Two down, ten to go

It’s strange to think that two whole months have passed now. Sometimes, it feels like it’s flying by too fast and there’s no way I can fit everything I want to do in ten months. Other times, it feels like it’s dragging on and I just want to get home to the places and people I love. Either way, every minute of the ride teaches me something important and I couldn’t be happier to be right where I am.

Where to start? After the parade of catastrophes outlined in my previous post, I am happy to report that I have settled into a routine now and Logroño feels more like home every day. For example, I know now I have to weigh my own fruit and bag my own groceries at the supermarket, so I no longer face the wrath of the checkout staff yelling at me in very fast Spanish while a queue of angry Spaniards forms behind me. I’ve also worked out the bus system, so my previous mantra of “I don’t even need to work out the bus system, I’ll just walk 40 minutes to university every day and get fit and healthy!!!!!!” is long, long gone.

Alas, settling into a routine means dealing with the more menial parts of that routine and I am reminded that I am not in fact on a year long holiday and am here to “study.” As awful as it is waking up in the darkness and cold at 7am five times a week, my intensive Spanish classes have been extremely helpful and my Spanish continues to improve, slowly but surely. It’s also great to be surrounded by other international students from a huge range of countries and being able to communicate with them in one common language.

An advantage of attending a tiny university in a town not frequented by foreigners is that we international students are well cared for, a great comfort in this difficult experience. One of the ways they reach out to us is by organising day trips to other parts of La Rioja, specifically the towns where the winemaking magic happens. In late January, we visited the tiny but beautiful town of Haro, about 45 minutes bus ride from Logroño. When we had finished exploring the city centre, it was a short drive to to the Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, one of Haro’s many wineries that produce the famous La Rioja wine I have become addicted to.

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Just last Wednesday we were taken on a similar excursion to Laguardia, another one of La Rioja’s tiny wine towns. We visited the extravagant Iglesia de Santa María and then the Bodegas Campillo, which produces one of La Rioja’s most delicious and expensive wines. By expensive, I mean a bottle costs around €12, which in Sydney can buy you a bottle of something that tastes like roadkill.

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I was totally stunned by how pristine and picturesque these little towns were – both times I felt like I had stepped into a cartoon. It was great to venture outside Logroño for these little outings and learn about La Rioja’s rich history as the wine province. However, the itch to explore other parts of Spain is one that simply cannot be scratched, so I have been working on that too. In late January, there was a public holiday coming up so a few of us decided to leave La Rioja for our first real getaway: to Bartheeelona of course!

It’s easy to see why everyone I have spoken to fell in love with Barcelona, but our trip…did not go to plan. It all started when we boarded the overnight bus at 2am that would have us in Barcelona by 8am.

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This Snapchat says it all. Every time I would be drifting off, I would be rudely awoken by snores that quite literally shook the whole bus. To make matters worse, I had forgotten my earphones, so there was absolutely no escape. I got zero sleep for eight hours and I couldn’t understand how so many people on the bus managed to sleep through what sounded like a pig mating ritual. I noted that this would mean less witnesses if I decided to kill the man, but I stayed strong.

When we arrived in Barcelona, I was so excited to finally be in the city I had spent most of my life dreaming about, I forgot how tired I was. We dumped our bags at the hostel and spent the morning shopping and exploring the city centre of Barcelona. It was later that afternoon when we were on the bus to Park Güell that disaster struck.

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I knew that Barcelona was the thieving capital of Spain, if not Europe. I had heard many horror stories from friends about stolen passports, stolen phones, stolen wallets, stolen jewellery and holes found sliced in the bottom of handbags. I clung onto my bag for dear life all weekend, not caring how stupid I looked. Unfortunately, a girl we were travelling with fell victim to the infamous Barcelona pickpocketing on the bus. It was so crowded there was hardly room to breathe, so she didn’t feel when someone reached into her coat pocket and took her phone. She had only put it there for ten seconds while she rearranged her bags, but five is all it takes.

