Sunday, May 15, 2016

Valencia in two days

The best trips always end up with the most unconventional beginnings. On Monday, while sitting at Google Campus Madrid studying for an employment law test, I someone ended up booking a bla bla car to Valencia with a friend. Fast forward to Friday (with hours of study, saying goodbye to a friend, a stressful run to a train station for a mis-scheduled Skype, concerns about cancelling the journey because my travel bud was really sick on Thursday) and I was nearly at the meeting point in Atocha Railway Station when I got a text from travel bud to say that the bla bla car driver had cancelled the journey because something had gone wrong with his car.

Plan B put into action - me taking the metro to Sol (then sneakily getting a much needed flat white from my favourite café) then frantically whatsapping my friend to try and arrange another bla bla car. Within one hour we were on the road to Valencia with Miguel (the driver), a very tanned Spanish woman with frightening white teeth and bleached hair, and in a very comfortable Mercedes car. The joys of car-sharing.

Right from getting off the bus into town and stepping on the smooth tiled pedestrian footpath in the old quarter of the town, Valencia had won my heart. Don't hate me Madrid, but this city is incredible. How common is it to walk past old streets with balconied apartments, flowers, plants, oh - and just the odd castle thrown in there. Super chill, Valencia. 

We wandered around the city, lunched at a fairly generic Spanish restaurant, had cake at an amazing café, and ambled down to the main architectural attraction there, La Ciudad de Las Artes y Las Ciencias. This is the futuristic looking complex that probably springs to mind when you think of Valencia (unless you're a kiwi and reminiscing that time we won the America's Cup there #maynotbefactuallycorrect).

That was one of those moments when you pinch yourself and wonder if you're dreaming. Obviously I wasn't, but it was such an incredible place. Architecture is lord. I can't get over how some people can design something that has such an impact on human behaviour. Cheers to the architects Santiago Calatreva and Felix Candela, you did good. The complex was enormous, with two man-made lakes where people were rowing and playing in inflatable zorbs. Some thousand-odd schoolchildren were rehearsing for a performance so initially we heard drums and choir singing when we got there, resonating over the complex. After they finished up, a stage in the middle of one of the lakes started hosting bands - a dixie band and an electronic group. We also went to one of the high school exhibits and got to try out an oculus rift that a class of 14 year old high school students had programmed. Amazing stuff. Living up to the name of the City of the Arts and Sciences.

Genuinely living up to the reputation of being perpetually lost
The oculus rift experience

Someone several hours zoomed past and we decided to go back to the hostel, swap bags/change clothes and get a glass of Spanish red. That's how we ended up sitting in a quiet courtyard at 10pm on Friday night, sipping on Rioja and eating a fantastic goat's cheese salad. Then helping (well, not me, I don't speak Dutch) some Dutch tourists order Irish coffee instead of the glass of ice they were given.

Unfortunately, not everything was dream-worthy. We were actually quite tired and went to sleep early-ish, given we'd had quite a big day. I was woken up at 2.30am after dreaming that the poles in my bunk bed were stuffed with sliced capsicums (yes, really) by about 50 high school students who had arrived home and decided to shout in the hallways, walked around incessantly, knock on each other's doors and generally make as much noise as possible when coming back from who-knows-what. Eventually I got out of bed and tried to tell them in Spanish to be quiet, but didn't get anywhere because at that point only four of them were actually in the hallway. Another half hour later of more noise and I finally got to sleep. 

So, day two and the last day in Valencia. We'd walked a lot on day one and decided that it appeared to be a very bike-friendly city. This time we set out on two wheels and managed to get everywhere we wanted to go significantly faster. There was a fantastic indoor market - absolutely enormous - and while it was quite touristy, old Spanish men and women wandered round with their shopping trolleys buying their jamón, bread and cheese. We also managed a visit to the botanic gardens, which were the essence of tranquility right in the middle of the city. They also had dozens of cats, which was also something I appreciated. Cats and plants are two wonderful things.

Goal two was to get to the port and have paella at Pepico, apparently one of the best places there is to eat Paella. We made it down the long straight road to the port and cycled along the marina. There we could see super yachts, party yachts, smaller yachts, the Emirates Team NZ shed, many other tourists cycling, yellow sand, and dozens of restaurants lined up along the beachfront.

