Cross Stitch World Map Project

Look at the cross stitch project I’m currently working on!

I’m having such a good time with it, and figuring out how the colors best fit and watching it come together has been so fun. Also when I first moved here I could only find one knitting needle, and thinking I had left the other one back in LA, I bought cheap ones to try to finally finish my blanket. They bent almost immediately and I took a break from knitting. I just found the second needle under my bed! I can potentially maybe finish my blanket sometime soon! I only have two patterns to go!

Also I don’t think I ever posted the finished elephants I did for my mom, which are below. I’m very pleased with the results! (This photo is obviously pre-iron.)

Two Days in Berlin at Christmastime

This December I was lucky enough to jump around to a few different Christmas markets, and I had the best time doing so. I don’t know if I’ve shared this yet, but I am basically obsessed with the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas are basically my happiest times in life, and getting to spend December in various European markets was a dream come true. I had a really hard time deciding which cities to go to, because basically every European city becomes winter wonderland during December (except for Amsterdam, strangely enough). It was a whirlwind trip, spending two to three days each in Berlin, Amsterdam, Prague, and Wroclaw.

Also, as great as it was, it started with the journey from hell. I live in Logroño, which has a lot of positives, but a huge negative is there isn’t an airport nearby. My roommate and I, who was also flying to Germany, though to a different city, had to catch an early bus to Barcelona, and after six hours we arrive in Barca just in time to catch the last train to the airport.

After finding the airport, we thought the hard part was over (though sleeping there would be an entirely different kind of difficult). However, as soon as we walked into the terminal, it was obvious something was wrong. It looked like we were walking into the aftermath of a rave. There was trash everywhere. Multicolored fragments of paper all over the ground. I honestly wondered if something really terrible had just happened there. Apparently the cleaning crew had gone on strike four days ago, and not only had no one cleaned or removed any trash since then, but the striking workers had a protest where they basically trashed the airport. Hence all the paper and stickers and graffiti. It honestly looked (and felt) post apocalyptic.

We found the only clean spot in the entire airport by squeezing between one of those mechanical walkways and the wall. A word of warning for anyone else attempting the same thing–they turn the heat either completely off or WAY down at night, and lying on the floor made sleep virtually impossible because of the extreme cold that was coming from the tiled floor.

After a night of absolutely zero sleep, I finally boarded my plane at 6:25 and slept for about an hour and a half before landing in Berlin. G and I timed it nearly perfectly, and he landed about 20 minutes after me, just long enough for me to find his gate. The journey from Berlin Schönefeld Airport into central Berlin wasn’t ideal, as the train only comes twice an hour, once around the :15 mark, and again around the :45 mark. We had just missed the 10:15, and had to wait for the 10:45, which I will not lie, in my tired and messy state I was not super pleased with.

I’ll take a second to admit I was not in a great mood. I was exhausted. I felt so dirty from the airport. I was and had been freezing for nearly nearly 10 hours. I’m not sure either of us was expecting a great day during that 30 minute wait for the train. That said, we went into Alexanderplatz and found a Christmas Market right next to the station. We had some delicious sausage and a glass of warm Glühwein, and I was suddenly feeling much better. We hung around the market for a few hours, eating, drinking, and watching my mood rapidly improve. Guys, Berlin during Christmastime is a dream. It was like being on a Hallmark Christmas movie set. EVERYTHING was decorated. Everything was themed for Christmas. We even found a beer hall that was adorable. It was all wood and rustic, it had a huge tree, Christmas music, and the servers were all dressed in Christmas outfits. And it had a really warm fire that we sat next to. It was the perfect place to wait for our room to be ready.

Eventually, though, it was ready and we headed to our hotel. It was incredible–for Berlin and Amsterdam we used lastminute and managed to book really nice hotels for the same price (or less) than an airbnb.

