wanderings and ponderings in Seville, Spain, and other foreign lands.

August 20, 2014
by Moniek

New Adventures!

Greetings again!

After graduating with top honors from Cornell this past year, I’m off on new adventures in Pekanbaru, Indonesia, on a Fulbright grant as an English Teaching Assistant in a public high school.  I’ll be chronicling my new journeys on my new blog, Solivagant in Pekanbaru.  Feel free to follow along as I traverse Java and Sumatra as America’s newest Fulbrighter!

Much love,


August 11, 2013
by Moniek


I look in the mirror, and I know I’m home.

It’s the same round face, with the same one-sided dimple on the right cheek, the same lopsided smile, the same unruly curls, although my hair falls past my shoulders now and is streaked blond from the Valencian sun.  The space is the same as how I’d left it twelve months ago—or so my mother assures me, because to me the bathroom echoes with an elongated emptiness that fills the narrow space.  My bedroom feels even more uncomfortable; beige carpeting sprawls in front of me; I don’t recognize the once-friendly yellow hue splashed upon the walls.  The living room feels more familiar; I sink into the forest green armchair and lay my head against the worn pillow, desperately fighting the exhaustion of 20 hours of travel, dreading the feeling of sleeping in my big, empty bed in a big, empty room in a house that doesn’t quite feel like my own anymore.

I’ve been home for nearly a month, and thankfully I feel right where I belong now, although every once in a while something—a word, a song, a coincidence—will trigger a memory, a moment, and I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry.  And then begins the mental tirade.  Hush, I tell myself, you’re being overdramatic.  You’re home now, your year abroad is over, you’ve had your fun, there’s no time for this emotional crap, you’ve got other stuff to worry about.  And my current stressors arrive as if on cue—Fulbright applications, honors theses, and emails (oh, the emails!)—and I spiral back into that slight panic I swore I’d left behind for good when my plane jetted off for Amsterdam last July.  Some [type-A perfectionist] habits die hard.

I don’t want you thinking that I came home from Spain an emotional wreck (though the poor French man sitting beside me on my two-hour connection between Valencia to Lisbon would say otherwise), curled up in the fetal position and spewing an incoherency of Spanish words anytime a pitying soul passes by.  I’m happy.  I catch up with friends from high school, some of whom I haven’t seen since graduation.  We eat at sandwich shops and stroll through the mall and eat fake gelato in paper cups and even watch the sun set over Lake Erie.  We laugh, catch up, share stories, and fall into a conversational lull when there’s nothing left to say.  One of them is engaged now; another’s going into grad school this coming fall.

It’s amazing just how much can change in a year.

I know that I’ve changed, too, beyond the longer hair and the new denim jacket and the bronzed complexion I acquired during my final three weeks spent on the Mediterranean with Marta and her family, a tan that’s slowly faded beneath the clouds that cover the Erie sky.  I walk with a newfound confidence…though my driving skills are shakier.  I found independence in riding my bike thirty miles out and back to the peninsula, although my mother worries when I go out for a run too close to dusk.  I hugged my grandparents more often than normal when we visited them in the Adirondacks last week, because I know they’ve been anxious to have me back stateside and I never take a moment with them for granted, even before I left.  To be honest, I was kind of anxious, too, after spending time in Valencia.  I had a blast and loved every minute of my time on the shore and being adopted into yet another Spanish family, but there was a certain sensation of being in traveler’s limbo I couldn’t quite shake, stuck somewhere between one home and another, questioning the necessity of a word like “home,” anyway.  What was that supposed to mean, home?  Is it an address?  A zip code?  The place where my parents live?  Where the bank sends my statements?  Mr. Webster defines home primarily as “one’s place of residence.” Am I supposed to settle for that?

No.  If I’ve learned anything from my time away, it’s that home is an abstract concept that varies from person to person.  Take the man that lives in his childhood house his entire life and never sets foot beyond his comfort zone.  That is his home.  There are the vivacious young adults who schlep their belongings out of mom and dad’s house to a college dorm, to their first apartment, to a two-story, two-car garage Tudor  where they will live with their two children and perfect spouse and live the American dream, and that’s home.  Jobs change, couples divorce, something occurs unexpectedly, and new homes are formed through it all. It’s part of the human nature.

And then there are some of us who can’t settle in one spot for too long—it makes us restless as we jiggle our knee anxiously, up and down, up and down, searching for the next big adventure that inevitably comes our way.  We pack up and say our goodbyes, knowing that we’ll be back soon enough, because our roots call us back to our hometowns.  But that’s not our only home.  Zeist, Seville, Valencia: those are homes, too, just as much as Erie is home.  Everywhere we go, a little piece of us is left behind, and we gain something else—something indescribable—in return.  The future extends before us, not in years or in dollar signs, but in the prospect of finding yet another home.

Because in the end, it’s the people, and not the place, that matter.

