Long Way Home

View from my window

December 18th was probably the longest night of my life. I mean literally. I’ve never been so far north, so close to the equinox. But figuratively it wasn’t a piece of cake, either.

To save money, I picked a cheap flight from Studentuniverse.com, even if it was a bit convoluted. In the end, I had to spend a short night in Bilbao, get up at 5 to get to the airport, fly to Madrid, transfer, fly to Miami, transfer again, and then fly home to Tampa. I was awake for a full 24 hours, and going through security twice and customs once and fighting stairs and busses with all my suitcases, they weren’t particularly pleasant, either.

At least I kept flying south – the bad winter Europe’s having is playing havoc with all airports north of about Paris, and when I was in Bilbao they kept delaying the flights to Germany and the U.K. by hours at a time.

As we neared Miami, the Spanish pilot came on the air and said, only in Spanish, “As you know, Iberian ham products of all kinds are prohibited in the United States. If you declare them, they will take them away. So, you have two choices – either you can not declare them, and take them home and enjoy them with your family for Christmas… or you can declare them, and we will take them home and do the same.”

Published in: on December 20, 2010 at 22:40  Comments (1)  

Snowed In!

Marketa and I had planned four days of road trips around Navarra, but then the snow came, and made the roads so icy that our friend Nerea’s parents couldn’t even get from Bilbao to Pamplona. We decided to play it safe and stay in instead, maybe for the best with finals approaching. We’re hoping to get out for 1-3 days next week…

Published in: on December 4, 2010 at 22:18  Leave a Comment  

Stage Three: Going Deeper

As I rapidly approach the end of my time in Spain, I can see that looking back my time here has fallen into three stages, each distinct and with its own challenges, triumphs, and small miracles.

Stage One: Crash Landing

On the day trip to San Sebastian, I ended up with three random girls - Lea from Austria, Cynthia from Germany, and Ida from Finland. The first two later became two of my best friends here in Spain.

From the time I arrived in Pamplona in August and had to spend the night at the bus station, to perhaps as late as the end of September, I was getting my bearings. Every day brought a new challenge, and while I took a few day trips to nearby cities, most of my energy was spent trying to figure out this new world I’d been placed in, whether that meant Spain in general, Pamplona and UNAV specifically, or even the entire Erasmus situation. In the first weeks, I didn’t know how to get an ID card or use the school’s WIFI or library. I carried a map just to get across town. I had no idea who my friends were going to be or what classes I was going to be in. The world around me was a giant swirling chaos that I was trying to make sense of, one element at the time – the months ahead, a blank state filled with dizzying potential and a bit of fear. I felt tired a lot during this period, and nervous, and stupid. Sometimes I even felt angry. I didn’t really feel homesick, though – I was too busy for that, and everything was still so new that even when it was frustrating or frightening it was terribly exciting. Hardly a day passed where I didn’t, at different times, feel that I could do nothing right, and that I could take over the world single-handedly.

Stage Two: Far and Away

I spent some amazing days in Galicia with Sara and Colleen. Very rainy, a little stressful, but amazing.

Then, everything changed. Suddenly all the important things had finally been settled, and I knew how to get by. I trusted myself to be able to figure things out and handle day to day activities competently. Classes were in full swing, but exams were still far off and I didn’t have any big projects yet. Spain – or, at least, Pamplona – was starting to feel like home. As summer turned to autumn, I began to look around me for activities to fill my new life. I joined Club de Montaña and went canyoning in Aragon, climbed a Pyrenean mountain, and hiked through the Selva de Irati. I visited a friend in Alicante, partied in Madrid, explored Asturias and Galicia, went surfing in France and saw a U2 concert in San Sebastian. This was certainly the most exciting part of my time in Spain, and to outward appearances my happiest. In reality, though, not every day was storied ex-pat bliss. Travelling is stressful, after all, and although every time I set off for a new adventure I was buzzing with excitement, there were always busses and hostels to coordinate, budgets to keep an eye on, and schoolwork to make up (or at least feel guilty for missing). The stress hit at funny times – some mornings I felt nervous for no reason, other times I fretted over how quickly time was going by, and, I admit it, at the midway point I even felt a little bit homesick. After the first weeks I became more aware at how time was continuing without me back home, that I was missing birthdays and holidays and entire seasons of real life.