We left for DasMeisterstück, which is a craft beer and sausage place that has excellent and well deserved reviews. The day before was Gareth’s 27th birthday, and it was a nice, low key way to celebrate. The food was delicious, I tried sour German beer (it was good), and all the beers G tried were excellent (and this from someone who prefers literally any other drink to beer).

After dinner we headed to WeihnachtsZauber at the Gendarmenmarkt, one of the main Christmas markets in Berlin. It was minutes from DasMeisterstück, and I’d recommend combining it with dinner there if you go. That said, I would skip this if I was doing it again. You had to pay to get in, and because it is so well known, it was beyond crowded. I’m not sure if it’s because it was so late, but it was 10 times as crowded as any of the other markets we went to. It was impossible to actually see any of the stalls, and just walking down an aisle took about ten minutes. Other than the amount of people though, the market was beautiful, and I would recommend trying to go in the middle of the day when it might be less packed. (Also I think there is live music/performances in the day time!)

literally filled to the brim with people

The next day I insisted we find breakfast that included eggs, because such a thing doesn’t exist in Spain and it’s basically the first thing I look for when traveling outside the country. We found Wintergarten which was incredible and highly recommended. It was in an old Literaturhaus, and the vibe was great. I’m going to be honest, I got two full meals–eggs and pancakes. I know that’s pretty excessive but the food was amazing and Spain has me feeling constantly breakfast-deprived. Both were delicious.

After that it was Berlin tourism time, and we hit most of the major sights. The Reichstag Building, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust museum and installation, which was incredible but be ready to cry and feel quite low for a while after. They are all within walking distance of each other, though note that if you want to go to the top of the Reichstag Building you should book in advance. From there made our way to the last Christmas market, Berliner Weihnachtszeit, which was the best one. There were little fires to sit by, ice skating, a ferris wheel, and so much mulled wine. It was incredible.

 

Berlin could not have been more perfect and I strongly recommend it for anyone looking for some of the best Christmas markets in the world. Our journey continued from Berlin and we took an overnight bus to Amsterdam (though nearly didn’t make it–note that the main bus and train station are not the same, and we were left literally sprinting to the bus!).

Logroño Bike Ride

There’s a tourist office in Logroño right down the street from my apartment. It’s pretty excellent, mostly because they let you rent a bike for free as long as it’s returned by 6:00 pm. What service!

(You also have to be willing to ignore that the bikes are huge, heavy, and sans kickstands, but you get what you pay for, right?)

The tourist office also publishes a handy little book of the best hikes and bike rides throughout La Rioja, and while I have done some pretty epic hikes in Spain so far, I’d been wanting to do the one bike ride that goes through Logroño for months. The weather changed a few weeks ago, and when my friend visited from LA we decided to give it a try!

We didn’t get far. At all. But it was still gorgeous and we had a picnic by the lake, so really, we won.

I tried again the next weekend with my roommate. The issues with this route were the following:

  1. The information packet didn’t provide a more detailed map than the below. The first part was fine as it was on the well marked Camino, and the last leg was on the GR 99, but we were totally on our own from Navarette to Fuenmayor. We ended up lost and on the side of a highway for a while. Not ideal.
  2. The bike ride was labeled “bajo” and estimated it would take 2.5 hours to finish. WHAT! Whoever wrote such lies has CERTAINLY not done this bike ride! It took us a full six hours. SIX HOURS. We got back at 5:51, just barely returning the bikes in time. And easy? The entire ride was uphill, until one very steep hill at the VERY end of the journey. And we live in a mountainous region, so when I say uphill I mean huge inclines.

That aside, it was a gorgeous ride. It was obviously great exercise, and if I were to do it again, I think I’d enjoy it more because I’d be better prepared (i.e. bring more than one bottle of water and ANY food/sunscreen). Also I would definitely ride in the opposite of the suggested direction. It would be one huge hill to start and then mostly downhill the rest of the way. Also when we arrived in Fuenmayor we found a dirt road with a sign saying it would go to Navarrete, and whatever road that was meant to be was not nearly so well labeled coming from the other direction.

