than this, I thought, though I had nothing to back up this theory.

The air had the same biting chill in the morning; there seemed to be little difference between day and night here in terms of temperature. We wound our way through tiny alleyways toward the Old Town Square, shivering and shoving our hands deep within our pockets, and I again commended myself on my brilliant plan of escape.

And then, just like that, there was the square. I didn’t even recognize it at first, thinking it was just another busy square that happened to house a few beautiful buildings, but then I saw the main monuments: the Church of Our Lady of Týn, the astronomical clock, the many restaurants with yellow-clothed wicker tables spilling out onto the cobblestones. The cloudless azure of the sky seemed almost to reflect upon the apartment buildings and to illuminate each color: pea soup turned to lime popsicle, marzipan turned to pale lemon and glass windows looked like pools of water.

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My hands fell out of my coat pockets and my eyes were so wide they reached an aperture I’d never before accomplished. I was not cold anymore. I was in Prague, my intrigue renewed, and I wasn’t going anywhere.

Tales of an expat

Everyone thinks the best stories come from the wildest adventures, like getting lost in the Himalayas or kayaking down a hundred-foot waterfall in the Amazon. But sometimes a great adventure story comes from the simplest act of moving outside one’s comfort zone. In the case of Dominic Standish, this act was moving from England to Italy and getting married four days later.

To be fair, it’s not quite as adventurous as it all sounds. “All the men wondered how I’d managed to find a wife in four days,” Standish said, “and I pointed out to them that I’d met her a while ago in England.”

Still, a permanent move to a country whose culture and language was at the time totally foreign to him was adventure enough. Though he knew little about the way Italians behaved and could barely communicate with them, his eyes helped him discern the subtle differences. “Because I was coming to a new culture and a new country, I was making observations all the time,” Standish said.

And he began to write about them, shedding light on the interesting quirks of Italian life that Italians themselves weren’t aware of. Shortly thereafter, he was offered a position as a contributing writer for the International Herald Tribune by an editor interested in input from a fresh pair of eyes. The fact of his expatriatism was, then, the secret to his success.

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Starting out a writing career as an international reporter, Standish said, “gives you the chance to get our foot in the door because you’re immediately perceived as having a different perspective on things,” something publications always look for in a prospective employee.

Hearing Standish’s story made me think about the role of the expatriate journalist. While expats in general are enthusiastic to immerse themselves in a different culture than that of their home country, to what extent should journalists living in a foreign country do so? Do they have a responsibility to retain vivid memories of their upbringing in their respective former homelands for purpose of cultural observation? If they become completely immersed in another culture, will they lose that essential talent for observing culutral differences once they take life in their new home country for granted?

I wonder this because, if I were to move to a different country permanently, I’d want to truly immerse myself and be one with the community. Perhaps in the process, though, I’d forget things about life in the U.S. and consequently stop spotting the cultural differences that were once what made my writing stand out.

budapest

But maybe there’s no cause to worry: Dominic Standish said he still feels like he never wears the right leather shoes to fit in completely with his Italian friends, and he still expects his children to sit at the table until they’re done with dinner even though sitting down to dinner as a family is no longer a common practice among modern Italian families.

But, Standish jokes, “we don’t have a bonfire in our backyard” on Nov. 5 to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, nor does he yearn for the supermarket aisles of Marks & Spencer. He’s let some of the Italian culture seep in while retaining his own identity, blurring the lines between expat and Italian citizen.

Or, as he puts it, “My role is less defined by patriotism. I regard myself as a citizen of the world.”

Photo by Natasha Loresch

Travel Week 1, Part 3: Brussels

…but first, a disclaimer: I was only in Brussels for about 14 hours, and six of those were allotted for sleeping. My camera was filled to capacity and out of batteries, so I took no pictures. Therefore, my memory of Brussels is fuzzy at best.

Brussels is not a touristy city, but we made it our mission to be as touristy as possible when we arrived: we vowed that at the very least we would have Belgian chocolate and a huge Belgian waffle. When we got to the heart of the city, we couldn’t turn a corner without encountering at least one of those things, so our mission was easily fulfilled. One block off Grande Place, the main square in the center of town, was a waffle stand where we immediately descended and took in the sugary, chocolatey, creamy smell of pure bad calories and fat. Yum. I ordered a chocolate-drizzled waffle and got more sugar than I bargained for (though I wasn’t complaining): in the very center of the waffle had been cooked in a spoonful of nothing but granulated white sugar. I see a cavity in my future.