Stage Three: Going Deeper

Safe at home is sometimes right where you want to be during a northern Spanish winter.

In early November, things changed again. Winter arrived and brought with it freezing temperatures and the approaching threat of final exams. A homing instinct kicked in and I stopped my boundless wandering and returned to Pamplona, more or less for good. These practical concerns were a blessing, though, because when I stopped moving around so often, I started going deeper into life at home.  A few of my Spanish contacts began to develop into something like friends, and my group of Erasmus friends became tighter and more familiar and comfortable. I learned how to cook regional specialities, I got a library card, I found some volunteer work at a nearby Basque high school. I took some short trips around Navarra, my home state, and was amazed anew at the variety and beauty tucked into such a small area. With a new sense of stability (not to mention a plane ticket in hand to go home for Christmas) the last traces of fear and uncertainty left. My life in Spain began to feel totally normal, even routine – and that – to watch a foreign country lose its foreignness – to see it become home – is a magical thing, a miracle – and it might even be the best argument for studying abroad.

Las Bibliotecas Publicas de Pamplona

Today I finally got a library card. I don’t know why I didn’t do so earlier – I wasn’t sure where the libraries were, I was afraid there would be some complicated proof-of-residency required… and I guess it just seemed too complicated to deal with.

It’s not. Civivox, the big building near my flat that often serves as a meeting place, is apparently a multi-purpose community center with, among other things, a pool and a library. All they needed was a look at my passport and a wallet sized photo, and I’m now free to check out books and dvds. If I’m not missing something, the library’s quite small compared to the ones I’m used to back home – but there are several within Pamplona that seem to have different collections, and the same library card is good at all of them.

They’re quite flexible about the wallet sized photo, by the way. I cut up a photo I had pinned  up in my closet to make one I thought would be far too small of my face – they took it without a comment. Better yet, I found (ex post facto) that you can apply online: http://www.navarra.es/AppsExt/opac/abnetcl.exe/O7054/ID005a0837?ACC=101

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 18:54  Leave a Comment  
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The Center of the World

I’ve been having some trouble with Google since I arrived in Spain. Namely, Google thinks I should be Spanish, and automatically redirects me to Google.es when I type in Google.com, complete with Spanish language results first. Sometimes – like when I’m working on a project here – this is useful. But most of the time it’s just annoying. Besides, it would be easy enough for me to choose Google.es by typing THAT in – but since the U.S. version seems to be the default, I couldn’t figure out an easy way to stay there. I was using Google.co.uk (the British version) for a while, and this worked well… for the most part.

The most unsettling part of the redirect for me was Google Maps. I’m so used to opening that up and having it centered automatically on the United States, with Missouri conveniently near the center of that. But now it was showing me Europe, and I was having to drag the map a few thousand miles west if I wanted to remember the exact distance between St. Louis and Columbia. It’s such a funny thing, a random thing – of course European countries don’t want the U.S. map as default… but without thinking about it, I’d accepted that we were the center of the world, and part of me was shocked every time that Google.co.uk would center me on London, or Google.es on Madrid.

Well, today I finally bothered to look up a more official way to stay in good old familiar American Google. There are a few options: http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=873. I typed in Google as http://www.google.com/ncr, and since then haven’t had any troubles…. my browser even seems to remember that I really do want the American version.

Published in: on November 10, 2010 at 11:50  Leave a Comment  

Winter is Coming

A Spider on my Window

Today the thermometer by the bus station read +1 degree. Celsius, of course, and the thermometer at the gas station was a few degrees warmer, but that’s still pretty chilly. The weather here is generally comparable to Missouri, but what I’m hearing is that it’s a cold October on both sides of the ocean. Someone’s even found a news article predicting Europe’s coldest winter for 1,000 years. Yikes.

