We’re back!

Back in Boston, it’s hard to believe that we were gone for 5 weeks. Sure, the temperature is about 20 degrees warmer and all of the trees that were bare around campus for the last 6 months or so have bloomed, but everything else has stayed the same.

For now, that’s nice. I can stop by my favorite places. I know how to navigate the T, where I’m going to stop for lunch and plenty of people. After 5 weeks of getting lost, trying new things and being surrounded by a small island of English speakers (most of whom I didn’t know at all before I boarded the plane to Madrid in the beginning of May) it’s good to be home. Yet, somehow, I know this feeling of complete content for familiarity will wear off, and I’m okay with that.

After five weeks of living, studying and reporting abroad, I know that just staying in one place forever will be boring and I won’t find the same comfort in familiarity. When I was reporting in Spain, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I didn’t see limits on what topics I could pick or where I could go, so I didn’t hold myself back nearly as much as I would have here. I ended up in the middle of protests, strangers’ homes and the basement of a political party on the night of an election. By not letting limitations discourage or intimidate me, I found out that many were easily overcome or just plain didn’t exist. I’m going to go to other places, meet new people and see new things. I’m sure that I’ll stumble a little bit (as sometimes happened on this trip) but I also know that in the end, the pros of traveling will ultimately outweigh the cons.

We were very fortunate in Spain. It’s not a country filled with controversy – it’s probably much safer than here, even. Still, we experienced some of the most newsworthy events in the nation in our three weeks in Madrid. From a championship soccer game to elections and the historic abdication of the throne, we lived and reported on some of the most important things to happen in Spain – things that people will remember for years and that will impact the country on so many levels. Maybe there are always things happening there, but if we had been gone to Madrid just a few weeks earlier, we would have missed out on so many opportunities. I’m extremely grateful for everything that I got to see through both the eyes of a tourist and a reporter while abroad.

I don’t know if I’ll ever really become a foreign reporter. I don’t speak any other languages fluently and for the most part I like living in the United States. There are lots of cities here that I’ve never been to and where I think I could find a home and be happy. I know, however, that many of the skills that I learned while abroad will be useful in future work that I do back home. After approaching people who may or may not even speak English, I don’t think I’ll ever be nervous to approach Americans on the street. I’ve learned to find stories in a country and culture that I know little to nothing about, and I’m sure that I’ve become more observant and will have an easier time looking for topics here than I have in the past. I don’t think I ever said anything or let it show, but I was pretty nervous leading up to our departure. Not about getting lost or robbed or being abroad, but about being able to pitch and execute three stories in a foreign country in just five weeks. I guess I might’ve been imagining a worst case scenario, but everything worked out so much better and easier than I had planned. Of course I still had to work for my stories and sources, but I’ve learned that as long as you put your heart and best efforts into your reporting, anything can be accomplished in any place.

 

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Aaand done!

After nearly five weeks of work in Spain, my three articles are all officially published on the blog and my comparative culture essay is submitted. I came here having no idea what I wanted to write about or the places I would see and now I’m leaving with a pretty decent grip on what’s happening in Spain. Through a lot of stress, unexpected situations and finally some triumphs, I’ve had a really great experience.

It’s strange to think about heading home soon. I don’t have any work left to do here and there’s nothing really planned until our farewell dinner tomorrow night, so I’m kind of finding myself in a strange limbo where I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m exhausted, and part of me can’t wait to land in Boston and finally eat some pancakes, but another part doesn’t want to leave at all. It’s a very odd and conflicting feeling – wanting to go back to the familiar and see everyone that’s been missing from my life for a month but also not wanting to give up Spain. I’m sure that I’ll travel again in the future, but there are so many places to see and things to do that I might not ever make it back to Spain or to Madrid specifically. It’s strange that lots of things – food, people, parks – have become so familiar to me and soon they’ll be gone for possibly forever. Even when I do go other places, I’m not sure that I’ll be anywhere living and working for a full five weeks. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to know another country and culture as well as I’ve gotten to know Spain over the last few weeks, and I understand how much I’m going to treasure the experiences I had here.

