It’s 3:24 a.m. in Madrid. My cab comes in an hour. I finished packing up five months of my life around midnight. And between then and now, I’ve just been waiting to leave. Not sleeping. Just waiting.

Of course I wiped out my dresser drawers in that time, and wrote goodbye notes to my host family. But I still can’t get over the illusion of this moment.

At least when we leave Marquette after a semester, we know we’ll come back.

I have no idea when I’ll come back to Madrid.

Five months here has left such a deep impression that I can’t just leave forever, so thoughts of return trip have already begun brewing. Just lacking the details at this point. And the sleep to make them make sense.

Going on two hours right now. The five of us Americans still left in Madrid went out last night to favorites Laser Karaoke (see shameless Americans shouting Kanye’s “Gold Digger”), Me Da Igual (see Americans realizing they’ve got mere hours left in Europe, and dancing emotionally to Spanish love ballads like “Colgando en tus manos”), and La Chocolatería San Ginés (see Americans toasting mugs of chocolate to a semester well spent, then chowing down on the best churros con chocolate in town).

So, when I got back home in the morning, I slept for a few hours until my host sister woke me up to say goodbye. She’s leaving for the United States (Minnesota, complete coincidence) to do summer English camps. We’ve got a Mall of America date planned, so I’ll see her soon enough. But thus began the despedidas.

Saying goodbye to the housekeeper, Mayra was even worse. The 24-year-old Ecuadorian who cooks most of our food and scrubs the house till it gleams has become one of my best friends here. But what will come of her when she carries out her plans to move back to Ecuador?

Spent all day trying to outsmart British Airways’ 50-pound-suitcase rule, and failing. The wine and olive oil I’m bringing back tip the scales. Oh well.

But now before my cab comes, I probably should shower and make myself my last café con leche in Madrid.


At 3:34 p.m. yesterday I sent in my last paper of the term. Funny how simply clicking “send” on Gmail brought such relief. 

Four papers, four exams, and 200 paintings in the Prado later, I’m ready to enjoy my last week in Spain without academics.

However, as I walked for the last time from the smoky halls of Facultad B, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of nostalgia for the building in which we’ve spent so many hours this semester.

After getting off the Metro at Ciudad Universitaria (University City), a 15-minute walk will get you to La Facultad de Filosofía y Letras B. Facultades are like little colleges. Facultad B is home to all the history, art, philosophy, and music students of la Universidad Complutense de Madrid. And it’s home to all of us foreign students.

Oh, building 

 Facultad de Filosofía y Letras B


The outside of the building is pretty enough.

The inside of the building is a little more… well, gray and dismal. I think this photo actually makes it look better than it is. There are very few windows in the main areas, just harsh florescent lighting. The place was an icebox in January and February; we could literally see our breath during class. But even when it’s 85 outside, the Facultad still has a cold feeling. There’s no decor anywhere, no potted plants, no couches, no carpet. Think of Marquette’s Alumni Memorial Union, then strip everything pretty from it. The place is very bare bones, but it’s fully functional. I guess they decided not to “waste money” on shiny things like that Father Brooks mosaic on the second floor of the AMU. Such is public education.

Normally there’s students running all over the place. But these photos were all taken during finals week, when students hide in the library. That might be why there’s no smoky haze in the air (although you’re not supposed to, students frequently smoke inside the building).

The main staircase leads up to the computer lab, which is probably the most popular place for all of us Internet-addict foreign students to pass time between classes.

A typical classroom.

yeah, bolognia
Plan Bolonia protest posters. 

Notice all the posters. They’re protesting Plan Bolonia, or the Bologna Process, a plan to streamline education at the university level throughout all of Europe. Most Spanish students are against it (for many reasons, but mainly because the price of education will rise), and those in Facultad B are particularly vocal.

The cafeteria, normally this is buzzing with students. 

And then there’s the cafeteria. It’s a zoo between the hours of 1 and 3 p.m., with students rushing to the bar to take a cafe con leche quickly before class. All the seats are occupied during lunch time; it’s perfectly acceptable to plop down at any table, even if you don’t know anyone already sitting there. The food isn’t bad, either. There’s tons of bocadillo (sandwich) selections, and about 3 euros will buy you a three- to four-course meal. Daily menu choices range everywhere from a salad to paella.  