It’s kind of like that famous quote from J.R.R. Tolkien: “All who wander are not lost.” One week after I arrived back in Erie, I met up with a good friend and fellow traveler for a cup of coffee and a much needed conversation.  Over three hours and a tall chai tea latte I told her everything; beyond my family, it felt so good to share with someone who I knew would understand.  The time passed far too quickly, as usual, and as we passed stories back and forth the clock seemed to speed up, beckoning us back to the obligations of daily life.  As we stood up to leave, she looked me straight in the eye.

“You look good, Moniek.  And obviously I know you’ve just come back from a yearlong adventure abroad, but if I were anybody else, someone who didn’t know your stories, I’d say you look European.  It suits you.”  She smiled warmly at me and I grinned back, swinging my purse over my shoulder as we walked into the unusual Erie sunlight.

I am not lost.  I am home.

May 27, 2013
by Moniek

Putting the “study” in “study abroad.”

Studying is hard.

Ithaca is cruel in the sense that when it comes to the beginning of May, the rain and snow and sleet miraculously disappears and is replaced by an abundance of sunshine.  That week just so happens to be finals week, so you can usually find me passing twelve hours at a time on the seventh floor of Olin library, clutching a thermos of coffee as if my life depended on it and muttering Shakespearean sonnets under my breath.

Hey, it happens.

Take Ithaca’s rare demonstration of beautiful weather and multiply it by a factor of twenty thousand, and you’ve got Sevilla.  Every afternoon I go through the same thought process: “It’s so nice out!  I’m going to study outside!”  So there I am, my purse laden with five books—not to mention two notebooks, my journal and whatever little snack I’ve rustled up—full of energy to study…until I sit myself down in the grass and begin chatting, or doodling, or staring off into the clouds and thinking how lucky I am to be in such a beautiful city and how unfortunate it is that I really should be doing work.

Needless to say, I’m easily distracted when I want to be.

This semester has been different than last semester—and in some ways, more difficult—for several reasons.  I’m enrolled in five courses instead of four, and I notice the extra coursework looming over me.  Three of my classes happen to be literature courses, which in and of itself would be a challenge if I were doing all of the reading in English!  I’m studying Cervantes, Spanish 20th century literature and Hispano-American poetry, tackling Don Quixote, Antonio Machado and Octavio Paz in the process.  I love reading and I’ve enjoyed each book immensely, but I’ve always taken for granted how quickly I can read in English, although by this point my Spanish is fluid enough that I read with relative ease.  It still takes me nearly twice as long to read any single article, though, and that’s the frustrating part.

I used to think that we were given an absurd amount of required reading in my Cervantes and 20th century literature course, but thinking back on Cornell—namely ten Virginia Woolf novels and a new Shakespearean drama a week in one semester—I suppose the workload is reasonable.  What surprises me, however, is how much background knowledge the Spanish students have coming into a course.  In Cervantes, for example, there’s a slightly older man who sits in the front row, directly in the line of vision of our professor.  After nearly remark she makes he punches his fist in the air with a question, a contradictory statement, or once, to my utmost astonishment, to correct the professor.  Either he’s taken the class five times in succession, or he’s read every article ever written about the world’s first modern novel.  While he’s becoming the next greatest Cervantes analyst, my friend and I sit side by side, trying to figure out exactly which of his novels, poems, and plays we’re supposed to read before our impending exam on June 17.

In terms of theoretical courses, I’m also enrolled in introduction literary criticism, which would be even more interesting if it wasn’t taught at 8:30 in the morning.  Luckily, the professor has a consistent habit of arriving ten to twenty minutes late, so I don’t feel so guilty about hitting the snooze button when the alarm blares at 7:00 a.m, much to the chagrin of my poor roommate (though she usually sleeps right through it).  On a good day I sit and chat with my friends Carmen and Tia before class starts.  But more often than not I go careening down the halls, praying that the door is still propped open and cursing the limited number of spaces to park my bicycle.  On those days I slide into the seat closest to the door with a curt nod from my professor, my face glistening with the none-too-flattering glow of my frenzied morning ride.

My poetry class is probably my favorite, because on a ‘well-attended’ day there are only six of us, three Spaniards and three foreigners.  I’ve adopted myself into the “Spanish” category, sitting in the front row and answering to “Mónica”.  At first, such a small class was intimidating.  One day, we were assigned to write an analysis of a poem we had read in class, and then attempt to mimic the author’s style in our own verses.  Little did I know that I would arrive to class (ten minutes late due to an unforeseen torrential downpour…what do you know, it’s just like home!) to be handed a photocopy of my very own poem.  It’s a disconcerting feeling to know that something you wrote in private is now available for the whole world to see—and even worse when you have to read it aloud!  I spoke hesitantly, blushing, not daring to meet the eyes of my classmates until I was finished.  Sara, our resident poet, applauded; Lourdes grinned and squeezed my hand.  “I didn’t know we had another great poet in the room,” she commented, and I grinned back, feeling proud.