I’d recommend this ride, but only going from the other direction, and only if you’re prepared to make a full day of it. If you are, it’ll be gorgeous!

IT HAPPENED

Are you ready for this?

I’m here with the update I never thought I’d get to write. I honestly still can’t believe it, and I think it will be a while before the reality truly sets in. But as of Tuesday night, I am officially a recognized citizen of Italy.

To be honest, this whole process became a bit of a nightmare. I had serious doubts it would ever get done, and was sure I was years away from any progress. Then Christmas happened, and while I suddenly felt sure it would happen at SOME point, the missing middle name correction was something the LA consulate had rejected plenty of people for in the past. I expected to need another court order. Because obtaining a court order takes a lot of work, time, and money, and I figured I should at least give what I had a shot. What was a few more months in the years this has taken? I’m so happy I did! I feel like as soon as I stopped stressing about it, it happened. NOT to say that had I stopped stressing before it would have worked, because it took a LOT of determination, commitment, and belief to get to this point.

From my research on the consulate, I was expecting to hear back sometime around now. So when I got an email at 1:00 am with the subject line ITALIAN CITIZENSHIP, my heart stopped for a second. The email was so short, I had to read it multiple times to understand. Like it couldn’t possibly be official. Do you remember when I got my first email with the huge list of problems that needed correcting? I didn’t read that one carefully enough, and mistakenly believed it had gone through. But this one was different. It was maybe three lines, most of which explained how I could obtain a passport. A EUROPEAN PASSPORT.

This means I can stay in Europe as long as I want, and I can get a proper job. It means no one can force Gareth and I apart (um, until Brexit happens). It’s weird because I have very little connection to Italy. Other than my love of the food, I´ve never been there (though give me a few weeks!), I don’t know a word of the language, and even my actual genealogy isn’t very Italian. The true value of this passport is Europe. I can stay in Spain for as long as I want. I can move to France. I can live in the UK. I suddenly have 28 more countries in which I can legally work. The amount of languages I can study, cultures I can get to know, and food I can try has just increased by so much! Also a lot of places in Europe have nearly free or actually free masters programs. So, that´s also a PRETTY big plus.

I can’t believe it’s over, but WOW, am I happy to cross #1 off my list!

Six Reasons You Should Move to La Rioja (and three reasons you shouldn’t)

When it was time to reapply for my second year as an Auxiliar de Conversación in Spain, I had some serious decisions to make. Second years get priority, so if all goes as it should you get your first choice. This year I was placed in Logroño randomly because my first three choices were full, and I feel so lucky for that. I love this city. My family loves this city. It feels like home. That said, I did feel a drive to explore a new area of Spain, and so was faced with a difficult choice. If you’re also struggling to figure out where to live in Spain, hopefully this list of the best and worst things about La Rioja will help you.

 

The region is so small that no matter where you work, it is possible to live in the city. You may have an hour commute, but at the end of the day you’ll be coming home to a decently sized city, and a gorgeous one at that.

And the people. Everyone is so nice. Like, extremely nice. The families I teach private lessons to have been my favorite part about this program. They are generous, patient, and want me to love La Rioja as much as they do. I have rarely met someone grumpy or unfriendly, and even the city bus drivers generally find a way to show their kindness.

The cost of living is insanely cheap here. My rent is 180 a month, a glass of wine is about .80, a night out with food and drink can easily be 10 euros or less. Yet the city itself is generally wealthy. People dress to impress, spend their money on classes and activities, and private lessons pay at the top of the range, 15 euros an hour for one student, or 20 for two. Living here as an aux, I’m paid the same as auxiliares living in Barcelona, San Sebastian, Palma, or Valencia, where the cost of living is much higher.