To order: Insert coins, press what you want, collect ticket, bring ticket to bar. Easy enough, right?
In case a bocadillo isn’t enough, order some alcohol with lunch. Here are just the beer options.

Many students have a cerveza or a tinto de verano with lunch. In fact, there’s always empty beer bottles scattered all over the building, on the steps outside, in the parking lot, and in the surrounding woods. What a cultural difference alcohol is. So I will say that many of us ordered an Amstel after all our finals were over on Friday, and leisurely drank it in the cafeteria. And then we tried to imagine ordering a beer from Marquette Place. Ha.

But alas, even though Marquette won’t serve me an Amstel, the overall chill of the place makes me miss my home university.

Adios, Complutense. I learned a lot from your professors, made some great Spanish friends in your classes, and drank your Amstel. But my last seven days in Spain will not be spent anywhere near your campus.

I always end up spending more time than I should in the women’s bathroom in Facultad B. I try to make it quick between my classes, but each time I enter a stall there’s always something new and entertaining written on the walls. There’s boy talk, political messages, inspiring quotations, and even little notes politely asking people to wash their hands after using the toilet … because said hand washing is a highly underused hygienic practice in our building.

But yesterday I went into the stall that houses my favorite proverb:


It means “veganism is justice.” And yes, I did take a photo of it. Hours later, I went to a bullfight.

Although I do enjoy a hamburger once in a while, a corrida de toros is something I probably won’t watch again.

We entered the Plaza de Toros de las Ventas just as the corrida (which means “running” not “fight”) began. It was almost filled to its capacity of 25,000. Ticket prices vary depending on where you sit and who’s in the ring. The most expensive, on the first level in the sombra, or shade, are about 125 euros. We got the cheapest tickets for 4,50 euros in the sol, or sun.

La Plaza de Toros
La Plaza de Toros

A nice old man with squinty eyes tried to sell us cushions for our culos.

“You’ll be sitting on stone,” he said. “You’re going to want something for your culo.”

Later we wished we’d invested the 1,50 euros. We had the ultimate nosebleed seats: the highest level with seats on stone ledges so steep you feel like any sudden movements will tip you off balance and send you plummeting into the ring below. And we were in the sol. Sweaty, sticky, smelly … body odor and beer … men in straw hats, women fluttering fans.

The man sitting next to me commented on how hot it was. We bonded over how embarrassingly sweaty were, and became friends. He was kind enough to explain to us what was going on in the corrida below.

Inside the arena. In Spanish, arena means sand.

Inside the arena. Note the sol and the sombra.

Six men make up the cuadrilla, or entourage: two picadores, or lancers, on horseback, three banderilleros or flagmen, and a mozzo de espada, or sword page. Then there are four auxiliary matadores with pink capes, and the main matador with a red cape. The corrida passes in three stages, each announced by a trumpet.

The tercio de varas, or lancing third, the bull is jabbed in the back with a puyazo. It taunts and agitates the bull before it enters the ring. Then the picadores come out on their horses and stab the bull with a lance. This is to weaken the neck muscles and lower the bull’s head, making its charges less dangerous. Right. The horses wear armor so they aren’t disemboweled by the bull’s horns. We could hear the clashing of horn-on-metal even from our seats. Poor horse. Thepicadores also wear armor on their legs. Then the auxiliares taunt the bull with their pink capes.

Bull charging at an auxiliary matador.
Bull charging at an auxiliary matador.

During the tercio de bandarillas, each of the three bandilleros thrust a pair of barbed darts into back part of the bull. They try to get the darts, decorated with colored paper, as close to the wound from the lance. They run at the bull and fly through the air with their bandarillas. They stab the bull with one smooth motion, and then run for their lives to the edge of the ring as the bull charges after them.

The horses.
A picador on horseback stabs the bull, accompanied by the auxiliares with pink capes. The sometimes auxiliares run behind the fence at the top of the photo if the bulls are charging at them. 

The final stage is the trercio de muerte, or the third of death. The main matadorenters the ring in his traje de luces, or suit of lights, and is alone with the bull. This is said to be the most beautiful, and the most perilous stage. The matador jeers the bull by screaming and whipping his red cape, a sword hidden underneath. He dangerously dances with the snorting bull for a few moments, and then stabs it through the shoulder blades, piercing the heart.