As a good, well-rounded Cornellian should do, I’m expanding my academic horizons and taking a Spanish art history course offered in my program center.  The professor is undeniably old-school: he infallibly wears a sports jacket to every class and fiddles incessantly with his two wheezing slide projectors.  I create my own art in the margins of my notebook—watch out, Picasso!—and glance up at the screen every time he barks “Atención! Atención!” and gestures emphatically as I suppress a giggle at his exaggerated commentary.

So there you have it, the ‘study’ aspect of study abroad!  In all sincerity, I’m genuinely enjoying my studies in the university and feel comfortable in my classes, especially having had one semester already under my belt.  I’m not afraid to raise my hand to ask a question or to give an answer.  My friends wave me over to sit with them in class and we walk out together afterward.  I’m putting forth 100% in everything I do, and that’s all anyone can ask for.

Now, if only the beautiful weather wouldn’t be quite so distracting!

May 13, 2013
by Moniek
1 Comment

Muerte en la tarde

The sun mercifully didn’t shine that afternoon.

If it had, the spectacle would have been unbearable.

In three hours, I watched six bulls fight against an inevitable fate.  And lose.  Some lost with dignity, falling gracefully as the glinting blade penetrated flesh in a swift, clean motion. Others suffered beneath a misplaced jab, resigning themselves to one cruel stab after another as the impatient crowd began to mutter, wishing the damn thing would just die already.

I had to look away.

The trumpets bleated raspingly as the toreadors milled about, dragging their pink capes in the yellow sand.  Without warning, the bull burst through the gate, a solid black mass of muscle, an angry brand protruding from its flank.  The toreadors scattered, their suits of light clinking, their pants stretching tightly across their skinny calves.  After galloping around the ring the bull came to a halt, wearily eyeing the men behind the wooden barricades.  One stepped out, then another, and the real show began.

One can’t deny the intrinsic artistry behind the way the men maneuvered the capes, taunting the bull to charge once, then again, and again, and again.  They whirled around in carefully synchronized movements, and all of a sudden I understood where flamenco must derive from.

The trumpets echoed and the men retreated, two entertaining the bull as two horses were lead into the circle, blindfolded and draped with a thick layer of protected padding.  I squinted in confusion; why would the horse be blindfolded?  Didn’t that seem unfair? (And then I thought of the unfairness of the entire situation itself—six men and two horses versus one bull—and kept my mouth shut.) But then the bull charged, hitting the horse at full force as it staggered backward, and I realized that if I was lead into a ring to be attacked by a bull I wouldn’t want to see it, either.  The horse just stood there as the picador raised his lance and drove it into the beast’s fleshy back.  I winced as blood began to stream from the wound, but the bull didn’t stop its ferocious attack, again and again and again.

The trumpets echoed and the horses trotted out, seemingly unfazed and without any obvious limp.  How many times had it been subjected to this, I wondered?  To what point had it been desensitized to being plowed in the side by 500 kilograms of flesh, over and over again.

To what point had we ourselves been desensitized?

The toreadors sauntered back into the center of the ring and formed a haphazard circle around the bull.  A few now wielded bandilleras, which are short colorful barbed sticks.  After a few simple passes with the cape, the toreador with the banderillero rose dramatically on his toes, raised his arms in the air, and began a full sprint at the snorting bull.  In an instant he leapt into the air, stabbed the banderillas into the bull’s back, and fled on nimble feet as his comrades descended in to distract the incited bucking beast, trying to rid itself of the barbed metal jammed in its fleshy neck.  One by one they ran up and drove their stakes in, until the poor thing was decorated like some sort of twisted holiday ornament.  The trumpets echoed, and the men retreated.  Two for three.

The third spectacle is what our notion is of the Spanish bullfight.  It is the matador tossing his felt cap into the stands and strutting into the ring with an unquestionable air of arrogance, alone.  It is the wounded bull eyeing him warily as he makes his approach, suit jingling as he tosses out insults.  It is the charge at the red cape, one after another, as the crowd shouts “olé!” and “baja la mano! and jeers if the bull—not the matador—makes a mistake.  It is the effortless plunge of the sword, the instant kill, so fast that I didn’t even notice until the bull froze, swayed for a moment, and fell to the raucous applause of the crowd, who drew out their white kerchiefs to show their approval for the easy kill.  I can stay for this, I thought to myself.  If the bull died like that, instantly, the next 2.5 hours would be bearable.

A team of donkeys trotted in the ring to drag the bull away unceremoniously, and it only got worse from there.

Bull #2 was white, which only meant that I could tell exactly how much it bled when the picadors and banderilleros did the preliminary dirty work.  The matador was excessively vainglorious and, according to the old men behind me, was attempting passes that were much too difficult.  “Idiot’s going to get himself gored,” the man grumbled.

He was right.

In an instant, the matador was on the ground and the bull reared its head, sensing an opportunity for vengeance.  He rose in the nick of time and went back to whirling his red cape without batting an eye.  But pride raised his ugly head and the matador stumbled, only to go flying through the air on razor sharp horns.  The woman in front of me buried her head in her neighbor’s lap; I squeezed my eyes shut like a small child, only to open them and see the matador still on his feet, without any evident limp or injuries.