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Hidden Treasures

Touristy, must-see places can be pretty cool. The palace was beautiful, the Prado was full of exquisite artwork and the Retiro park was beyond beautiful and elaborate. However, some of my favorite parts of Madrid have been things that I’ve simply happened upon by chance – things that don’t make the Top 10 best of Madrid lists. I think that getting to live here for three full weeks has really played a role in giving me a complete feel for the city, and helped me to see things that most tourists passing through would miss.

I found a great little restaurant near our apartment that makes tortilla Español for really cheap. It looks like a dive, but it’s super authentic and perfectly fine. You would never find it if you didn’t live a couple blocks away though. We’ve also had the chance to have a few meals at El Tigre – a little bar where you pay 6 euros and they just bring you pretty much unlimited tapas. Had I just been passing through Madrid, I probably would’ve stuck to fancier restaurants and completely missed out.

One of my other favorite things I found just today as I was going for a walk. We’ve gone down to the park near here a few times, watching the sunset at the Temple or just to hang out. Every time, though, I’ve completely missed this great rose garden that I stumbled upon today. The weather was beautiful and I spent some time walking around, surrounded by all of the colors and arrangements. It was just as nice as the rose garden in Retiro, but much less crowded. I’m so glad that I took one last look at the park today – I might’ve left Madrid and completely missed out on this great little spot.

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Metro Struggles

Up until this morning, I couldn’t stop raving over the Madrid metro. Trains come every five minutes, it’s fast, clean and it will take you you need to be. After the last two days though, my view is starting to shift a bit.

Yesterday, on our way to a visit to UPyD, one of Spain’s smaller but up and coming political parties, we boarded the metro at our usual stop and road it to a station where we could switch lines. Little did we know, that switch was a 10 minute walk underground to another station. I think we probably went up and down over 10 escalators. Then, today, on our way to our last visit to a TV station (for which we were going to arrive perfectly on time) the metro broke down one stop before we arrived. At first, we thought it was just our train, but we later heard from a technician that the entire metro system had stopped – that’s 10 lines of subway. A red message flashed through our car that pretty much translated to “the metro is not normal right now.” Yeah, I think after 15 minutes of sitting still, we picked up on that.

Olivia and Nicole, clearly unamused by the metro shutdown this morning.

Olivia and Nicole, clearly unamused by the metro shutdown this morning.

We walked out onto the street, hoping to catch a bus, cab, or maybe just walk to the final stop. None of the buses were heading the right direction (as far as we could tell) and when we tried to hail a cab, one woman started screaming at us in Spanish from across the street. I’m going to guess using context clues that she was calling dibs on that one.

Eventually, we were able to get back on a the metro and ride the one extra stop. As much as everyone loves to complain about the T back home, I’m pretty sure there’s never been a complete shutdown of service due to technical problems. I’ve also never had to walk so long to make a transfer at one station. As nice as it is to move at lightning speed here, I won’t mind so much when I’m back on the green line and I know exactly where I’m going.

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Orcasitas, finally.

This is the story of how the scary people – the ones I was warned never to go near – became the nicest people I’ve ever interviewed.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what Gypsies were. I also can’t remember a time I’ve ever heard anything positive about them. When I studied Italian, my teacher would mention them and complain. When I was preparing to go to Spain, everyone warned me of pickpockets and these sad, pathetic people on the streets. As stereotypes usually go, everyone was wrong.

Today, I boarded the train with my translator and Spanish native Marta to head to Orcasitas, home of my beauty pageant contestants. The whole half hour journey there, Marta tried to paint a picture for me of what we would see. She described run down houses, rude, animal-like people and disgusting city streets. When we arrived at the address, she wasn’t too far off. Outlets had been ripped from the walls, leaving holes from which wires dangled. Door knobs and locks were missing from graffiti covered apartments. Here, we thought we would find our contestant, but only found his father.