The trumpet sounds, the plaza erupts in applause, thematador takes a bow, and the bull is dragged in a triumphant circle around the arena by three horses. After that, they clean up the trail of blood in the sand.

Dragging the bull.

Then it happens five more times.

We didn’t stay for the entirecorrida. It wasn’t necessary to see six bulls tormented, murdered and bloodily dragged around an arena by men with swords.

And most times the death of the bull isn’t quick. A skilled matador should be able to stab the bull directly through the back and into the heart. Yesterday the guy was not that skilled. The bull had to be jabbed many times with smaller knives to kill it once it was down. Watching a 1,300-pound animal traditionally symbolic of strength and valor drop to all fours after such agony is arduous.

It’s something I don’t completely understand, but can appreciate. Kind of. The man next to me kept saying how elegant the matadorwas, how valiant the bull. In their trajes de luces, thematadores really are graceful – and seemingly fearless. As the bull hurtles horns-first at them, all they do is shift their arm, swooping their cape behind their back. The legs remain planted, the head up, the chest out. They scream “Ha” or “Hey” at the bull, challenging it to attack. After dodging a particularly life-threatening charge, the matador arches his back, puffs out his chest and sharply whips his chin up in supremacy.

It’s a refined series of movements, strategically choreographed to shift at the last second to sidestep a charging beast.

Graceful? It can be. But when the three old men behind you are chanting, ¡Vale, vale, vale, mátalo! ”Okay, all right, kill it!” It looses some of its elegance.

That’s one dance I could never do.

But for the cultural experience I’m glad I went. And I learned that the red color of the capes don’t actually attract the bull. Bulls are colorblind. The red is to mask all the blood. Pleasant, right?


I went out last night and came back afónica. That means I lost my voice.

You could probably draw some conclusions if I mentioned that I crawled into bed at 6:30 a.m. after dancing all night at Joy Eslava

But entrance to Joy is free on Thursdays for students, and we don’t have class today because it’s the Día del Trabajador, or Labor Day, in Spain. And because my friends and I can relate to the 17 percent of willing and able Spaniards who are unemployed, we decided to skip the 8-euro drinks and soberly belt/rock out to American classics like Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” all night.

So, the fact that I have quedado afónica is not because I went crazy last night. But as I dodged the elbows of sweaty dancers and tried to keep from getting pushed over onto the sticky floor coated with broken beer bottles, I couldn’t help but think: This is how people get sick.

This is how people get la gripe porcina.

I’m pretty sure my sore throat and muscle aches are just from singing and dancing obnoxiously to Bon Jovi. My stuffy nose is probably just from lack of sleep. But when Spain’s health ministry confirmed Europe’s first case of swine flu on Monday, I was a little concerned. The Spanish media really played it up. Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez appeared all over the television, newspapers had huge front page headlines and article upon article of analysis. Photo spreads of people in surgical masks could be found all inside the papers. It was hard to miss.

Now with constant updates online and on television, we know that Spain has confirmed 13 cases of la gripe porcina, and suspects 59, according to The New York Times. Two cases are in Madrid, according to El País.

On my way to el Parque de Buen Retiro today I saw a few people getting onto the metro wearing those little white masks. Comforting, eh?

Granted, I haven’t seen too many people wearing masks, and most who do have suitcases and are most likely traveling. Most mask-wearing folk are seen in Barcelona and Valencia.

The television news team interviewed a bunch of students yesterday about the dangers of disease-spreading among young people. Universities are frequented by thousands of people per day. People share cigarettes and drinks on- and off-campus. And when you factor in Madrid’s nightlife that never sleeps (read: sweaty guys in crowded dance clubs), us youngins are prime gripe candidates.

Mom sent me an e-mail reminding me to wash my hands with soap and water long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. I then reminded her that A) running the water for that long might be a sin in Europe, and B) the girls at the university, at least those in Facultad B, rarely wash their hands after using the restroom… kind of nasty.