It still took him more than few tries to make the final kill, though.  I couldn’t watch, but the groans of the crowd with every miss was enough.

With each bull I became increasingly more nauseous.  #3  was brown and nothing out of the ordinary.  I don’t remember anything spectacular about #4.

#5 was clumsy, but not as clumsy as #6, which did two complete somersaults and had the crowd chanting for its removal from the ring for being a sub-par bull.  The ending was unbearably gruesome; a far cry from the first black bull that died with dignity a few short hours ago.

Did the bulls know their fate when they entered the ring?  Did they know that they were going to die?

It was an experience to say the least, but I can’t see myself ever going back.

May 6, 2013
by Moniek
1 Comment


There’s a student who sits in the second row of my 20th century literature class.  When she raises her hand to ask a question, her professor looks over and smiles.

“Yes, Mónica, do you have a question?”

I can’t quite place Mónica’s accent.  To some extent it sounds South American, but the way she pronounces certain words it’s obvious that she’s spent quite a bit of time in Andalusia.  She speaks with ease, though occasionally stumbling over a longer word, fumbling with an accent here, a vowel there.  But she speaks with confidence, and I admire her for it.  I listen to her introduce herself to the girl beside her. Soy Mónica.  Mónica.  It has a certain ring to it.

There’s a young woman named Monih who teaches English three days a week to elementary school children.  Mercede’s mother can hear her in the other room, talking and laughing with her daughter, though the English words escape her.  That’s why Monih comes every Wednesday, to study with Mercedes, although the two color and play games and Mercedes doesn’t realize that at the same time, she’s learning.  After an hour she leaves to go to her own class, but Mercedes stops her. “Wait, I colored this for you!” It’s a colorful doodle of two girls: one with curly blond hair, the other’s stick-straight.  On the bottom, in bright purple crayon, she’s written “TO MONIH.”

There’s a goofy, grinning girl with far too much energy and a certain love of bad puns.  She babbles animatedly and races on bikes and takes long walks through the park after her evening classes.  On the weekends she falls silent, lost in her preoccupations, but only for an instant before racing to the rooftop to watch the lightning off in the distance, because she loves thunderstorms and sunshine and Oreo cookies and the sea.  She’s clumsy and forgetful and doesn’t stop laughing, earning the affectionate nickname “Tontoniek.” The silly one.

There was a young woman who sat in my linguistic analysis course last semester, hand always in the air, asking questions, trying to understand.  “Yes Maniac?”  Maniac?  I shook my head, trying not to laugh out loud as Maniac sat there in apparent frustration, trying in vain to express her doubts.  How far she’s come!

There’s a girl who wakes up early on a Saturday morning full of smiles and wanders sleepy-eyed into the living room, where Felisa sits back in her armchair watching the morning news and Jesús plays FIFA on his Gameboy, shouting with excitement every time he scores a goal.  She leans on the doorframe and looks affectionately at the two of them before exclaiming, “buenos días!”  Felisa’s face lights up.  “Good morning, my darling!  Would you like some churros this morning for breakfast?”

She smiles and nods yes, then steps to the side to let Felisa  through the doorway.  As Felisa sidles past she turns and pulls the girl into an unexpected hug.  “I’m going to miss you so much, Moniek, mi hija.  You can’t leave Spain, not yet! Promise you’ll come visit me again?”

Moniek hugs her back tightly.  She doesn’t want to leave yet, either.  How on earth is she supposed to say goodbye?  Better not to think about it.  She still has a few months left, though the time goes faster than she ever could have imagined.

There’s another Moniek who talks to her parents on Skype in the evening.  She smiles and laughs and makes funny faces and curses when the video freezes, again.  She tells them how much she misses them, how much she loves them, how much she can’t wait to see them in July, when she comes home for the first time in 365 days.  When the screen goes black, her heart aches for home: the one she left behind nine months ago, and the one she’ll be leaving three short months for now.

April 26, 2013
by Moniek

La Feria

I blinked, and suddenly it was the end of April.

What had happened?  Wasn’t it just a few days ago that I was staring off into the Tuscan landscape as the train click-clacked down the tracks?  And was it really weeks ago that I stood in ominous silence amid the throngs of the Semana Santa?  What about when my mother and brother visited, a full four months back?  And how is it possible that I stumbled into the Amsterdam Schiphol airport 288 days ago, bleary-eyed and ready for adventure?

The Feria de Abril passed in a flying whirl of ruffled dresses and refreshing glasses of rebujito.  I’ve never seen colors so bright.  On Monday night we gathered amid the striped casetas and stared intently at the outline of the great portada, people still pouring through its grand arches as the second hand of the clock made its steady approach towards midnight. Finally, the moment arrived. The snap of a few sparks, a quick whiff of ozone, and the portada blazed forth in unparalleled glory.  One by one, the strings of colorful lanterns began to glow, and the street was so bright it could have been daytime.  Families began streaming out of their casetas, full from their traditional fish fry and took to milling about the avenues, chatting and laughing boisterously.  