The Emirates Team NZ shed in the background
After a twenty minute wait to be seated (what are reservations?) we finally were content with pan con tomate, white wine and the knowledge that our paella was simmering somewhere in the depths of the vast restaurant. When it came out 1/2 an hour later, it was perfect. A crust of saffron-y rice on top, juicy prawns and seafood, and still very hot in the huge flat pan. Somehow there was a line of tourists forming in front of the restaurant, which made it taste even better - knowing we had arrived at the right time and were seated right at the front of the place, with the best views.

Our second bla bla car had cancelled on us by then, so we'd also booked another one, who wanted to leave an hour earlier than he published on the website. We raced back home on our bikes, but even that wasn't necessarily a drama. There's a huge park that spans the city, home to joggers, picnic-ers, a great bike lane, wisteria and fuschia trees, and cool dogs. So we cycled through that back to our hostel, got our bags, got on the bus, and arrived at the meeting point with time to spare.

The driving-places part of travelling is never boring when you're in another country because of the beauty of the scenery. Spain is a seriously beautiful country. My travel bud probably got quite sick of me getting excited every time I saw wind turbines, but the juxtaposition of those with the intensely clouded yet still blue sky, the sunlight hitting the fields and the occasional grape vines growing was incredible. Our driver this time had great taste in Spanish rock, so it was a dream-worthy trip home.

Then we were back in Madrid, arriving in the heat of the festivities of San Isidro. The crazy thing was the location of my friends' apartment - two of them lived right on Plaza Mayor, where a stage had been constructed to host some of the performances during the festival. After stopping by the supermarket to buy olives, jamón, bread, cheese, tomatoes and red wine, we got through the police checkpoint by showing housekeys (they weren't letting any more spectators into the square), climbed the stairs and arrived at the apartment, which was already echoing with the sounds from the stage below us.

Thousands of people were gathered there, anticipating Nick Jonas's performance plus some other famous artists. Arronchupa was one (do you know the Albatross song? That got performed live). We sat on the balcony and watched the spectacle, comfortable on chairs and cushions and slightly amazed that this. was. happening. right. there. In the morning there were also more performances, this time it was traditional flamenco (which I still actually hadn't seen yet). I couldn't get over how Spanish Sunday morning was. Eating jamón while watching flamenco - then going out for churros con chocolate - then getting in a crowded metro full of Spaniards in traditional dress, buying bread from the grandpa-cute man at the bakery below my apartment, who even let me walk away without paying (an IOU instead) because I didn't have the right change.

And that brings me to the end of the weekend. 

Also - a call for advice. Has anyone travelled around Europe after studying abroad on a NZ passport? I'm overly confused and lacking the right information (despite looking into it for hours) about travel in and out of the Schengen Zone, what happens when my student visa expires and I'm still in Europe (to name a few of my qualms). Please get in contact if you have!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Not Smart-agena in Cartagena

I don't say 'no' very often. This is why, three weeks later, my skin is still peeling from lying for several hours in a bikini on a beach in the sun in Cartagena (not to be confused with Cartagena, Colombia, which I'm sure is also a nice place to visit). Even when the ozone layer really exists, the sun can still burn. So I learnt.

Cartagena came about because we noticed buses weren't too expensive there, accomodation looked reasonable too, and there were some nice pictures on Google Images of Roman ruins and the aforementioned beaches.

Photograph of said Roman ruins

Suddenly there were four of us, frantically texting one another to find out how to get to the bus platform, one minute before the bus was due to depart. And on the bus we went and into the depths of the region of Murcia in the south of Spain. The bus had free wi-fi, which would have been nice to know one minute into the trip instead of finding out when I was getting off the bus in Cartagena.

Quick shout-out to the scenery - incredible. You did good. Spain's landscape is every changing - sharp green mountains, ranges, desert-y with palm trees, it has it all. Also expanses of wind turbines, which made the greenie in me very happy.

We arrived in Cartagena, made many unsuccessful attempts to navigate to a bus stop on Google Maps, then finally found the right stop and headed away from the city centre and up, up, up to a rather shabby part of town reminiscent of the desert town where I spent a year as a teen in Chile.

I rather liked Cartagena, but I will add that when you're searching for a backpackers hostel and none come up in a city, there's probably a reason for that...

So we ended up at a hotel, about a 20 minute walk from the nicer part of the city centre. It was still pretty cool to stay in a hotel for once, even though it appeared to be straight out of the 1980's. Yet it was clean, quiet, and had helpful front desk staff, so no complaints there. We frequented Dia (supermarket) across the road way too often and made friends with the young chap at the petrol station when on the hunt for a corkscrew.

