Tuesday, May 3, 2016

April in Paris and a Week in Barcelona

Was it really March 21st that I last posted a new update? Good grief. Sorry ya'll. It was definitely a busy month, and although the temperature has still been on the cooler side (still haven't left the house without a jacket) the clouds have finally disbursed and the skies have been consistently more blue. We still have gray and rainy days, it's true, but it's no longer a relentless and unyielding cover of clouds, rain, wind, and bitter cold. It's about freaking time, Paris. Me and my fellow expat friends have come to notice that Paris has about 7 months of cold weather and 5 months of nice weather. If you are ever planning a trip over here, I'd highly recommend only coming from May to September. Just a suggestion. But spring has finally sprung. The trees are green, the flowers have bloomed, and I couldn't be happier that this city is no longer brown and dead looking.

I have just over 2 months left of my overseas adventure, and I'm starting to get excited about setting foot on American soil again. I feel like some people may think I'm absolutely crazy to want to leave Paris. It's a wonderful city and I have made wonderful friends that will stick with me for the rest of my life, I'm sure. But there are a lot, and I mean A LOT of things I desperately miss. Living over here is not the same as visiting for a couple weeks. Coming for a couple weeks is going to be jam-packed with fun things to do. Living over here is a rewarding experience because I am truly getting a feel for a foreign city and it's an experience I wouldn't trade for anything. But this isn't my normal life, and after more than 7 months now abroad, I'm ready to feel like I'm back where I belong. Being 6 hours ahead of everyone I love at home is HARD. Not having a normal cell phone plan where I can easily text or pick up the phone to call someone whenever I want is hard. Having to coordinate times to try to Skype proved to be way more difficult than I anticipated, and there are friends of mine I have literally only communicated with through Facebook Messenger since I left in September, and despite our best efforts, we have just never been able to have a real conversation (I'm looking at you Lori). 

I miss normal American things. I miss living alone. I miss not paying 4 euro for a tiny jar of peanut butter. Having access to real coffee creamer. Being able to drive and not being a slave to public transportation, which in Paris is constantly delayed due to strikes or train traffic or maintenance. I generally have to leave an hour early for whatever I'm doing, and I miss being able to jump in my car and get to where I want to be in 15 minutes. Walking has been good exercise, but I'm so over having to walk EVERYWHERE. I miss having a real job and making a salary. I miss being able to walk into a store and not struggle to communicate. I miss the amount of space stores, restaurants, parking lots, and buildings have in America. Living the city life has been fun for a while, but I'm tired of having to squeeze into a seat when I go out to eat because the restaurant has wasted not an inch of space when it comes to setting up tables. I kid you not, I have been to several places where the waiter has pulled the table away from the wall for me so I could get in because you are literally that close to the people to your right and left. Don't even bother trying to use the bathroom during your meal when this happens. I can't wait to have a giant southern sweet tea and Cheerwine. But mostly, I literally daydream about seeing my friends and family and how wonderful it will feel to hug them once again. My friends here are wonderful, but my history with them is 7 months or less. The people that connect me to my world are thousands of miles away, and although this experience will be a part of me forever, I can't wait to immerse myself in my own country once again. I have been to 9 countries now. I have seen 9 different cultures, languages, people groups, and ways of living and it has opened my eyes to so much in this world. But I can honestly say that I love my own land more now than ever before. I'm so proud to call myself an American. 

But off this rabbit trail and back to what I've been up to. The first 3 weeks of April were pretty chill and I didn't really do a whole lot that is worth noting. After Easter, I basically had a few weeks where I was trying to save a bit of money for my trip to Barcelona. Me and my friend Amanda went to a costume shop to rent our Marie-Antoinette-era dresses for a masquerade ball that we are going to in June at the Palace of Versailles. I don't think it's possible for me to be more giddy or excited about this event. Seriously, my heart is doing cartwheels. I can't wait! That same week, I ended up having coffee with a new friend from my church here in Paris, who also happens to be a Liberty University alumni like me. That was really cool to run into someone from a place that has been such a significant part of my personal and professional life. Talking about the campus and the school was like a breath of fresh air. Not one other person over here has set foot in Lynchburg, so of course this was very exciting to me. She's also a flight attendant, and just came back from the States. She asked if there was anything she'd like me to bring back and I asked for powdered coffee creamer. I literally can't wait to get it from her this week. MmmmMMMM. 