And even more dental problems were to come, I knew, when I realized there were more chocolate shops than restaurants in Brussels. Even those who skip dessert every night and get their sugar fix from half a grapefruit can’t resisit the call of the Belgian chocolate truffle, or bar, or stick, or easter bunny. There are literally at least two little shops eagerly handing out free samples on the front stoop on every block of the historical center, and they’re molded in the cutest of shapes that make them hard not to accept.

But when I wasn’t tasting chocolate, I was taking in the buildings whose rounded tops couldn’t have been seen in any country south of Luxembourg. Grande Place was truly grand with its huge square and stately buildings whose gold leaf details shone in the late afternoon light and almost looked like they were on fire. Buildings I saw walking down the narrow streets reminded me of pictures I had seen of Copenhagen and Amsterdam, that quirky fairytalelike style of architecture that you’d expect to see in an illustrated Hansel and Gretel book.

Just when we thought we couldn’t get more touristy, we could. We visited Atomium, a model of an iron molecule blown up to 165 times its real size, a relic from the 1958 World’s Fair. Then we went next door to Mini Europe, possibly the silliest attraction I’ve ever visited in Europe thus far. It’s a Disneyland of models of famous structures from all over Europe shrunk down to 1/25 their real size, which actually gave interesting perspective to famous monuments that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. For example, I didn’t know Big Ben was so infintesimal in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and how unassuming Mt. Vesuvius is in comparison with other famous mountains. However, I cop to having the most fun not thinking about proportions but playing around with funny juxtapositions like these:

Mini Europe Brussels Belgium

At night, we returned to the center of the town and grabbed a variety of foods–sushi, gyros, fair food–and sat on a fountain in the middle of a small plaza. Jaqui and I spent the better part of an hour staring at people’s boots as they walked by, comparing the merits of each type of boot depending on its material, heel height and style. Emily and Barry finally tired of our nonsense, so we moved on to a famous bar where 2,000 varieties of beer were on offer. We perused the fruit beer menu, where every flavor from banana to coconut was on offer. We opted for the raspberry, but left after one drink because everyone else in the bar was far louder and more drunk than us.

And that, in a nutshell, is my short but pleasant experience in Brussels. After a short night of sleep in a dodgy motel above an Indian restaurant, I skipped out of the city via tram, then metro, then train to the airport to fly to Dublin.

Read next: Travel Week 1, Part 4: Dublin

Climbing Verona’s Scalone San Pietro

Photo by Jill KimballWe were hopelessly obvious tourists, my mother and I. We sported unintentionally matching black fleece jackets, bags decidedly not made of leather, and confused expressions as we stopped at every corner to consult a city map.

But I was sure the Italians who walked past us and made a concerted effort to ignore our Americanness must understand our befuddlement. Their hometown of Verona, they must know, was a distracting place. For every sight we intended to visit, there was another equally interesting sight not marked on our maps that we stumbled upon and consequently forgot where we’d been headed in the first place.

This time, we were on our way to the Roman theater across the river from Verona’s historical center. The city dropped us off two blocks from the ruins along a busy traffic artery. Which direction should we go? We pulled out the map once more. Then it happened again. Verona’s distracting nature reared its too-beautiful head in the form of a narrow column of stone steps lined with sherbet ice cream apartment buildings. The engraved stone street sign on the wall, which read “Scalone San Pietro,” begged us to climb the stairs to the top, where we knew the hill palace of Castel San Pietro stood.

Balcony on the Scalone San Pietro, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

With thoughts of Roman ruins gone from our minds, we climbed the stairs. It might have been the red of the first apartment building on my left, a color that reminded me of the Early Girl tomatoes that spilled over the sides of the planter box in the backyard one summer, that pulled me in. Or it could have been the quaintness of the basket-adorned bikes strategically locked against the ground-floor windows covered by iron bars. The paint on Number 7’s facade was a splotchy salmon shade, the kind of color foreigners try to duplicate with sponges when they want the Tuscan look but that can only truly be achieved by the erosions of time. A grape vine snaked its way in and out of the iron-bar balcony, and I wondered why there weren’t crowds of people gathered here, because surely this was the real balcony on which Juliet called for her Romeo. As far as I was concerned, this house, with its gently creeping greenery framing the wooden doorway, was the realCapulet family home.