The fatal beach day happened on Saturday. I never really sunbathe, and I guess you could say I caught up on lost sunbathing time that day. When I woke up and realised I might actually be mistaken for a tomato, I tried to ask if I could sit inside the beachside restaurant to drink a coffee and get some shade, but after talking to three different waiters who said weird things like the (nearly empty) restaurant was only for people eating lunch and the shaded umbrella seats were the same... a nice waiter finally took my arm and said that I could sit at a table in the shade, and nobody bothered be since.

Beach of the burning sun

It was also the season for wearing nice dresses to the beach and taking pictures. Dozens of formally dressed young girls and boys, in their satin and chiffon best, with stiletto-heeled mothers and fathers sweltering in nylon suits were down on the beach - and all around town - taking photos.

I tried the 'café arabica', a Cartagenan specialty - coffee with 'licor 43' at the café, my 2nd coffee because I felt slightly guilty about sitting in the café for so long. It was nice, but nothing came quite compete with a flat white - a well-made flat white.
Café Arabico

I had the best paella I'd ever had in Cartagena. It was worth the half hour it took to make it and the half hour the waitress dwardled around after we asked for the bill. It might also actually be the best paella I'd ever had because it was the first paella I'd actually had in a Spanish restaurant in Spain. All for very cheap too, nothing like the 30 euro 'tourist' paellas you see advertised around the centre of Madrid and in most touristy cities here.

One of the surprising things about Cartagena is how art-deco is was. The main city centre part is tiled, and the balconied apartments in the centre are all very much 1930's esque. It could look quite tacky if not done well, but it had a Great-Gatsby-esque charm about it. It might not be in the Lonely Planet, but there were still a few tourist milling around. The best part was being so close to the sea - whether it was walking back from the beach and exploring old tunnels and ruins just because, or making the maritime-law-lover in me get a little bit excited about the fact it was a port town and the port was right there, or the rambling water front with palm trees and sailboats, or the fact there were hills with sea views, and hills beyond the sea - it made me miss the sea just a little bit.

We ticked of a few of the main tourist attractions on Sunday before leaving in the afternoon.

Tourist attraction numero uno was a hill with some ruins of a windmill on top. Lots of flowers and wild herbs growing and views of the sea, plus a café where families were having their Sunday lunch, all dressed up. The cray thing about this hill was that, despite not being excessively high, there was an elevator - outdoors - leading up to it.
Random outdoor elevator
The old windmill and some hillz
Tourist attraction numero dos was the Roman Forum, a some Roman ruins going for the Colosseum look but not quite getting there because they were probably smaller than the Colosseum. Neat views from the top of that hill too, however.

Overall thoughts on Cartagena was that it was a sleepy southern Spanish city, a nice place to visit if you want the beach and some beautiful scenery, without the hustle and bustle and tourist of a bigger city. And by no tourists, I mean, the one of the four British ladies sitting in front  of us on the beach on Saturday yelled out "Who has a penis?"to prove the point that there were no tourists and no heads turned. Not even mine, because I had already overheard one of them debating with her friends about whether to do it or not and her friend reassuring her that nobody would understand English.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A long overdue post on my university in Spain

As the title dictates, this post probably should have been written months ago, perhaps before I'd finished classes for the semester. Now that my last class ever (after five and a half years of university) is over, the time is probably ripe to write a post about what it was like to study at my university, Carlos III.

I accidentally confused the parentals by declaring that university was finally over - by that I meant lectures, not exams. I won't officially call myself finished in a snazzy jumping photo outside my university on facebook until the last exam is over.

I took three papers in Spanish and three in English.

English papers:
EU Law: an overview of the formation of the EU and its legal norms. On the Friday classes each group had to select a movie that had something to do with the EU and write a report on it, and we got to watch the movie in class.

Mercantile Contracting: this was all about making international contracts. I loved it - it applied a lot of aspects of law I already knew (INCOTERMS hola), plus dispute resolution, jurisdiction issues, shipping of goods, negotiation strategies, to name a few.

We were in groups for the two main assignments for the course - making contracts for the sale/acquisition of businesses. One group was with classmates from the class, and the other group was with classmates AND students from Creighton, a university in Nebraska. So to do the project, we had to have Skype meetings, exchange emails and the like. A very innovative and practical way to teach us about building contracts.