In my next life, I want to be a sevillana.

My friends and I linked arms and let ourselves become swept up by  the crowd, which deposited us in the Calle del Infierno, the heaven of every adrenaline junkie.  Lights flashed in an epileptic frenzy as a bizarre combination of calliope music and reggaeton blared through the speakers.  Carnies hawked their wares from tiny carnival booths as the delectable scent of fried dough wafted through the eager crowd of teenagers seeking their next thrill.  I stared dizzily up at the runaway ferris wheel, not daring to believe that something like this, like Feria, exists in this world, my world.

Moments after the alumbrado

After a blessed full-night’s sleep and a peaceful morning spent in good company, I donned a long, colorful dress, pinned a flower in my hair and made my way back to the fairgrounds.  The streets were eerily quiet until I neared the portada. It seemed as if all of Seville was arriving at the same moment I was, the horses’ hooves clippity-clopping as they pulled carriages of men in suits and women in their flamenco dresses.  I stood in awe at the rainbow of colors that swished by me, fanning themselves in the blazing heat and smiling coquettishly at one another.  A tourist in socks and sandals bustled about excitedly, snapping photos here and there, trying in vain to capture the sights, the smells, the feelings.

Giddy with excitement!

Everything felt like snapshots of a long-lost childhood, the one I would have had if I had been born sevillana.  A spin on the bumper cars, then another, dodging the blows of a cynical old woman with a polka dot dress and a desire for vengeance.  Sipping on a refreshingly cold slushie, sucking the juice out with my straw and leaving the ice behind.  An hour spent in Felisa’s caseta with her friends, who fawned over me, her “grandaughter,”  and asked a thousand and one questions.  Where did I learn my Spanish?  Did I have a boyfriend?  Did I miss my family?  Did I like Sevilla?  What was my home like in the US?  Felisa grinned proudly beside me, a gentle hand placed on my now-sunburned shoulder.

make-believe sevillanas.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur; at some point  between sipping on rebujitos with Julia and endless visits, introductions, and cheek kisses, the sun set and the nightlife began anew.  I politely declined yet another glass of wine spritzed with soda, indulged in the pleas for me not to leave’– “It’s not even two in the morning!”– and made the solitary trip back home in the opposite direction of everybody still making their way to the Feria, only slightly regretting the fact that I hadn’t thought to pack my suitcase yet.

A horse-drawn carriage right in front of Felisa’s caseta, affectionately nicknamed “Los despistaos.”

Three hours later I was on the bus to the airport, suitcase miraculously packed, excited for my sojourn to northern Spain.  Yet part of me yearned for one more day of lights and colors, of cool drinks and sore feet and too much sun, of carousels and pony rides and smiling families and dancing sevillanas and trying to put my finger on the Andalusian spirit.

April 6, 2013
by Moniek

La Semana Santa

“¡Guapa! ¡Guapísima!”

The man’s deep voice rang out amid the hushed bulla; the woman behind me was sobbing.  Beneath the enormous gilded paso, fifty-some costaleros shuffled blindly to the barked instructions of the capataz as they turned a slow 90 degrees.  The nazarenos continued their ominous march, many of them barefoot, their faces hooded by the antifaz.  The penitentes shouldered their wooden crosses with seeming ease; some held the hands of small children, who reluctantly dug into the deep pockets of their robes to hand out sweets.  The coronets and drums paced the procession beneath the clouded sky and the anticipation of the rain that thankfully never fell that day.

La Virgen María de Santa Genoveva

The Virgin Mary stared blankly ahead, her questioning hands lifted to the heavens, two diamond tears frozen on her lovely pale face, her lips slightly parted.  She swayed back and forth as the men strained below to turn her down the street in succession of the figure of Jesus Christ, robed in a deep majestic purple, his tormented face capturing the final moments of a mournful man.  The music crescendoed as the costaleros finished the turns.  A pause, and the entire crowd burst into applause and broke their ranks, filing in devoted pursuit, a living addition to the divine procession.

The Semana Santa isn’t something I can describe easily; I suppose it’s really something that needs to be experienced.  And even then, I didn’t fully understand it completely, despite evening after evening of watching last year’s recap on the television with Felisa, my all-too-willing tutor, attending various lectures (especially the ones that were advertised with free food!) and listening to my sevillano friends chattering excitedly about one of the most important weeks of the Andalusian calendar.

A penitente walks alongside his nazareno son.

