my 2014 “crisis country challenge”

This year, I’ll have visited four of five countries in the Eurozone that are facing economic crises: Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Italy (just missing Ireland). If I got a free space, I could win Crisis Bingo!

In the fall of 2011, when the fiscal stuff really hit the fan, I was in a macroeconomics class in which we learned about exactly why everything was going wrong for these countries, especially Greece. Every day we came into our lecture having heard more grim news about how badly these countries were doing, which made for great educational fodder, though it seems that three years later things are still moving pretty slowly due to the crisis. It’s referenced quite liberally in Spain and Portugal, as I learned when I was there.

I didn’t plan my trips this year around visiting the crisis countries, but it did happen to work out that way, and now I’m approaching this from a humanitarian perspective. Germany is funding me this year, so I’m introducing my German money to these countries’ economies as I travel. Looks like I’m staging my own personal European stimulus! You’re welcome, depressed Mediterranean countries!

I’m headed to Greece this week, where I will attend my first professional conference and be as far east as I ever have in my life. I’m looking forward to views of ancient monuments and pristine Mediterranean waters, cheaper prices, and warmer weather! Coming up on the blog while I’m gone is a series of posts that have been in the works for a long time. I hope you enjoy them!


"Avila at night"

“Avila at night”

Avila is about halfway between Madrid and Salamanca, and I’m so excited I had the opportunity to go! I can’t say I’m an expert on St. Teresa of Avila, but I’ve recently started learning more about her and reading some of her writings, and after seeing Ávila I’m inspired to learn more!

After arriving in Avila on Sunday, we started the day with Mass at the cathedral, which is pretty much the best way to get into beautiful churches for free! The Mass wasn’t in the main nave, but rather in a side chapel, which was still gorgeous but smaller and probably a bit warmer (it was really cold, especially compared to Portugal the previous day!). It turned out that they were presenting two catechumens who will receive their sacraments at Easter, which was cool.


**Tangent alert**

Mass was in Spanish, and unlike the previous Sunday, I hadn’t remembered to look at the readings beforehand, so I had low expectations about what I would understand. But, to my surprise, I was willing to make out key words in the 1st reading and the Gospel that clued me into what was going on! The Spanish words for “serpent” and “fruit” are cognates, so I pin-pointed the 1st reading as Genesis right away; everyone in Texas at least knows that “diablo” means “devil,” and my 1 semester of Spanish allowed me to understand “40 days and 40 nights,” so I made an educated guess at the temptation of Jesus in the desert for the Gospel.

I thought about this pleasant surprise as I followed the Mass under my breath in English, and I realized an important skill I’ve developed since living in Germany… the ability to tolerate not understanding everything I hear and to focus more on understanding what I can instead of getting frustrated. I know this probably sounds like small potatoes, but if you understand what I’m talking about, you know that this is a big deal. Not every word is always important, and once you’re okay with understanding only the general gist of things instead of being a perfectionist all the time, getting along in another language is much easier and lower pressure!

**Tangent over**

After Mass we took to the walls! Avila is a medieval city that’s still completely walled, which is actually pretty rare, from what I can tell. So for about 7 Euros with a student discount, we were able to walk about 60% of the city’s perimeter, taking in gorgeous views of the old city inside the walls, the new city outside, and the surrounding countryside. Our walk was narrated by these only-somewhat-functional audio guides:


What they lacked in functional consistency, they made up for in style.

We were most entertained by a story about a local town hero/saint from the medieval days, who, after his death, was put on the back of a burro that was then charged with deciding on an appropriate burial place for the holy man. It just sounded like such a ridiculous premise that I joked mid-story that the burro probably died once arriving at the place… and it turns out that I was right! History is strange, or at least what we choose to remember of it is.


Also entertaining was the fact that “Teresa of Avila” narrated about half of the tour… for a 16th-century Spanish nun, she sure spoke impeccable English!

Once we had walked the touristic portion of the wall, we debated between getting lunch and going to see the Carmelite convent where St. Teresa had lived. We decided on lunch (and it ended up being quite the ordeal finding somewhere affordable to eat) and, after a typical, long, filling Spanish lunch, we finally headed to the convent… to find that it was closed for siesta. Spain…


Luckily, the convent would open soon enough for us to have time to see all the rooms and exhibits and still make it to the bus station in time for our return trip. We took a short little siesta on a plaza bench and enjoyed the beautiful, and by then warmer, weather.