But it’s still nice in the afternoons, when the sun is shining. We’ve so far had less rain than I expected, so that’s a blessing too. Really, if the heat in my apartment was a little bit better, I’d be coping fine so far. The heating is central, so the powers that be turn it on or off for the entire building at once. They waited as long as they could to admit that winter was coming, but now I notice that my radiator is warm in the evenings sometimes. An improvement, but I’ll be happier when and if they decide to turn it on in the mornings – it’s hard enough to get out of bed when you don’t have to freeze while putting on your clothes, and lately I’ve been crawling back into bed to warm up after I get them on!

Eroski Curry

One thing I definitely need to get through a winter is a steady supply of curry, so I spent some time coming up with a recipe for an easy one I could make with ingredients from Eroski – Heat up some oil, add some cumin and a chopped onion. Cook for a while until the onion is translucent. Add three cloves garlic, chopped finely. Add a lot of red pepper powder, a lot of curry powder, and a little cinnamon. Add a can of crushed tomato and a single serving of unflavoured yoghurt. Let cook and thicken for a while, add salt and honey to taste, and the juice of one lemon. Serve with any sort of vegetables or meat that you have lying around.

Published in: on October 22, 2010 at 10:03  Leave a Comment  

A Little Eustress

Today I came home a bit stressed out, but sometimes that happens, and sometimes that’s a good thing, when you let it get you moving. I called my mom since I hadn’t talked to her properly since I arrived, and needed to know what was going on at home, and what I was going to do for winter break. I bought a calendar and started plotting due dates and exam times. I checked my bank account and planned out a budget. I tidied up a bit and will do my laundry as soon as the washer is free. All things that needed to be done, I can’t keep running from them like I’m just here for a two week vacation.

Published in: on October 1, 2010 at 17:11  Leave a Comment  

Caveat Lector

Add these things to the list of things they should tell us during orientation here, but eschew in favour of jokes and ice breakers:

1.) Books can only be checked out for 7 days at a time.

2.) Fines are 1 euro – per day, per book

3.) They do not cap the late fee at the value of the book

4.) You cannot renew books if they are overdue

5.) Once you return a book to the desk, they may take their sweet time checking it back in, and not backdate it.


About two weeks ago I went to the library and checked out two books for my classes. Yesterday, I realized that, although it was hard to remember as time passes strangely here, I thought it had been about two weeks since I checked them out, so, relaxing under the assumption that the lending rules would be at least somewhat similar to those in America, I walked over to the library and pulled up my account.

I had 24€ in late fees. 1€, per book, per day… and they’d only been checked out for a week, as I’ve subsequently learned is how they do things here. Which is great, you know, as I need the books for about a month, and had had them a bit more than two. I also couldn’t renew them, as they were already overdue. Anxious to avoid putting two more euros on top of that, as the dollar keeps getting weaker on top of everyting else, I ran all the way home, got the books, and ran all the way back to return them before the library closed. I needn’t have bothered. Today, I watched and waited for them to be checked into the system, but at least I was sure they’d be backdated. Nope – they’re listed as having been returned today, and another day overdue. Having worked in a library, I’m frankly disgusted by this last detail. You just don’t do that. You backdate, even when you’re not sure.

I was not pleased and not very willing to pay the fine. The flimsy paperback books would have cost me about 5$ each in America, and here I was paying twice that because I kept them what should have been a few days too long. I was tempted to just stop using the library’s lending services, as I suspect that I could flee the country and the debt at the end of the semester as long as I kept myself out of sight and mind. But the more I thought about it, the more it just wasn’t practical… I need access to the books for my literature class, in English, and, as an undergraduate, I’m not even allowed to use books in-library without checking them out.