To tell you the truth, I really didn’t understand it.  Take, for example, Felisa’s eight-year-old grandson Jesús, molding figures of the Virgin Mary out of clay the week before.  Or the interminable obsession with the weather—will it rain?  How about tomorrow?  And on Tuesday?  And Wednesday?  And Thursday?  People flooded the city centre, myself included, weaving in and out of the roped-off streets to the point of becoming hopelessly lost somewhere in the Macarena neighborhood, way off from my intended trajectory.  Fingertips stretched in vain to graze the side of a renowned paso.  Another one of the grandsons complained about it already being Tuesday, and he had yet to see one of the processions in the flesh.  Families were glued to the television, the radio, and Twitter for updates on different parishes.  And when raindrops inexplicably fell from a cerulean blue sky, subsequently cancelling all processions for the afternoon, Sevilla wept, too.  It left me more confused than anything, and inexplicably so.

It really bothered me that I didn’t understand.  I’ve felt at home in Sevilla for so long that I’d nearly forgotten what it felt like to be on the outside looking in.  For one, I guess I had some sort of expectation that my being Catholic would somehow make the event more special.  I’ve always loved the Holy Week back home, especially attending the Easter Vigil with my grandparents, so I suppose I thought that the event would be even more profound.  And it wasn’t.  Don’t get me wrong: the pasos were breathtakingly exquisite, the music resonating, and the environment absolutely indescribable, but there was something that didn’t feel quite right.

A candlelit paso at dusk in the heart of Sevilla.

I felt guilty about it.  I’ve been here for eight months now (!); why wasn’t I moved to the same point that the weeping woman was?  If I look long and hard at it, it’s something deeply cultural that I’m missing.  Personal religion back home is a taboo topic, shoved into social obscurity beside politics and intimacy.  It is private, reserved for discussion among family and good friends (yet, interestingly enough, it has an increased prevalence in Facebook posts and commentary, I’ve found.  But I digress).

In Spain, Catholicism is ingrained in the culture.  Sure, you’ve never gone to Mass in your life, but you still identify as “Catholic.”  That’s why the distinction between “practicing” and “non-practicing” exists.  It’s just a part of who you are, along with your nationality, age and surname.  Yet it’s not the same Catholicism I’m familiar with.  In the United States, we’re not devoted to figures.  We wouldn’t wait three hours in line to kiss Mary’s hand on her Saint’s Day.  Heck, we don’t even celebrate our own Saint’s Day there, mainly because the majority of us don’t have a saint to call our own.  We exercise our freedom of religion, yet the topic always seems to get pushed under the table, whereas in Spain it’s flaunted for the world to see in the most spectacular fashion, parading atop a magnificent float and gilded with the finest gold.

a paso of Jesus Christ, adorned in gold.

The Semana Santa was a fascinating experience, don’t get me wrong.  And I’m so grateful to have been a part of it.  But again,there was something missing.

Maybe it was the rain.  Or the claustrophobia of being closed in by a thousand people. Or maybe eating one too many torrijas.  But I was almost relieved when Marta and I jetted off for Tuscany that dreary Wednesday afternoon, leaving the haunting processions swaying behind us to the steady beat of the coronet and the drum.

March 10, 2013
by Moniek

Finding friends

It seems like just yesterday that I was young and naïve, meandering the vibrant streets of Lisbon, Portugal beneath the glimmering October sun.

Just kidding, I’m not all that the nostalgic type.  But in all honesty, sometimes I feel like I’m living another life, one that’s too good to be my own.  If anyone’s counting, I’ve officially been abroad seven months, 27 days.  And I can’t even imagine leaving.  Not yet.

Canals in Ghent: made me homesick for Holland!

Back to Portugal.  Remember how I wrote about the absolute liberation of traveling solo?  Last weekend I got to experience the joys of traveling with a good friend.  A “new” friend, I might add.  Remember how I mentioned Marta, the young Valencian woman I met during my 12 hour bus ride from Lisbon to Sevilla?  Sometimes the world works in mysterious ways, but she’s quickly become one of my best friends here.  We go to cafés and tea shops and chat over a steaming mug of coffee.  We double over laughing at my latest shenanigans, or when she reminisces about her own days of yore as a Spanish student studying abroad in Denmark.  We sit on her couch in her apartment with a slice of the Best Chocolate Cake in the World and coo over photos of her nieces and nephews.  She teases me for only being twenty—“you’re so young!”—and I dish it back to her for being 27: “you’re such an old lady!”

So when she asked me if I wanted to plans for the long weekend last week, I obviously said yes!  We sat shoulder-to-shoulder for hours, pouring over our options on the budget airlines and joking around about quitting our ‘real’ lives to travel the world together.  After eliminating Prague (too expensive), Germany (ditto), and South Korea (Marta’s absolute dream, but crossed off the list for obvious reasons), we settled on a whirlwind trip to Brussels, Ghent and Bruges in Belgium.  I was really excited: I mean, how many times do you get the chance to travel with one of your awesome Spanish friends?

the two “blondes,” one Spanish, the other just pretending to be (;