The end of that week was The Color Run, which was so. much. fun. For those who don't know, this is a 5K race where throughout the course and at the dance party at the end, there are bottles and packets of colored powder thrown at you. Best to keep your eyes and mouth closed when this happens, but looking down and seeing yourself covered in color was so fun. Seriously, it blew all my expectations out of the water and although it started as a very cold day and I had a bit of a mishap in the metro where I tripped up an escalator and ended up with about 6 bruises and a scraped ankle, it turned out to be some of the most fun I've had in a long time. I'm so happy my friend Isabelle was able to do it with me. I'm not a runner, but people were walking, taking pictures, stopping for a beer along the way (really), and then the entire race ended with a massive dance party on the bridge in front of the Eiffel Tower. There were about 30,000 racers who attended. It only rained during the last 10 minutes we were there, and by this point, we were covered from head to toe in pinks, greens, blues, and yellows, and happy as can be. We were quite a site on the metro ride home. 

The week following The Color Run was my last full week with Gaspard while he was on school holidays. I mentioned in a previous post that the kids here have 6 weeks of school and 2 weeks of vacation throughout the year. This was the last school holiday before the end of the year for them during the first week of July. This means the rest of my time here will be pretty open during most days. The Saturday before I left for Barcelona, my friend Isabelle had a few of her friends go to Disneyland Paris. We were really excited about this, except when we get there it was SO COLD and gray that day. Seriously, it was such a bummer since we had been having pretty consistently nice weather. Oh well, we still had fun. Once again, we ended up not staying for the fireworks. I had to be up super early to catch my Megabus to Spain and she had something to do the next day too. 

Barcelona was a blur and so much happened that I'm not sure I have the patience to really recount every single thing, so I'll give the highlights then post a few pictures from the week. I got up early last Sunday and made my way to the south east corner of Paris to the Bercy area. This is where the Megabus would be waiting. These buses are cheap ways to travel around Europe. One direction was around 40 euro and the way back was 28 euro. The downside was that on this particular route, the Megabus company had rolled out their new fleet of buses, which for some reason were having a problem with their WiFi and couldn't figure out why. So for about 14 hours there and back, the WiFi worked for maybe a total of 2 hours. That sucked pretty bad. On the way down, the toilet was also broken, so thank goodness I hadn't had much to drink the night before, so the few stops we made were sufficient. So overall, my bus experience wasn't the greatest; however, I was surprised how quick the trips seemed to feel for me. I slept a lot (not comfortably), and the seats felt pretty tight during the points where I had someone next to me, but overall, I'd probably travel that way again for a shorter trip. Although, I did find it a bit disconcerting that our passports weren't checked at the border. That was a bit strange to me given everything that's been going on. The landscape on the way to Spain was beautiful. I literally gasped when we passed through the Pyrenees Mountains, though it was getting dark at this point so I wish I had seen them more clearly. But I haven't seen mountains that tall since I was in Peru in 2009. Beautiful. 

Things went a bit downhill the minute I crossed into Spain. My French cell service immediately cut off, and without WiFi my phone was pretty much useless. Luckily, I had downloaded an offline map of Barcelona through Google Maps, and before I came, I carefully chose my Airbnb location and made sure I did "street view" from the bus station to my Airbnb so I knew exactly where I was going as soon as we arrived. It was a 5 minute walk straight out of the station. I'm glad I chose this and didn't have to call a cab at 5:30 AM for my return bus to Paris. My Airbnb host knew what time I was arriving since I had communicated with him on WhatsApp the day before. I was renting a room in this guy's apartment (I know, I know...I specifically didn't tell people I was doing this before I went because I didn't want to get the 3rd degree). But he had good reviews, and although the room was VERY tiny, it was about 20 euro a night to stay there and I had my own bathroom. The proximity to the bus station was the deciding factor. Anyway, I show up literally at the exact time I estimated I'd be there, and I buzz his name at the door. Nothing. Long story short, after 25 minutes of me buzzing, borderline panicking, tearing up, and staring at my useless phone, he finally shows up. Someone had let me in the lobby about 5 minutes after I got there, so at least I wasn't standing on the street. But I was not happy. He was super apologetic and asked if I had been waiting a while. He had been out to dinner and lost track of time or something. He kept apologizing for the next 20 minutes as he showed me around his place and got me settled in. By this point, I had started to question my decision to come. I was feeling a little uneasy, because this was literally the first time I have ever traveled to a foreign country completely solo. I'm thankful for the person from home I was texting with at the time (after I got connected to the WiFi at the apartment) because I felt a bit more at ease and not completely isolated, as weird as that sounds. By this point, it was about midnight and all I wanted to do was sleep. The accommodations were nothing special, but they were at least clean and my host was hospitable, so I made the best of it. 