Eventually the church opened back up and we looked around inside. The sanctuary was simple and beautiful. I lit a candle for a family member who’s been in my prayers lately, and then we moved on into the reliquary, where we could see a number of St. Teresa’s relics (first and second class), some of her personal writings, and the document by which Pope Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church.


Finally, we entered the convent, which has been converted into a St. Teresa museum. We got to see lots of artistic depictions of “La Santa,” some more of her personal effects, and learn about her biography. One fascinating thing I learned about was a particular spiritual gift she received during her lifetime: the transverberation of her heart. This basically means that she received the grace to feel her heart pierced as Jesus’ was; this was part of her Spiritual Marriage with Christ. (As I was just researching this online, I found out that when St. Teresa’s heart was examined after her death, they found an actual puncture wound in it!) There were some really fascinating artistic depictions of this.

No pictures were allowed in the museum, but here’s an example via Google!

Many parts of the exhibit were also dedicated to St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa’s co-founder of the Discalced Carmelites during the Carmelite Reform. I think it’s so fascinating that two great saints and Doctors of the Church were able to have such a close friendship during their lifetimes. It makes me wonder which of my friends will be this generation’s great saints! Pressure’s on, peeps! 


salamanca (the highlights)

I spent about 10 days in Salamanca, because that’s where Daniel is studying. It felt initially like a looooong time to spend in one place. (I got to know the staff of my hostel very well.) Because it was an extended trip, it was much more like visiting my boyfriend than being a tourist, and we had a wonderful time!

I’m sure you don’t want to read a play-by-play recap, and neither do I want to write one, so I won’t. I’ll just tell you about what we did!

We ate. A lot. We ate churros and chocolate, montaditos and bocadillos, jamón and chorizo and lomo, every under-10-Euro lunch menu in town, paella, tapas, gelato, and lots of bread. DSC04164DSC04225

We drank. We especially enjoyed the “cubito” deals at various cervecerías that get you a bucket of 5 bottles of beer for just a few Euros. We searched everywhere for sangría and finally found it. We scored an entire bottle of wine with our 6.50 lunch special one day and walked out of the restaurant quite tipsy. DSC04397DSC04166

We walked. The streets of Salamanca are winding and a little confusing, but we didn’t care if we got lost (except if we were on our way to catch a bus). We searched for and finally found the little hidden garden behind the cathedral. We walked across the Roman Bridge to get a good view of the whole city. DSC04191DSC04177DSC04096DSC04398

We saw beautiful buildings. Salamanca’s skyline is dominated by a HUGE cathedral, which is actually two cathedrals in one. We didn’t actually see it together (on the inside), because we procrastinated and I ended up going to daily Mass on my last day to see it for free!DSC04207DSC04402

We took a tour of the Pontifical University, an old Jesuit school and seminary, and enjoyed stunning views from the domes.DSC04122DSC04108

One of the city’s iconic buildings is the Casa de las Conchas, the Shell Building, which is a public library. I (sometimes) worked there in the mornings while Daniel was in class.DSC04154DSC04158

And of course the University, which is turning 800 years old in 2018. We met there every day after Daniel was done with his classes. We found the frog (with some help). DSC04181DSC04183

We lounged. We people-watched. We talked and enjoyed each other’s company. It was a wonderful, wonderful time. DSC04409

And I was wrong. It wasn’t a long time, or it didn’t seem like it. It went by in a second.

madrid! (also, happy 3 year blogiversary to me!)

My trip to Spain was probably my most-anticipated trip of the year because I finally got to see this guy after 5 months of being apart:


And then we spent 2 whole weeks together, which we figured out is as long as every time we’ve been together since June combined. We saw Madrid, Salamanca (where Daniel is studying until May), Avila, and Porto, Portugal. It was a long trip and I couldn’t possibly write about it all at once! But I guess I need to start somewhere…

I arrived in Madrid Wednesday evening. Because I have to take a bus to Berlin when I want to fly anywhere, my travel times aren’t the most efficient, but this time it wasn’t so bad: 2 hours on a bus, 2 hours waiting in the airport, 2.5 hours in the plane. Daniel met me at the airport accompanied by his dad and his uncle, who lives in Madrid, and they drove us back to the family’s apartment. Daniel has met some of my extended family when they’ve visited Austin, and it was nice to meet some of his, even if there was somewhat of a language barrier.