The Spanish here is easy. Logroño isn’t a tourist town, to the extent that whenever I hear a native English speaker I don’t already know, I pause, and try to figure out who they are and what they are doing here. As a result, the people here are not accustomed to switching over to English whenever they hear someone with an accent, or struggling for a Spanish word. In Madrid or Barcelona, when I try to talk to people, pretty much as soon as I open my mouth they switch to English. That never happens here which was terrifying at first but I think the major reason my Spanish improved so rapidly.

Also Northern Spain is GORGEOUS. It’s mountainous, it has a beautiful coast, and the landscapes are to die for. La Rioja is one of the northern most cities that speaks exclusively Spanish, instead of Spanish, and Basque or Catalan or Galego. It’s also home to some of Spain (and the world’s) best wine. It is pretty much in the center of northern Spain, meaning I can get to Burgos, Pamplona, Zaragoza, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Leon, and more for under two hours. It is a great base for weekend, or even day trips.

The size/culture is perfect (for me anyway). I’m a lot older than most of the people doing this program, many of whom are either just out of college or doing their year abroad now! For them, the small size and lack of crazy nightlife might sometimes be frustrating. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist–I live in the center of town and the noise outside my bedroom window lasts until 5 am on the weekends–but the main culture here isn’t discotecas, it’s a few pinchos with wine while entire families–babies, toddlers, grandparents, surround you. It’s relaxed, welcoming, and very chill. My kind of place. It’s also only got about 150,000 people, which I thought I would hate coming from Los Angeles, but as an introduction to a new country/language, it has been perfect. Also I’ve never lived somewhere safer. I have dropped my guard so much I’m a little terrified to ever live in a major city again.

So, how could I leave? Why should anyone pick a different region?

I asked myself that over and over, even though I knew I would. It was hard to shake the feeling that a second year in the program should be as adventurous as the first. By the time this year is over, I will be very familiar with northern Spain, and it’s really difficult to get from here to the south, which is apparently like an entirely different country. Another year exploring the same place felt like I was playing it safe, so I ended up requesting Andalucia as my first choice. My second choice was pretty random, Castilla la Mancha, but Toledo and the other cities in the area look gorgeous, and from talking to people it sounds like the area has all the things I love about Logroño, but in a very different location. Plus it’s also only 33 minutes by train from Madrid.

That is one of the main reasons I’d say you shouldn’t live in La Rioja. The lack of a nearby airport.

I generally have to fly out of Madrid (a 4 hour bus ride) or Barcelona (6 hours). And these buses never line up the way you want, meaning I’ve spent more nights than I can sanely handle sleeping in airports to catch 6 am flights, or arrived home at 5 am on a Monday and had to work at 9 am that same day. There’s an airport in Bilbao, but it’s much more expensive and really only cost effective to fly to and from London. And on my way back from London after the New Year, we had a terrifying landing experience that I have since been told is entirely common in Bilbao!

Another downside to the size and location is that it is SO Spanish. Great in so many ways, but on days where you are craving Mexican or Indian or Chinese, it can be so frustrating. Nothing is open during siesta and everything (even the grocery store) is closed on Sundays. I understand this is part of Spanish culture, but you’d probably have more variety in a larger city.

 

Last is the weather. I grew up in Boston and thought I could handle winter. But then I lived in LA for five years and my blood thinned or something, because it’s not even that cold here and it’s killing me. The darkness, the rain, and the constant chill wears on you, and I am so excited to (hopefully) live somewhere a bit warmer next year.

Overall, Logroño is an amazing city. I HIGHLY recommend anyone pick it, especially first years as I think it’s an amazing introduction to Spain and a good way to go relatively native, compared to Madrid or Barcelona. Ever since I sent in my application to renew, I’ve already been feeling nostalgic for this place. I love it here. I love my apartment. I love my street, the cathedral, the weird siren that goes off at noon every day and no one knows why. This feels like home, and it’s one I am so so happy I got to have. Maybe I’m making a mistake leaving, but at least I’ll have challenged myself, again, to try something, and somewhere new. I won’t be able to do that forever!