Needless to say, our trip went perfectly.  Both of us have very similar traveling styles.  We like to do a little research and planning ahead, but there’s no minute-by-minute itinerary or rushing around.  We’re laid back and enjoy each other’s company, which was the most important thing.  I’ll admit being a little nervous beforehand—what if we ruined our friendship during our weekend away in Belgium?  Spending four solid days with just one other person in a foreign country can have its effects on people. But I shouldn’t have worried.  We got ourselves painfully turned around wandering the streets of Brussels, searching for the disappointingly small Mannekin Pis statuette.  We dripped molten chocolate on our puffy coats as we quickly ate waffles in the frigid air before it could coagulate.  We strolled through an empty park, staring up at the gray bare branches of the trees and sharing secrets.  We grinned with glee on a boat through the canals of Ghent, picking out which apartment we would rent together, my head as her armrest while she took a video of the ride.  And being ‘American,’ in her opinion, curling up in our hotel room with Chinese food and silly movies about the stereotypical U.S. university life (Pitch Perfect, anyone?).

Ghent again; it was like a fairytale city

It was when we were sitting in a pub and sipping on a few beers that it came up.

“Moniek,” Marta began, smiling widely. “How is it that I meet some American study abroad student on a random bus in Portugal, and all of a sudden I’m sitting with her in a bar in Belgium, drinking beer?”

I simply laughed and raised my glass to her, having asked myself the same question a thousand times.  Because you know what?  It’s exactly what I was looking to get out of my time abroad: a true-blue friend, one to whom you can tell everything, who laughs with you and hangs out with you in her apartment and watches silly movies and gently corrects your Spanish. Who explains cultural differences and is fascinated by your “American” life.  Who promises to visit you as soon as she can, “but we have to go EVERYWHERE, like a real American road trip!”  Who somehow becomes the perfect travel buddy.  Who even though you’ve made so many wonderful friends abroad, you’d go so far as to consider her one of your “best” friends, American or, in this case, otherwise.

That’s exactly what I was looking for, and that’s what Marta became for me.

February 11, 2013
by Moniek

The serenade

Sometimes my life here in Sevilla feels so cotidian, so “normal.”  I pedal the same route to class on the same broken bicycle, passing the same faces on the street corners.  I take the same running route along the river during the weekends.  I watch my weekly television serie with my host mother. Sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit, I completely forget that I’m in Spain, three thousand miles away from my home.

But sometimes on the most ordinary of days, magic happens.

Granted, Saturday wasn’t exactly ordinary.  Our program had planned a visit to Cádiz as the culmination of the cultural seminar for my new classmates.  For me, it was actually one of the first times that I was with the entire group, so I was able to meet people who I hadn’t yet run across in our program center.  It was almost like a weird variety of dèjá vu.  There I was again, crossing the same glittering channel, surrounded by a busful of excited Americans.  Except this time, I was the veteran.  I’d been to Cádiz before.  I’d taken the tour, seen the sights.  I was still looking forward to going back–it’s a beautiful city perched on the great Atlantic–but something about the trip itself had lost its novelty.


Though the novelty may have worn off, I’ll never get tired of a view like this.

I was more excited about the fact that we were arriving during the main festivities of Carnaval, which is like the Spanish version of Mardi Gras, or the carnevals in Rio de Janeiro.  Every plaza in the town was bursting with people in brightly-colored costumes, drinking and laughing boisterously as the chirigotas belted out parodies on the street corners. Vendors hawked their wares on the cobblestone paths: salty shrimp in a paper cone, brightly feathered masks, kazoos.  What had seemed like a sleepy beach town in September had transformed into a vivid spectacle.

Some of my classmates had gone all out and were decked out for a day of fiesta.  We had half of Old MacDonald’s farm with us–namely chickens, cows, and roosters, as well as a handful of ballerinas, cowboys, and a matador.  My friend Sarah and I had each picked up a mask at a little costume shop, so I was at least in a festive spirit!

My friend Julia is also here for the entire year, so we stuck with the rest of the group for the walking tour and afterwards branched out to do some exploring on our own.  The sun was shining brightly overhead and the chilly wind had died down a bit, so we shrugged off our coats and dipped our hands in the clear blue water, squealing when the surf lapped up over our shoes.  The main festivities hadn’t begun yet, but there was still a fair amount of people milling about, some in costume, others not.

Just some farm animals on the beach.

After eating our sandwiches we strolled down a long walkway to an old castle jutting out into the ocean.  It was so tranquil: the scent of the salty air, the waves crashing against the rocks, and the endless ocean stretching in front of us.  I forgot just how blue the water and sky could be.

The gates to the castle were closed, so we sat on the edge of the stone bridge, dangling our feet over the rushing tide below.  The sound of a flamenco guitar echoed nearby and we glanced around, our interest piqued.  On the rocky ledge below were two barefoot, shirtless men, one strumming the guitar, the other clapping an irregular beat and singing softly.  We watched them for a short while before descending to the same ledge and perching ourselves on a giant craggy boulder, chatting quietly and trying not to stare.

My beautiful friend Julia and the magical musician.