Speaking no Spanish and not having any idea what to expect, I waited patiently for Marta to talk to Cristian’s father while a group of small children stared at me. I’m just going to throw out a guess that they don’t have too many redheads passing through there. Soon, I was following this man and Marta out from the apartment and to a blue van. Going against every warning my parents have ever given me (Sorry Mom and Dad), I climbed into this van with a stranger, piling into the front seat and let him drive us wherever he wanted, trusting Marta’s translation. When he parked the car and I realized that I wasn’t going to be taken, we were in a much different area of the neighborhood. Spotless, stained  glass doors led into every apartment and small gardens grew on the patios. They had decorated  I entered Cristian’s apartment, receiving one kiss on each cheek from each of his family members before I took a seat, a deep breath, and started to ask questions.

Cristian Heredia, a contestant in Miss Gypsy who welcomed me into his home and gave me a tour of his neighborhood.

Cristian Heredia, a contestant in Miss Gypsy who welcomed me into his home and gave me a tour of his neighborhood.

I’m positive that I have never interviewed such a lovely group of people before. Cristian’s parents were open, progressive and accepted me into their home. They talked about their pasts, their future and their hopes. I realized that they have the LOVE park symbol in their home, and I explained to them that the actual, gigantic symbol was from the city where I lived. Cristian showed me his room where he had plastered New York symbols on his entire wall – the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building – he told me how much he wanted to see it, but that he had never had the chance to go anywhere.

While this is my first trip abroad and I am certainly not “well traveled,” today I am struck by the realization that these people may never get to go as far away from home as I have. I also know that I will travel again on my own terms, and they might never leave Spain.

As Marta and I boarded the train together to go back home, I could tell she had changed her perceptions. This family wasn’t scary or lazy or rude. They were just like us, and none of us should have expected any different.

 

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How girls’ night in turned into covering a wild protest

Most of the reporting that I’ve done in the past has taken place between normal business hours and never called for too much impromptu, unexpected work when I’ve least expected it. Last night, however, I found myself jumping on the metro around 10:30 to accompany Emily to a protest at the Peurta del Sol.

Following King Juan Carlos’s abdication of the throne to his son (something that has only happened three times in Spanish history, making it an extremely rare occurrence), thousands of protesters stormed the plaza, calling for a referendum on the constitutional monarchy system in Spain. This is Emily’s third story, so when Maria and Shandana realized what everyone was protesting about, they called Emily and told to hurry. In just a minutes, by plans to watch 10 Things I Hate About You with the roommates were gone and instead, I was headed to cover another protest. Fortunately, for the first time this trip, the protest was actually taking place.

As we ran up the stairs from the Metro, we saw signs that read “No more kings, referendum!” and security guards hovered around the exit. We heard a load banging that I initially thought was drumming and dozens of people shouting in Spanish. Gathered around the exit were about 20 people with their shirts pulled up over their mouths, pounding on the doorway to the metro as they tried to pull the gate closed. When we asked two participants why they wanted to close the gate, they shrugged, leading us to believe they might not be the most reliable sources.

This group, as we would soon find out, were anarchists. They only made up a small number of the thousands of people still present, but they certainly caught our eye. Immediately, we started approaching protestors and found that many spoke English were able to articulate their opinions clearly. There were communists, fascists, socialists, anarchists, monarchy supports and republicans. Young people had climbed the metro station and were waving flags over the crowds which had congregated in different portions of the square. One sign, my personal favorite, read “If Phillip wants a crown, tell him to go to Burger King.”

As we started interviewing people, we realized that all of them had joined forces not just to oppose a monarchy, but to call for a referendum before the crown was simply passed on to a new king. Most wanted to create a republic, but some were still confident in the monarchy. It struck me as odd that any young people would still support a monarchy – especially when many others had embraced extreme views advocating anarchy or following the “good” example set by North Korea.

Overall, it was an extremely exciting and interesting experience. I’m so lucky to have come to Spain at a time when so many rare, historic events have occurred – not just as a reporter, but also as a visitor. I don’t know if any riot back home will ever be as varied, passionate, or peaceful was what I witnessed last night in downtown Madrid.

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As I see the current seniors at my high school gear up for graduation this week, I’m reminded that I officially graduated two years ago this month. Sometimes, that feels like such a long time ago, and others, it seems so recent.