I went grumbling to the desk to pay my fine. There, to add insult to injury, the man working there seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. I told him I wanted to pay my fines, that I had returned some books late and had to pay. He told me that I didn’t have to pay to return books, and kept getting more and more confused. Finally, I tried to explain as slowly and clearly as I could, “I had some books, and I returned them too late, so now I have to pay. I can’t check out a new book, because I owe the library money. So, I want to pay the money now. Where should I go for that?” He still didn’t get it, which just boggled my mind. What he finally did do was ask for my card, and try to check out a random book under it. There was a block on my account, which seemed to really confuse him and which he expected to confuse me equally. The funny part is that they use Millennium, the same book-keeping program the library I used to work at did, and I was pretty sure from watching him use it that I could do the job better than he does. Finally, he told me that the block would expire next Friday, so if I needed books before then I should just use my friends’ cards. Lovely.

Published in: on October 1, 2010 at 16:22  Leave a Comment  
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Food Costs and Budgeting

Estimates I’ve found online for grocery budgets seem to vary widely, and that probably has to do with whether meals out are included under food or entertainment, which region of Spain the figure has been calculated for, and, obviously, what you’re eating. My food budget here is approximately 75€ a week, ideally covering all groceries and the majority of meals out. That’s less than some of the estimates I’ve seen, but more than others. Even once I consider that I’m living in Navarra, one of Spain’s more expensive regions, and that when I go over on my entertainment budget, it comes out of my grocery funds, it’s enough to live on. Food is pretty cheap here – not Missouri Walmart cheap, unfortunately, but a nice relief for me after having done groceries in Western and (god forbid) Northern Europe.

How much do things cost, and how can you save money?


As a really rough rule of thumb, most of my standard foods cost about 1€ for a week’s worth. Big cans of tomato sauce or chickpeas, packages of mushrooms, onions, or carrots, bags of frozen peas, corn, or croquettes, eight servings of yoghurt, etc all run about that much, and most of the things that last me a bit longer, like nutella, or spreadable Camembert, cost a proportional amount more. Microwaveable meals like a serving of paella (which is surprisingly good, if a bit greasy) are about 1.50€. An enormous and amazing bar of Milka Trio Chocolate costs about 2.60€, you can easily find smaller bars of tasty chocolate for under a euro.

Grocery Stores:

The main grocery stores here are Eroski, Caprabo, Carrefour, and Corte Ingles. The first two are everywhere, while to my knowledge there is only one Corte Ingles and only one or two Carrefours. Eroski is the closest one to me and is pretty cheap and standard. Caprabo is about the same. I still haven’t been to Carrefour, but apparently it’s bigger, carries a wider range of products (not just food), and is marginally cheaper. Corte Ingles is a big department store with a grocery section in the basement – there’s a nice wide range there including foreign foods and gourmet products, but everything’s also a bit pricier. Another option are the Chinos, or convenience stores – a bit pricier, generally more junk food, but hey, they sometimes have foreign foods, and they’re open at night and on Sundays.

Store Brands:

It sounds obvious, but go for the store brand of foods. It’s fine, trust me. I may not have the world’s most sophisticated palate, but even if there is a slight difference in the taste, it’s certainly not worth the huge price difference. Bags of frozen croquettes and peas both cost roughly 2.50€, if you go for the brand name versions – not unbearably pricey, no, but the Eroski counterparts cost only 0.80€! Eroski brand yoghurts are 8 for a euro – the other brands are often 2 for the same price. These are some of the more dramatic differences, but even for things like canned fruits and vegetables it’s unusual for the Eroski brand to be more than half the price of the brand name. Take advantage of the fact that you are a foreigner and don’t have years of subliminal advertising trying to convince you that the can of tomato sauce with the kindly old woman on the packaging is worth an extra euro! Like I said, this sounds obvious, but I’ve noticed many of my Erasmus friends unconsciously going for the pretty packages. There are exceptions to this tip. I do pay an extra 0.50€ for Don Simon fruit juice, because it has almost 5x the vitamin C content of the Eroski brand.