After passing out, I woke up around 9:30 AM and honestly didn't have a plan for exactly what I wanted to do. I mean I knew places I wanted to check out, and I had a few tickets I had bought in advance for a few major sites to see, but in the meantime...being in a new city is really intimidating. I'm actually very good with directions, and having my offline maps made me feel comfortable that I wouldn't get lost, but still having to figure out what to see and try to make the most of a week in a new city can be a bit scary. Still laying in bed, I looked up free walking tours in Barcelona and decided that I'd get ready quick and do the tour of the Gothic Quarter that started at 11 AM. I hoped I would at least learn something and prayed I'd meet some cool people to maybe pal around with the rest of the day. I left the apartment and made my way toward Plaça de Catalunya, a large central square that was bustling with tourists (and hundreds of pigeons). It was an easy walk to get here from my place and took about 20-25 min to get there. Once I arrived, I was a little early, so I was sitting around and realized Barcelona offered free city-wide WiFi. It doesn't work that well and usually only picks up in the bigger, more popular areas, but it was handy when it did work. Most places in the city offered free WiFi though, so whether I was eating dinner or getting a cup of coffee, I was able to connect pretty easily unless I was out walking.

Finally, I see the group I was meeting, literally called Free Walking Tours Barcelona. After checking in, they split us up depending on which tour we wanted. Our guide was really great, and took us down the famous street La Rambla. It was packed with tourists, and we were told not to buy anything on this street because the markup was so high for being such a popular tourist attraction. However, it was nice having someone show us around parts of the city and explain a lot about the history of Catalonia. I had no idea that there was such tension between Catalonia, which is a large region of the country, and the rest of Spain. After a civil war and a lot of back and forth over the years, it's very clear that the people of this region want their independence from Spain. Catalan is a language that is widely spoken in this area, even though Spanish is also an official language. There is even a flag of Catalonia which is an unofficial flag that many private citizens will fly from their homes to show their desire for independence. This flag isn't allowed on any official buildings. Being a lover of history, it was really interesting to learn about, and to be honest, I didn't know much about Spanish history before I arrived. 

The best part of the tour though was meeting two guys I ended up hanging out with for the next 3 days. Both were solo travelers, one from Italy (Davide) the other from Germany (Stefan), but they met because they were staying at the same Airbnb. Such nice guys and I had a blast with them both. After the tour, a big group of us went to lunch, then about 7 of us went down to La Barceloneta, which is the beach and harbor area. We spent a few hours walking around, then Davide had a dinner with friends, so Stefan and I wandered around the Gothic Quarter looking for a place to have dinner. We ended up at this cool little place called Colom (think Christopher Columbus) which looked like an old ship on the inside. We decided to try some authentic Spanish food and opted for some tapas and seafood paella. Stefan wasn't a fan of the paella, but I actually really enjoyed it. It's basically a rice dish seasoned with curry and with seafood added to it. I wish I had taken a picture. I meant to, but got distracted when the paella came out with it's 4 whole giant shrimp staring up at us. It was a fun experience, and Davide ended up meeting us for drinks later that night. 

The next day, I had tickets to see La Sagrada Familia, which is a church (still under construction and will be for about 20 more years they said) which was designed by the famous architect Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi was responsible for a lot of the famous architecture in Barcelona. I meant to take another free walking tour that discussed his work, but I missed it. Next time. The church was amazing. I'll let the pictures do the talking, but seriously, it was incredible. My ticket included a trip up the towers, which had fantastic views of the city.

After I left, I decided to give the metro a try. There is a T10 ticket for the metro that was about 10 euro for 10 trips. This was perfect for my week and I ended up using it all without needing to buy another ticket. From La Sagrada Familia, I decided on a whim to visit Plaza de España, which was a famous plaza I had seen a lot of pictures of during my research for my trip. I saw this beautiful building up on the hill, so I made my way toward it. Turns out, it was the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, and it had beautiful views of the city. I went up there and hung around for a bit and used their WiFi. But I didn't feel like being in a museum on a beautiful day, so I made my way back toward Plaça de Catalunya to meet up with Davide for another free walking tour. This particular tour went through the El Raval, which is a neighborhood previously known for being shady, but over recent years has developed into a pretty diverse and quaint area. During this tour, our guide told us all about the street art in this part of town. It was something I didn't think I would enjoy as much as I did, but our guide went even deeper into the political strains between Spain and Catalonia, and the street art was really cool.