Two years ago, I didn’t know who my roommates would be, who I would meet at Northeastern, or even what classes I would be taking. I didn’t know my way around Boston, or how different living on my own would be from living at home. I didn’t know how to conduct a serious interview, find sources or write ledes. I also didn’t imagine that I would be living and reporting from Spain two years to the day that I walked across my high school gymnasium’s stage to pick up my diploma.

Some of the finest graduates of the class of 2012

Some of the finest graduates of the class of 2012

Now, I’m halfway done my college career, and nothing has happened as planned. I’ve faced a lot of different challenges, but also achieved more milestones than I can imagine. I think in high school, I had much more control over my studies and what happened on in my life on a daily basis – everything came easy. I’ve learned to go with the flow, to result to plans B,C,D and E – all the way to Z if necessary – when the first option fails. Leaving the country for 5 weeks to interview people who don’t speak the same language as I would definitely have been daunting two years ago. Now, I see how things come together unexpectedly, how opportunities show up out of nowhere sometimes, and also how failures can turn into successes when you least expect it.

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Sunday Funday

Today, on our free day, I had the opportunity to experience some of Madrid’s best attractions that are actually popular among the locals.

First, we went to El Rastro, the flea market that sets itself up every Sunday until 3 before 3500 vendors pack up their goods and tents for the week. From tapestries to scarfs to leather bags and keychains, anything and everything you can ever imagine has a place. I walked around for about an hour and left with a few treasures (which will remain unnamed, as quite a few are gifts for my readers back home) that I’m really excited about.

The ross garden in Retiro

The rose garden in Retiro

After heading home for a siesta – which I earned after a tough morning of shopping – I headed to Retiro, the main park in Madrid. I’ve always enjoyed my strolls through the Commons back home, impressed by how well kept all of the grounds were, but nothing that I’ve ever seen can compare to this park. Every pathway is perfectly manicured by different hedges trimmed into various shapes. If you try to look for stray branches and leaves, they’re hard to find. My personal favorite part was wandering under decorated terraces through the ross garden. It was so relaxing and beautiful, and way more than just a tourist attraction.

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El Escorial

Today, we took our final Saturday excursion of the trip to a monastery/library/royal tomb in a small city about 40 minutes outside of Madrid. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any pictures because cameras weren’t allowed in the monastery, so I’ll try to just describe some of the highlights briefly.

In the bottom of the monastery, we saw caskets and tombs of all of the deceased kings and queens of Spain since the 1500s. It was sort of spooky, but also extremely fascinating. One room was dome shaped and decorated with gold coffins stacked along each wall. After that, we walked through another section that looked like something out of Harry Potter – I kept waiting for the statues to come to life like a set of Wizard’s chess.

After the monastery walk through /tour, we stopped at a small restaurant for lunch. From ham to paella to tortilla Española and eventually steak, we got to sample some of Spain’s most important dishes. It was definitely the best meal we’ve had since arriving, and probably the best meal I’ve had this year. Plus, they brought out a desert sampler with four different treats on it at the end, so there’s nothing more that I could really ask for.

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Stood Up

stood-up-canstockphoto2190082-2

Every time I send out interview requests (sometimes to 30 experts or more for one story), the turnout rate for responses tends to be pretty low, and the number of acceptances is even lower. When that email comes in that reads “I’d be happy to help you with this,” it’s always a huge relief (sometimes expressed through nerdy dancing or jumping up and down.) Then it’s just a matter of working out logistics of when and where and what to ask – simple stuff.

So far this week, I haven’t had the easiest time with this. I’ve e-mailed probably about 40 Gypsy experts, and gotten a number of varied responses. Three of these, however, were acceptances. That should be plenty of varied views and areas of expertise to help me make sense of the topic and write a comprehensive, un-biased account of these marginalized people. Unfortunately, they stood me up.

I feel like I’m sitting alone at a restaurant and waiting for a date that’s just not going to show up. No matter how many times I refresh my inbox or triple check my phone for missed calls, there’s just nothing there.

Whether by missing our scheduled interview times or becoming completely unresponsive to further coordination, I just can’t manage to get ahold of these experts to conduct an actual interview. I only have three questions, can’t someone cut me a break here??

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