We repeatedly tried to call the phone and locate it on Find my iPhone, but the thief had switched it off. We made a report at the nearest police station. While we were in a taxi on the way back to the city to buy a new phone, we saw that the thief had finally turned the phone on, meaning we had an exact location for it. Immediately, we all had hope that my friend may be able to get the phone back after all and wouldn’t have to fork out for a new one. We told the first cop we saw when we got back to the city centre. He said he couldn’t leave his post and we had to go to another station, so we did. They decided to advise us to WAIT OUTSIDE THE THIEF’S HOUSE THEN CALL THE POLICE FROM THERE.

Just like that, a bump in the road turned into a thrilling adventure as we prepared to enter the danger zone and potentially confront some criminals. The taxi driver to the thief’s house gave us an epic pep talk and I was trying to remember some self defence moves, totally ready to fight someone to help my friend get her phone back. The street we tracked the phone to was EXTREMELY dodgy, we were so scared we could barely move and it didn’t help that the police we summoned were taking their sweet time. When they eventually arrived, they told us – after we literally spent our Saturday afternoon in Barcelona in police stations – that there was nothing they could do about it because the phone was in an apartment block. Really? Not a single policeman out of the dozens we spoke to that afternoon could have told us that? We understood that pickpocketing is so common in Barcelona, the police probably would have completely ignored us if we hadn’t harassed them so much. Still, it didn’t hurt any less when my friend was forced to shell out for a new iPhone.

It was a truly exhausting day and after the adrenaline wore off, I was really starting to feel my overnight bus-induced lack of sleep. That being said, I was determined to have a big Barcelona night out and I knew as per Spain norms I could expect to be out until 7am. So while my friends went out to dinner, I rested my head at the hostel for a quick “power nap”…and I woke up at 8am the next day.

So yes, I am still yet to set foot in a Barcelona bar, but at least I had plenty of energy for our last full day in Barcelona.

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I picked up a lone Australian traveller in the hostel at breakfast and we took the metro to La Sagrada Familia in the morning. We were completely in awe of its magnificence, but didn’t go inside this time. In the afternoon, we did a free walking tour of the city which was really interesting, but I now have an entire album of photos on Facebook I can’t caption because I can’t remember what anything is. We treated ourselves that night to dinner at a fantastic Chinese restaurant, a very welcome change since foreign food is rarely available in Logroño, and when it is, it’s expensive and poor quality. That’s probably the main thing I miss about big cities like Sydney: I can eat any cuisine when I feel like it without breaking the bank or risking salmonella.

The next day was home time but we had the morning free to finally make it to Park Güell, this time travelling by taxi since we had all been thoroughly turned off the buses.

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The weekend was certainly an eventful first taste of Barcelona but it made me extremely grateful to be living in Logroño, where everything is a comfortable walking distance and the only thing the police have to do is walk school children across the road. That being said, I am extremely excited to return to Barcelona in June for Primavera Sound festival, for which I vow to be well rested and protect my phone like a lioness protecting her cubs.

The next trip happened just last weekend and the destination was Pamplona, only an hour’s bus ride away from Logroño.

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This trip went very smoothly and we had the time of our lives! Pamplona is a much more livelier city than Logroño but it’s not gigantic and overrun with tourists like Barcelona. As much as we love pinchos, on the first night we were very happy to find a good Italian restaurant two minutes from our Airbnb and have a proper sit down meal. We downed a jug of the most heavenly sangria I have ever tasted then had an early night as we were going to be squeezing in all our sightseeing the next day – and that we did. We ate breakfast at Café Iruña, where Ernest Hemingway was said to have spent time writing The Sun Also Rises. We followed a walking trail around the cathedral to a beautiful lookout that showcased Pamplona’s beauty, did some shopping, accidentally got caught up in a bizarre protest that was either pro-Trump or anti-Trump (we still haven’t figured it out) and we finished the day at the Museo de Navarra, which was full of exquisite medieval art.