In two more flights of steps, an iron gate stood open and a sign vaguely mentioned restoration. We curiously walked through and found ourselves in what looked like the Irish countryside. A deep thicket of grass stretched out to the base of a brick wall at the edge of the hill. Crudely hewn prisms of stone, placed all around the grass, served as benches. No one else was there, nor had anyone left evidence of having visited recently, adding to the park’s austerity. Yet somehow the blank expanse of grass and stone was inviting, and I felt an urge to sit down with some panini and wine and gaze out at the mist. For even on this gray day, the city’s entire expanse was visible from here. Past the River Adige, red spires and domes stuck out of the tile-cielinged maze and mopeds the size of ants scooted along the bridges. On a hill opposite the park, on the outskirts of the city, sat a massive Palladian-style columned creation above dots of houses.

View from the Parco Scalone Castel San Pietro, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

Why was no one here, I thought? Could there be a better view of Verona anywhere else in the city? Shouldn’t Rick Steves let people know about this?

Perhaps, for all our fashion faux pas and touristy tendencies, my mother and I had the capacity to be trendsetters.

Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite, Paris, France

Travel Week 1, Part 2: Paris

Ah, Paris je t’aime! Les boulangeries! La tour Eiffel! La Louve! Sainte-Chappelle et Notre Dame et …eh, je ne pas parle Francais…

Miraculously, I actually picked up enough French to get by without even glancing at a guidebook before I got on the plane. And even more miraculously, while people looked at my other traveling companions and immediately began speaking English, they looked at me and babbled strings of French in my face.

Versailles, Paris, France
Should I have taken this as a compliment? Is it cooler for people to think you’re French than for them to think you’re American? Before I got to Paris, I would have said “no”. I once despised the French language, French people and the country of France itself…for no apparent reason. Maybe my unreasonable hatred for all things French was the reason why Paris ended up being my favorite stop during the travel week–because I had low expectations that were dashed in an instant.

Eiffel Tower, Paris
On the plane from Barcelona to the City of Love, I pictured sidewalks lined with grime, scowling men with hanging jowls and huge noses, rude women turning up their equally large noses at anyone who even smells remotely American. Such are the negative stereotypes associated with Paris. As it turned out, my first day there convinced me the positive Parisian stereotypes were far more accurate. For instance, picture a parade of glamorous people in leather boots and designer togs walking down romantic, cobblestoned roads with hot, fragrant baguettes in their hands. Sound too good to be true? It isn’t. I saw it with my own eyes. (OK, some of them still have large noses, but hey, so do I.)

And best of all, we stayed in the Latin Quarter, a part of the city devoid of tourists and a million times cheaper areas perennially swarmed with visitors. The day we got there we grabbed lunch at a legitimate sit-down restaurant with fabric tablecloths–a great feat when you’re a student crunched for money–and ate three courses of food for 10 euros. That’s the cost of a cocktail in most of the city.

I could expound on all the sights I saw–Sainte-Chapelle, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, etc–but I’d rather focus on the two sights I found most impressive: Notre Dame and Versailles.

Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite, Paris, France
The home of the mythical bell-ringing hunchback was one of the first touristy places we visited in Paris. After our comparatively cheap lunch, we headed over to Sainte-Chapelle (whose enormous stained-glass windows deserve a shout-out, at the very least), then set out to find Notre Dame under grey skies. We knew it wasn’t more than two blocks from the Chapel, but we didn’t know which direction to walk. We started to wander, and then, as if by magic, we turned a corner and there it was. And then, more magic: the clouds directly above the church dispersed and cast a dramatic afternoon shadow on the ground. I wondered whether the heavens had conspired to allow us to see Notre Dame at its best just as we were arriving.

Even better, when we went inside, an organ-and-choir concert spontaneously began and we sat watching for what must have been at least half an hour. It was the most relaxing part of the entire trip, and frankly, my feet welcomed the break.

Apollo Fountain Versailles France
The next day, we hopped a train to Versailles early in the morning to get in line before the hordes arrived. Unfortunately for us, the train took an hour longer than we thought it would and the inside of Versailles didn’t open until noon that day. We had two hours to wander around. Luckily, the gardens behind the palace were so expansive that we actually could have been there longer than two hours without getting bored. The landscape was extraordinary–maniacally manicured in some places and, further back, rugged and wild. Fountains and Renaissance Roman statues abounded.