Transnational Labour Relations: a paper about the international nation of business - lots on EU treaties to do with working abroad, renumeration of overseas workers. We had a couple of group assignments and presentations. Conclusion from the course: The EU labour force is a lot more mobile than the NZ one!

What I liked about the English papers:

  • They were generally courses that exchange students, but also several Spanish students picked, so the areas of law they covered had more of an international focus.
  • I could follow the classes and knew what I had to do and when I had to do it.
  • Smaller class sizes and other exchange students.

Spanish papers:
Delitos contra el patrimonio: In other words, crimes against the public patrimony. This was all Spanish penal law, where we went through sections of the Penal Code and got taught about the crimes, the variations of the crimes and similarities with other laws in the code. I found it very hard to follow at first, but got more used to it towards the end. In the practical classes, we had to solve problems by applying the law, in a way similar to what we did at Vic, but with slightly different areas emphasis - this is a civil law system, not a common law system, after all. My class was switched on and always asking questions and for concepts to be clarified - it was almost a more relaxed version of Socratic teaching.

Derecho procesal penal: Criminal Procedure Law. The lecturer was an absolute gem, a little bald man who played us music on YouTube before the start of each class and who was a very enthusiastic teacher and also very relaxed about exams (which doesn't mean the exams are relaxed, just that he gave a helpful speech about how to study and exam techniques, and also said that if anything came up and we couldn't sit the oral exam on the scheduled date, we could email him the day before and reschedule - which I actually ended up doing because I ironically lost my voice before the oral exam). I found the structure (what structure) hard to follow when studying for the exam, however. We spent the last few sessions of our practical class in the judicial salon in the university, having a mock trial, which was really fun. He made powerpoints and used helpful metaphors in explaining the different paths to trial a criminal case could take. He was very much a 'teach them by showing them' kind of teacher, so aside from the mock-trial, we also watched videos from court trials and have to go to a real life trial.

Derechos laborales: Labour/employment Law. I discovered that NZ employment law is really quite nice for the employee - in Spain you're only entitled to one 15 minute break in a six hour period. This was a very heavy statute-based course, and had a weekly assignment every week, which was completed in our groups either during the class or before the class. It was probably one of the most stressful classes, but one my Spanish took a turn for the better it got a little bit easier.

What I liked about the Spanish papers:

  • I think learning civil law was really interesting - no studying cases, what we were doing was studying and learning about the law exactly as it was written down in the code.
  • The constant assessment. This might sound weird, but I thought it was a really good way to learn. Participation marks make up part of your final grade, so you have to contribute to the class.
  • My helpful classmates! Course outlines exist here, but not really like the ones that we get given at Vic. But luckily I had classmates who took me under their wing and showed me what textbooks I needed, gave me advice on exams, answered my questions about how to study and gave me examples on what to do for the group assignments.

For each of those classes, we had two 1.5 hour sessions per week. One was normally a 'Magistral', so a lecture and the other a 'Práctica', so a tutorial. In my Spanish papers, the prácticas generally involved doing a group assignment, or going over it, much like tutorials at Vic when you go over problem questions with a tutor. It was either continuous-assessment based or just to cement and apply the knowledge. Some of the prácticas could be quite stressful, with a lot of time pressure to complete a problem or defend your answer - and I didn't quite get to the confidence level of being able to do that myself in front of everyone in the class. However, I thought that this way of teaching/learning was really good - you always had to apply what you learnt in the lecture class, so because of that, you learnt it better. The group work side of things was interesting - a good way for me to meet classmates and contribute to the group work, but I always felt like I was a liability to the group. One hour of work for them was about 2 hours of work for me, and my Spanish wasn't at the same level theirs was. But I tried my best and learnt from it, and that's what's important, right?

I feel like now I am much more used to the system here, I enjoyed being taught by the lecturers I had and the level of participation in classes (with much smaller class sizes, anything from 10-40 people) was great. It's unfortunate that it took this long to get accustomed to it, because now I'm done.

I won't miss having classes in the afternoons and evenings. There was the option of doing morning classes but timetabling was a bit of a problem. But finishing at 9pm twice a week and 7.30pm twice a week wasn't the most practical thing, especially when friends had morning classes and were finished by mid afternoon. On the upside, it meant I was alert and awake in class, not in the process of waking up like I tended to be in my 8.30am classes last semester.