The highlight of the trip was without a doubt the night out, with Spanish nightlife being what it is. It was carnavale that weekend, meaning that fancy dress was essential. Me, being the totally uncreative person I am, went for my go-t0 costume: headband ears.

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It was midnight by the time we had finished getting ready and taking photos of our vain selves. Post-lockout laws Sydney would have been a ghost town at that time, but of course we had been living in Spain and we knew the night was only just starting. While we were in a tapas bar, we saw a guy walk in wearing an Australia bucket hat and we were unsure whether he was a real Australian or was just dressed up as one…until we saw him order a beer in wine country and down it swiftly along with some shots. We were fast friends. Of course we hadn’t heard Australian accents other than our own for way too long, so we were very excited to be amongst our own for a change. After many weeks of “Perdona, donde está el baño?” it was truly music to my ears to hear “Oi, where’s the pisser?” once more.

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We all had an absolutely fantastic night ringing in carnvale with the Spaniards, one well worth our inability to do any more sightseeing the next day on account of our hangovers. It was truly a trip to remember and I will definitely return to beautiful Pamplona in the near future.

While I have enjoyed the weekend getaways, they have made me appreciate Logroño even more. In spite of my routine, every week is anything but ordinary, with me learning something new or getting myself into an interesting situation on a regular basis.

I have now been attending regular university classes for over a month – a social work class with local students. On the first day, we all had to go around the room and introduce ourselves, a task I dread even in my native language. When it was my turn and I choked out “Hola me llamo Casey, soy de Australia,” the silence in the room was broken by the sound of every single student in the class turning in their chairs to stare at me, as if I wasn’t already feeling self-conscious enough. The staring continued throughout the rest of the class, which was really just the cherry on top of me not being able to understand a single word of anything discussed. In fact, I was the only one who turned up to the tutorial later that week, since I didn’t understand when the teacher said it was cancelled.

Local classes were initially a traumatic experience, but now that I have been a regular presence in their class for a few weeks now, the students have been extremely nice and patient with me, helping me as much as they can and even trying out their English. A few weeks ago, one of my classmates invited me out on a Thursday night which is student night. We started the evening with dinner at Calle Laurel, Logroño’s famous pinchos street. I had been before but it was something truly special when accompanied by locals.

This is the standard pincho at Bar Soriano, and it is my absolute favourite.

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It’s a mushroom skewer with a little prawn, all made to order. You eat it sideways over a small slice of fresh baguette and then eat the baguette, now sodden with the delicious juices from the mushrooms. This pincho seriously changed my life. It is heavenly. I am in love with it. I fantasise about it in my down time.

Walking down Calle Laurel with my new Spanish friends was also great because we would run into people they knew at every stop, Logroño being the tiny town that it is. Being with other Spaniards made me feel a lot more comfortable communicating with strangers and everyone I met was very friendly and excited that I was from Australia.

In spite of a horrible gaffe wherein I offered to buy the next round of drinks in Spanish (quiero pagar) and my new friend thought I said I wanted to hit her (quiero pegarte), I felt right at home and had one of the best nights out I’ve ever had. I was able to ask locals about the things in Spain I’ve found peculiar, learn more about the differences between the life of a student here and my life back in Sydney and I even picked up some Spanish swear words. Most importantly, I was taken to a bar where dogs are allowed in, and this adorable guy would frequently rest his head on our table to say hello.

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I had 2.5 hours of sleep that night and had a very difficult time in class at 9am the next day, but it was worth it.

I still miss home a lot and I don’t think that will ever go away. However, I have come up with a new strategy to deal with homesickness: I remember that when I return to Sydney, I will have to find a job and get my life together.

Until that bittersweet day, I’m going to spend the next 10 months travelling, exploring, eating mushrooms at Bar Soriano and of course, drinking more wine than any person my size should. For ~1€ a glass, it would be rude not to.

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