Because I was hungry and tired (a bad combination) after my trip, we went to dinner at about 9 pm… really early for Spaniards! My first introduction to Spanish food was a mix-and-match meal of different sandwiches, and some really good Spanish beer.


At the suggestion of Daniel’s cousin, we checked out a “free” tour on Thursday morning that took us all around old Madrid. We saw the Plaza Mayor, the world’s oldest restaurant, the old city hall, the cathedral, and the royal palace, among other sights, and  learned about the history of Madrid. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable, and the city has a fascinating history: it has been ruled by Moors (the founders of the city), Spaniards, and a long line of Austrian Hapsburgs/Holy Roman Emperors, who were replaced by the French once they inbred themselves out of existence.


After the tour, we took the Metro to the newer part of town to check out some of the city’s main streets.  The city is organized in a system of streets and plazas, the largest of which is named after Columbus which contains a statue of the man himself, probably the world’s biggest Barclays bank,  and a giant Spanish flag. We found a reasonably priced lunch menu near the new city hall and enjoyed some salmon (for me), veal meatballs (for Daniel), and the first of several questionable Spanish mixed salads.


Our next stop was the Retiro Gardens, a large park in the eastern part of the city. It was a really beautiful day, and we enjoyed people-watching, taking photos, and catching up with each other while the weather was nice.

We had heard from our tour guide that some of the museums were free after 6:30, so we made our way to the famous Prado art museum only to learn that it would have been free all day for students. Regardless, we spent a good hour and a half admiring the work of famous Spanish artists, the most famous being El Greco, whose work was stunning in person. I am a huge fan of sacred art and loved seeing so many works depicting Biblical stories and saints. St. Sebastian is always really popular, but this time there was a lot of love for St. Bernard.

Unfortunately, we had both chosen style over comfort when it came to our shoe selection that day, so we were in serious pain by this point. We staggered (after tragically getting lost to the tune of a few blocks) to the nearest Metro station, and after much complaining we made it back to the apartment mostly in one piece. We found an affordable Asian restaurant, laughed at ourselves for eating Chinese/Thai/whatever food in Madrid, enjoyed a dessert of Spanish chocolate, and watched some 30 Rock before calling it a day.

Because we had seen most of the big sights on Day 1, we started the next morning by retracing a few of our steps to the opera/palace area. We said hello to our “friends”, the statues of Spanish kings that were supposed to go on the roof of the palace but are instead scattered around Spain, in this case in the park next to the palace. We took a second look at the cathedral, which is known for its architectural oddness, and took a walk across the bridge to the basilica, which we hadn’t seen on our tour. It is a giant building, and although we had to pay to go in (major European pet peeve), we also got a fantastic tour that guided us through all the side chapels and frescos.


Of course, in Madrid the plazas are the points of orientation, so we headed to a major one we hadn’t seen yet. Plaza España has a huge Don Quixote statue (the pride of Spain!) and a few impressive buildings that were puzzling in that we couldn’t figure out what exactly they were. We found ourselves walking down Gran Via, literally Madrid’s main street, searching for a “very cheap” restaurant that had been recommended by Daniel’s cousin. And it did not disappoint: 5 beers for 3 Euro and enough fried food to fill both of us for a week, probably. I got to try some eels… they were okay. And of course fried calamari is always wonderful.


We continued our trek down Gran Via… I bought a few postcards, we scoped out the different shops and restaurants, and we (I…) developed an insatiable appetite for ice cream. However, by the time we decided to follow through on the craving, it had been about half an hour since we had seen an actual ice cream shop, and we couldn’t agree on where we thought it had been! So we made a bet about who would be right and split up in search of the alleged ice cream. I ended up having to buy Daniel’s ice cream because I was wrong, but it was worth it because it was delicious.

One really interesting thing about Madrid is how unimpressive it is. Don’t mistake that for discontent with the trip… Madrid really is a charming town, but it is not a European capital on the level of London, Berlin, Paris, or Vienna. It started as a fortress protecting nearby Toledo, and even once the Spanish empire became incredibly rich, most of the fortunes were funneled into Toledo and Seville. For my purposes, it ended up being good that Madrid isn’t a gigantic, bustling metropolis, because on Saturday morning we departed for Salamanca!