After the tour, Davide and I wandered back down and explored more of the harbor area, which was really beautiful. We finally found some WiFi and had Stefan come meet us, who had been off on a hop on, hop off bus tour all day. That night we found a cute and very delicious little tapas place called Sensi Tapas in the Gothic Quarter. After waiting a while for our table, the waitress came and gave us some free tapas because the people at the table she was planning to give us were taking their sweet time leaving. Hey...free food? No complaints here. Finally we get a seat, and we ate our way through about 6 different tapas dishes. I was so full, that I only had room to sample most of it, but it was soooo good. And seriously couldn't have asked for better company.

Wednesday was Davide's last day, so I had the guys meet me at Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, or more commonly called La Boqueria market, which I had visited on Tuesday. The food was fresh and authentic and a really inexpensive way to fill up on a variety of foods. After the market, Stefan and I said goodbye to Davide and then wondered around the Gothic Quarter back down to Barceloneta. Stefan was leaving Thursday, so he was determined to go to the beach for a bit, even though this particular day was gray and chilly. We ended up going back to our places for a while to change and shower, then ended up meeting later for dinner. We found a really cool place in El Raval called Bar Lobo. Great food and we had a lot of fun. By this time, it had begun to rain a bit, and the metros in Barcleona generally stop running around midnight and it was getting close. Stefan walked me to the station, but due to an organized strike (of course), the metro was taking forever and I ended up giving up and just walking back to my place. Walking 25 min or so in the rain at midnight in a strange city wasn't exactly something I was thrilled about. But luckily, the main street to my place is a really wide popular street, and it was a pretty peaceful night, so I made it back no problem.

Thursday, I had to get a bit creative since my Barcelona buds were now gone (sad). I'll admit, I was kind of boring and ended up not going out to any restaurants alone on my last two nights because I didn't want to walk back in the dark by myself, not to mention I was really lacking a few good nights' sleep. So Thursday, I mostly just meandered through the streets I had grown comfortable with, and bought some authentic handmade espadrilles from a famous shop I read about before I came. Friday, I ventured out to Montjuïc Castle, which is set up high on a hill right next to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The views up here were gorgeous and it was a sunny day so I got some amazing pictures. I couldn't stop staring at the view. I took the cable car up, which also offered some great views of the city. Once I got back from the castle, it was still pretty early, but I grabbed some dinner and took it home to start packing since my Megabus back to Paris left at 6:30 AM. But after such a fun-filled week full of walking everywhere, I was pretty tired, I have to admit.

All in all, Barcelona is a beautiful and interesting city everyone should visit. I just uploaded about 200 pictures of my trip to FB, so be sure to check it out! I wish it had been hot enough to hang out on the beach, but alas it was not. But I did learn a lot about the city and it's history and met some awesome people, so my first trip traveling completely solo was a big success. Seriously, I encourage everyone to take at least one solo trip. To be able to meet random people from all over the world, and just do what you want when you want is such a liberating experience, and it once again has built my confidence and changed me in ways I'm sure I don't even see yet. Free walking tours are the best thing ever when traveling to a new city alone. In fact, I looked up some free tours in Paris that I plan to do this month so I can learn more about areas I haven't yet ventured to in the city. It's been a great month, and so far May has seen mostly sunny days, so I think there are some great Parisian times ahead for me.

(Supposedly, if you drink from this fountain, you are destined to fall in love with Barcelona and return one day.)

I will admit though, my heart is already ahead of me in North Carolina and I am so excited to get back and start my new life there. Missing my family and friends, and being a bit tight on money, actually caused me to cancel my overnight trip to Iceland. The logistics were just becoming too much trouble. I'll still be flying back via Icelandair because of their inexpensive flights and 2 free checked bags, but I want to come back as soon as I can. So no, I won't get to see the Blue Lagoon in Iceland just yet, but I guess I'll just have to plan some trips as soon as I get a job and can start saving some money again. I have just over 2 months left. That's crazy. This year has flown by, even though parts of it felt so slow. I'm excited for what's ahead, and I'm really anxious to see how this experience will impact my life in the long run. I'll make sure it's not another month and a half before I post another update. Thanks for reading!