Meat tends to be more expensive here, and its everywhere when you eat out, so as a very general rule I’ve been getting my protein in the restaurants and cooking semi-vegetarian at home. Still, it’s not as bad as you might be led to think. My favourite way to buy chicken are these little neatly trimmed breast fillets – you get eight of them, very thin but a snap to prepare – for about 4€, which would be the equivalent of paying about 2.50$ per big breast back home. Don’t quote me on this, but I also have the feeling that if you shop around, seafood might actually be cheaper here than in Missouri, land-locked as we are. It’s hard to tell, though, through the currency conversions and the differences in how things are packaged (the shrimp are usually sold with heads and tails still on, meaning you sometimes feel like you’re buying a lot more than you end up with once you take those parts off).

Cafes and Bakeries:

If you go to the school cafe and order a piece of Tortilla Española with cheese and ham, you’ll pay just over a euro, and if you get a coffee and a big chocolate pastry, you’ll pay about 1.50€, a small but nice savings over the 2.00 – 2.50€ you’ll pay in an ordinary cafe. Bakeries are great here – you can get a freshly baked load of crusty bread for less than a euro, and quite a bit less than you would pay for a loaf of wonder bread at the grocery store (it’s surprisingly overpriced here, probably because no one wants it when they can get better, cheaper bread across the street.)


If you want to eat a meal out with friends, you can go to a bar and get tapas for between 1 and 2 euros, although you really need to eat several to get full. It’s quite fun and allows you to try a variety of different foods. Another dinner option is a sit down restaurant, which usually have a Menu del Dia, which allows you to pick a starter, a main course, and a dessert from a few choices. The prices vary tremendously, but along the lower end 12€ is a pretty good estimate, and for that you get a lot of food.

Published in: on September 22, 2010 at 20:50  Leave a Comment  
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Already Only a Month

It’s the last day of the solar summer. September is drawing to a close, and that means I’ve been on this exchange for nearly a month. It doesn’t feel like it. Depending on the time of the day, who I’m talking to, what I’m doing, it seems like I’ve been here forever, or like I’ve only just arrived. Never like I’ve been here for a month. And yet, I’ve now spent more time in Spain than in any other foreign country – longer than in Japan or Scotland. The time spent so far has been less action packed than a month of pure tourism, but not nearly as routine as life back home.

It’s funny now, to remember how I arrived in Spain after spending the night in the Manchester airport, how Allan and I wandered through Barcelona for two days as if in a dream, meeting up with Emily in Valencia for Tomatina and the beach, and then spending another long, sleepless night in route to Pamplona. I was happy to have Allan with me for the first few days here, as I moved into my apartment, walked around Pamplona for the first time, as a stranger, and even impulsively visited Puente la Reina based on a single photo in the train station. And then, Allan left, and suddenly I was totally alone, and far from home.

I took things one step at a time, with some challenges leaving me triumphant and others in a pathetic heap, but I got everything straightened out, in the end. I went through orientation, picked classes, matriculated, found my way around campus and groups for projects. I got a hair cut and learned where I could find this food and that and for what price. I learned how to use WIFI and the copy machine and the library and the bookstore. I’ve adjusted to Sundays and Siestas.

I made friends and we had curry parties and pancake parties and long nights drinking wine on apartment balconies. We travelled to San Sebastian and Vitoria and Bilbao. I met up with a girl from Couchsurfing.com and went to a Basque concert with her and her friends. I started learning Euskera. I went hiking in the Valley of Arpan, explored Alquezar and went canyoning in la Sierra de Guara with Club de Montana.

If I put it this way, yes, I suppose it has been one month. And yet one morning when I didn’t have class until 12, I lay in and when I woke up, it took me several long seconds to remember I was in Spain, because everything felt so normal and natural and safe and clean and good. I’ve found a new normal, made a new home here.

Not bad, for the first month.