Above all, one of my favourite things about the university was the facilities. I don't have good photos, but I snapped a few on my phone when the sky was blue. It's a beautiful campus, and a modern university. Now that the trees actually have leaves (honestly, bare branches are so depressing) the campus looks a lot more welcoming and inviting.

This is the main area with the cafeteria part right at the end. There's a big square in front of the cafeteria where people go outside and drink (coffee or tinto de verano or beer) on sunny days:

This is just looking at one of the other buildings - they're all numbered big square blocks separated by grassy patches and trees. Lots of people normally sitting outside as well - but when I took the picture it was later on in the evening so less people were about.

And the suburb where my campus is in is called Getafe. It's definitely not the prettiest suburb - there are none of those cute balconied buildings you see in the postcards of Madrid. There's none of that old European charm either. Some parts of it are actually dangerous (apparently). But I like it. It's thriving and friendly. Sometimes too friendly, like when the children are kicking a ball around outside at 10.30pm, or neighbours are yelling at each other across their windows or the alcoholics are making a racket in the square at 3am... But it's also full of families, older people and the occasional student. I have my favourite fruit and vegetable shop (fresh, cheap and the staff know me there which is really cool), my bakery where a baguette is 25 cents (and I have now banned myself from buying them because it's possible for me to eat a whole baguette in one sitting). There's even a cute park with a lake and excessive water features where I studied with one of my Getafe friends. Then we went to an 'old man bar' afterwards and got cafe con leche and pinchos de tortilla and talked about our lives. I made friends with the elderly downstairs neighbour and drank chocolate milk, ate digestives and watched Spanish television there a few weeks ago. It's cute little things like that I'll miss when I leave in a few weeks time. 

Compared to other exchange students who lived in huge flats with other Erasmus students, in the centre of town (where everything happens), living here did feel a bit isolating, but it's paid off in the sense that I saved on rent and still was able to go into town and do things because transport is fine. Rainy walks to the bus stop at 2.45am are not fun, nor when the bus driver decides to turn a 20 minute drive into a 45 minute one by taking the wrong exit on the motorway, but it's all an adventure, right?
Getafe graffiti
 Now it's time to buckle down for exams - one oral exam on criminal procedure law and two written exams on labour law and EU law. The cool thing is that Madrid boasts some awesome places to study - I have switched my preference from good quality cafes to Google Campus, a co-working space slightly out of the main centre of town. It's an awesome concept - a few big tables with power sockets, free wifi and a café, where people go to immerse themselves in a co-working environment or hijack it for study purposes like my friends and I do.

Funny story from Saturday evening that has nothing to do with previous post:
I was waiting to meet up with some friends for dinner at a (delicious and cheap) Senegalese restaurant in Lavapies, so decided to check out a market nearby. I went into said market and it was well... cool but a bit shabby, not what I was expecting, and lots of the shops where shut. I was about to exit, and had just snuck past a group of adults taking a group photo - dashing quickly past them so I didn't get in the shot. But they noticed and one of them said 'Guapa vuelve' (come back pretty girl/babe).

So I thought 'what the heck' and walked back to the group. I don't really understand why they called me back or anything, but the next thing they were taking a group photo, so I offered to take it for them. But no, they wanted me to be in the photo. Ok strangers, I'll jump in your random photo...  And I probably ruined it with my double chin and squinty eyes but oh well.

I decided to play friendly chatty Anita - after all, talking to adults in Spanish when they've had a little bit (or a lot) to drink can be rather interesting. While I was talking to Alberto from Valencia, two of them right behind him started straight out pashing. PDAs in Spain are quite common, but not to that level.

It was at this point when I took into account the ratio of men-women and realised there was a minute chance they were either really drunk 'happy-chatty' or potentially swingers. I've been known to naively discount potentially weird/dangerous situations so decided to play it safe and not drink the half-drunken bottle of beer they had put in my hands, and make up an excuse to leave. Street-wise Anita replaced friendly chatty Anita. I mean, it was probably a completely innocent situation but I didn't want to take any chances.

While I was talking to them (in Spanish and English), one of the women (they were about late 20's, early 30's) was leaning against the wall, sunglasses over her lips, waving her tongue from side to side. It kind of gave away how drunk they all were so maybe they hadn't kidnapped me to participate in swinging, but I still didn't want to run the risk. In the end I said goodbye, it was nice to meet them and enjoy Madrid, but walked away thinking what the absolute heck.

Anyway, here's a picture of some cool graffiti outside the market.