But I’m going to continue more or less like normal. Just more consciously. I guess don’t go shaking anyone’s hand, try not to touch anything on the Metro, and don’t give the traditional Spanish greeting! I might just try to smile more instead of greeting with dos besos (a kiss on each cheek)… So here’s a smile from Madrid – because my voice is gone anyway ☺

Yesterday I realized I had puntas abiertas up to my orejas. That means I had split ends up to my ears. Yuck. Time for a haircut.

I got my last trim in January before I left for Madrid. I knew that wouldn’t last me until the end, but figured I’d hold out as long as possible and spend haircut money on things like trips to Italy. Or sangria…

But almost four months without a cut is synonymous with disaster in terms of my curly mess of hair. I looked around online for a peluquería, or hair salon and found what I thought to be the best deal: a 24 euro cut at Luis&Tachi.

Yesterday afternoon I strolled into an empty Luis&Tachi on the Calle Alcalá. It’s a chain, only mildly swanky, but swanky enough for the guy who took my coat to give me a skeptical look when I took the tie out of my unwashed, untamed hair.

Then my stylist, María, sat me down in the chair for a champú (shampoo). She asked me if I wanted a hydrating champú. Of course! I won’t lie and say I’ve taken wonderful care of my hair while I’ve been here. And did I want conditioner? Yes. How ‘bout detangling serum? Surely.

Then came the cut. Do you want me to dry it? Um, why wouldn’t I want you to dry it? And for the style, you want me to do it straight? Why not. I’m going to put some anti-frizz products in there, too, OK? Yeah, do whatever you want, María, you’re a professional and I am incapable of keeping my hair under control.

An hour later I had a brilliantly chic, straight, face-framing look. (I relish in these after-style moments because I know I could never recreate them myself.) Satisfied? Yes, muchísimas gracias!

And then I got the bill.

The cut was 24 euros. But that hydrating champú was another few euros. And the conditioner, another few. And a blow dry? That costs extra, too. My ticket had a bunch of red checks next to the services I’d received and products she’d used. It tallied to 50,10 euros. (Let’s try not to convert that to dollars, please).

Granted, María did ask before she did anything to my ravaged hair. And my hair is kind of like Ground Zero even on good days. But I was not expecting to rack up that much of a tab.

Then María told me my hair was really dry and that I need to take better care of it. Ain’t that the truth. But then she tried to sell me that special champú and serum for 54 euros, and I politely declined.

I really miss my $35 wash, cut and style at my regular Highland Park salon with my favorite makeup-wearing male stylist. Sigh.

On normal Saturday afternoons old madrileñas stroll arm in arm down the street clad in their finest fur coats. It’s up to you to weave through them to get where you need to go. But on Sabado Santo they push you out of the way.

Never have I seen such sweet-looking old women turn so fierce. I got many an elbow to the ribs as those women crossed themselves in front of the statue of “Jesusito”. (Spaniards add “ito” or “ita” to the end of words as a term of endearment, kind of like we’d change “Jim” to “Jimmy”.) But I guess that’s the spirit of Holy Week.

It didn’t rain yesterday, so the Holy Saturday processions continued as normal. And those old women pushed their way up as close as they could. Good thing that at 5’7” I tower 4 inches over the average Spanish woman.

Although I had to stand my ground to keep me spot, the processions were certainly something.


The procession began at the Real Iglesia de San Ginés in Sol. After leaving the church, only the back of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad with her veil that dates back to the 18th century is visible.


I ran through the winding streets of Sol to find the beginning of the procession.

The story of the processions begins in 1521 when Spanish noble Marqués de Tarifa returned to Spain from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He instigated the celebration of Vía Crucis, or Stations of the Cross, with a small procession. Over the years, altars and statues grew in number and magnificence, and that evolved into the floats and processions we have today.

The procession begins with the guiding cross, the Cruz de Guía. Women wear La Mantilla, or a black lace mantel on the back of the head. They carry bibles or rosaries.


Nazarenos, or Nazarenes, clad in habits with pointy capirotes, or hoods, hold candles. In this case the candels were battery-powered. Diputados de tramo, also wearing the habit and capirote, keep the procession in line and in step. This Nazareno carries a crown of thorns.


Acólitos, or acolytes, burn incense. Then comes a large brass band with musicians of all ages. This little drummer was especially cute.