And what music they made!  The guitarist played such intricate, winding melodies, staring absently into the distance before him.  What a look, lost in one’s own thoughts!  His friend was less ethereal, detaching himself from the scene to make a phone call and light a cigarette.  It was so utterly different from the planned, paid performances I had seen before in Sevilla–this was one hundred percent genuine, playing solely for the sheer joy of making music.

After basking in the sun a while we slowly stood up to make our way back to the topsy-turvy world of the Carnaval.  And it happened; a moment I can only describe as magical.  The guitar player pulled on his faded shirt and came up to us with a little half-smile.  “Wait a moment,” he said, “I want to play a song for you.”

He bent down on one knee and began weaving a beautiful tune, his green eyes fixed on us.  We were mesmerized.  His friend started clapping to the rhythm and I could feel Julia stir beside me–she’s an incredible dancer and is studying flamenco, and I knew she’d been dying to get up and dance.  So I gave her a little nudge and pulled myself back up on the boulder, surreptitiously pulling out her camera to capture the moment.  And she moved so gracefully, her wrists twisting deliberately.

Like all magical things, the moment was over far too soon.  We smiled and thanked our musicians and turned back to the real world once more.  But in that instant, far away from everything else, I was reminded exactly of what I love about Spain.

February 3, 2013
by Moniek

Los examenes

Greetings to the real world again!

After two weeks, I’ve finally finished my exams this past Friday and am relishing in my first “free” weekend in a while…only to return to classes bright and early tomorrow morning.  Unlike the glorious five week break between semesters Cornell gives to us, the University of Seville was so generous as to give us two days.  I would have loved to have had at least a week—I’ve been bitten by the travel bug recently and spend my free time pairing possible Ryanair combinations online—but seeing as I don’t know how to properly relax whenever I’m given the time to do so, it’s probably better this way.  En fin.

So, what are exams in Spain like?  It really depends on the course, though a lot of the “learning” that goes on is more rote memorization.  For my applied linguistics exam, for example, we were given around fifty questions as a study guide, of which six would appear on the actual test.  My friend Sophie and I split the guide in half and swapped notes, but it was nearly impossible to memorize everything, especially for vague questions like “language in the brain.” After feeling slightly panicked and underprepared, I was relieved to see that the six questions were manageable.  Combined with what was hopefully a good grade on my oral presentation on distance learning, I think I did well in the class.  Fingers crossed!

My linguistic analysis exam was a nightmare, considering that I wrote nearly 2500 words by hand in approximately 2.5 hours (I still don’t think my wrist has recovered).  I’m pretty sure the professor thought I was a few cards short of a full deck, partly because I was the only American in the class, and partly because I wasn’t shy to ask a million questions when she left things unclear, which was fairly often.  She pouted the entire time through my optional oral presentation (and oh-so-kindly made me go first on the first day back from winter vacation) and was convinced that my name was pronounced “Maniac.”  Needless to say, we hit it off great.

Our final was held in a stuffy classroom the very first day of the examination period, and we were given three hours to analyze a short text.  I had done the practice exam the week before and dutifully brought it to my professor’s office for feedback.  After taking ten minutes to read my four pages of carefully typed notes (and me staring around awkwardly, not knowing exactly how to keep myself occupied), she looked up and me and said, “It’s good.”

I stared at her, puzzled.  “That’s it? What about what I said about the narrative voice?  Did I use all of the terminology right?  What does ‘good’ mean, exactly?  What can I improve on before the exam?”

She handed the paper back to me.  “It’s good,” she repeated, indicating that our conversation was over.

Somehow, I miraculously received a 9.5 overall, which ended up being the highest grade in the class.  I’m still trying to figure out how that one happened, but I’m not complaining!

My comparative literature course, by comparison, was much easier.  The exam was optional—being the good little Cornellian that I am, I did show up to take it.  While the other section of the course suffered through a complicated, in-depth question, my final consisted of a simple prompt:

“Choose any topic that we discussed in class and write about it.”

Being prolix to a fault, I wrote three pages about the problems of literary translation.  As I went to hand it in, my professor stopped me for a moment.

“So Moniek, how’d it go?”

I simply smiled, saying that it went fine.  And after turning in my five-page report analyzing Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon and its Spanish influences, I’m not too worried about my grade in that class, considering that I found it incredibly easy (it always helps when you’re interested in the subject!).

So what have I learned?  In truth, I prefer how Cornell’s examinations work, where I at least know what to expect.  Where I’m handed an actual exam, and not just a stack of blank paper.  Where there’s some sense of consistency among course expectations.  Where my grade isn’t influenced by the fact that I’m a foreigner.  And although I worked hard and studied a lot, I didn’t feel challenged the same way that I do back home, despite the fact that I did everything in a completely foreign language.  Though I suppose for that aspect alone, I should feel proud of myself.

So that’s that, another chapter closing in my yearlong abroad chronicles! Here’s to the end of one semester and the beginning of another!

Class Blog: Voices from Cornell Abroad

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