Poseidon fountain, Versailles, France

The palace itself was impressive but was marred by a modern art exhibit scattered around its rooms. In the middle of Louis XIV’s chambers you’d see a giant metal sculpture designed to look like a mylar balloon animal or a ceramic cast of Michael Jackson with a monkey. Even when I tried thinking about the deeper meaning this exhibit might be communicating, my mind came up blank.

Jeff Koons balloon sculpture in the Hall of Mirrors Versailles France
Though Versailles and Notre Dame are what I normally tell people are my highlights of Paris, the real highlight is slightly more complicated than this four-word answer. My favorite part of Paris was simply being in Paris, walking down any street at all, preferably one with very few people, and soaking up the Frenchness of it all. It really does feel like the romantic city everyone claims it is. If I marry rich, I might return one day with my significant other and experience the city the way it was meant to be experienced.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris

Read next: Travel Week 1, Part 3: Brussels

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Travel Week 1, Part 1: Barcelona

I’ve caught up on classes sufficiently enough to take a deep breath and recall the whirlwind adventure that was my travel week. Luckily, I was taking notes all the time while traveling to help me write blogs for class, so even though everything went so quickly and was over so fast, I can still remember what happened.

Roller coaster near the beach, Barcelona, Spain

We started in Barcelona, on Saturday, at two in the morning. Our plane from Venice, which was scheduled to leave at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, was severely delayed and when we finally landed in Barcelona, the metro system we’d been counting on catching to the city center and our hostel was no longer running. Once we figured out the confusing bus system (which we found was just as confusing in every other city we visited and therefore made a point to use the underground metro whenever possible), we got off at a stop about a mile away from our hostel and spent the next hour looking for it. The hostel turned out to be on a street off one of the main tourist drags, La Rambla, and stank of urine from the night’s debaucheries once we arrived. It was seemingly a shady place, but luckily we found our hostel was not–it was clean and efficient.

We quite reluctantly woke up early the next morning to see the sights, first heading to Park Guell. You’ve likely already read about my time there. I found it interesting, but I later realized that our group missed most of the park–the pretty part, ironically. We saw nothing people think of when they picture Park Guell–no mosaics, no Gaudi. Nevertheless, the view of the city couldn’t have been better from the top, and the musicians were entertaining.

Next, we made our way down the huge traffic thoroughfare Diagonal toward Sagrada Familia and, on our way, stumbled upon a Gaudi apartment building, a giant owl-shaped billboard, and a corner apartment building with turrets and spires like that of a Disney castle. We also saw a beautifully painted chapel designed by one of Gaudi’s teachers–one who was, clearly, more of a conventional mind than Gaudi himself. For there is no weirder sight than Sagrada Familia, the absurdly modern yet Gothic Gaudi-designed church standing unfinished in the middle of the city. Each side is different: one looks like the entrance to some modern by-the-thousands Protestant temple; another looks like a spoof of Notre Dame with its gargoyles of 30 different species springing out all over the place; a third side has no theme as of yet and is covered in scaffolding; the fourth and probably most famous side looks like it would earn a Best in Show award in the most prestigious sand castle contest in the world.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
I unfortunately forgot my camera on this glorious day of sightseeing, but I luckily remembered to bring it the next morning when we took a bike tour of the city. We saw Sagrada Familia again on this tour, but everything else was new–the park in the center of the city, the zoo, the beach, the palace that once housed the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and what would have been the most beautiful Gothic church to behold were the entire front not covered in scaffolding.

Monument for Christopher Columbus, Barcelona, Spain
Surprise, surprise–nights in Barcelona are far more lively than days. I have a theory that all the locals sleep away hangovers when the sun is up and wake up at dusk to party all night, and given the prevalent smell of urine all over the city, I’m sure that’s true to some degree. My group stayed away from the party scene, however, and instead opted to get up early and take in the sights. When we did stay out, we spent our nights enjoying a dish of paella and some sangria or getting some treats at the local ice cream place. One night, we tried to see a light and fountain show in front of a government building, but we must not have read our guidebooks very thoroughly, because nothing happened after we sat in front of the fountain for a good 20 minutes.

Old Town, Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona wasn’t my favorite stop during the travel week, but it was an interesting cultural experience. I was expecting the overall mood to be similar to that of Italy, given that the two countries share a carelessness for time and multitasking, preferring to languish in one activity at a time and stay out late. But I found Spain to be even more carefree than Italy, and it made me realize I could never fit in there. I’ve been too Americanized to believe relaxation is always better than stress.

Read Next: Travel Week 1, Part 2: Paris