Other Nazarenos follow with drums.


The beat is so powerful it sounds like roaring thunder echoing off city buildings.


Then come the elaborate pasos, or floats, of Jesus and Mary. They’re carved mostly of wood and garnished with gold, and precious gems.


One carries three nails, symbolic of the Crucified Christ.


The Nazarenos sway to the beat of the drums as they carry the paso of Jesus on their shoulders.


Flowers also decorate the pasos.


Jesus is followed by Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. Tears can be seen on her face.


It’s one of the most ornate statues I’ve ever seen.


The procession passes by Madrid’s Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.


The red capirotes peak out over the mass of people watching the procession. (Yes, the hoods bear a striking resemblance to the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, but the Spaniards had them first.) The procession ends at the Cathedral of the Almudena next to the Palacio Real. Although the largest and most elaborate processions are in Sevilla and Málaga, Madrid’s didn’t fall short of spectacular. If you’re in the mood for an astounding cultural experience and can put up with feisty old ladies, check out the Semana Santa processions next year!

What have I gotten myself into?

We’ve got a five-day break starting tomorrow, and while most people will be sunning themselves on the beaches of Lisbon or pleasantly strolling the streets of London, I will be hiking 110 kilometers. Carrying the backpack. And a sleeping bag. And wearing a poncho. And not wearing makeup. HOT.

It’s called the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. It’s a whole network of pilgrimage routes from all over Europe to Santiago de Compostela, a city in northwestern Spain. This is the site of the tomb of apostle St. James. People have been traveling the Camino on foot or by horse (and now by bike) for more than 1000 years. Pilgrims walk all day through mountains and villages, and stay in homes, historic churches or hostels along the way.

We registered our pilgrimage at the national office in Madrid to receive our Credencial de Peregrino, or Pilgrim's Passport. We'll get it stamped at each town to track our progress and receive our pilgrims certificate when we reach Santiago de Compostela on Sunday. Peregrinos wear the shell with the cross around the neck to identify one another as pilgrims.

We registered our pilgrimage at the national office in Madrid to receive our Credencial de Peregrino, or Pilgrim's Passport. We'll get it stamped at each town to track our progress and receive our pilgrims certificate when we reach Santiago de Compostela on Sunday. Peregrinos wear the shell with the cross around the neck to identify one another as pilgrims.

In times of old, pilgrims walked to clear their consciences or as penance for their sins. Some were even sentenced to the Camino after committing a crime.

But Brooke, Theresa and I are not trying to punish ourselves by tackling such terrain (at least I hope not). Over the years the Camino has helped pilgrims a deep connection with God, the earth, and each other.

We’ll be three of almost 50,000 that walk one of the seven routes of the Camino de Santiago.

Our route, El Camino Inglés, is 110 kilometers (about 70 miles). That means we’ll be walking between 20 to 30 kilometers (12 to 18 miles) each day.

We’re catching a flight to Santiago de Compostela tomorrow morning, and then taking a bus northwest to Ferrol, where our pilgrimage begins. Then we’ll walk.

Gold clamshells on blue backgrounds painted on trees and buildings will guide us. The shell is the symbol of the Camino. It is said that while on his travels to preach in Spain, St. James saved a knight from drowning in the sea. The knight surfaced, alive, covered in shells.

Great story. I just hope these shells are clear enough to let me know where I’m going. (This is the girl who tried to train for her 110 km walk by running through Madrid, only to find herself lost every time).

Brooke and Theresa are better with directions. We’ll get to Santiago de Compostela by Sunday. As for right now, I’m going to sleep. We’ve got a long day of travel ahead of us. And I have to mentally prepare myself to cover my feet in Vaseline each morning and drain my blisters with a sewing needle each night.

But I am wonderfully excited to be one with the earth, and with God. And feel woman. And hear the stories of the hundreds of people walking the Camino right now.

Here's my Dora Backpack! In it you'll find a sleeping bag, a towel, two changes of clothes and some other essentials. You learn to pack light when you know you've got to carry it!

Here's my Dora Backpack! In it you'll find a sleeping bag, a towel, two changes of clothes and some other essentials. You learn to pack light when you know you've got to carry it!

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