Donde la vida cambió

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Today is the Thursday before Good Friday, which for the people of Sevilla, Spain, means la Madrugá. La Madrugá is Spanish for “early morning,” and on this night, pasos, processions of various Catholic churches, pass through the city center honoring Christ and the Virgin Mary. Although I am not Catholic, two years ago I had the opportunity to share this cultural experience alongside los sevillanos.

I was thinking about that night two years ago–how my friends and I navigated the massive crowds, got trapped in a plaza between two pasos early in the morning, and were awed at the reverence the crowd displayed during the silent pasos–and next thing I knew, I was perusing a couple hundred study abroad photos during my commute to campus this morning. Photos of la Semana Santa, of the Plaza de España and tiny back roads, and of our first day in our host homes.

It certainly isn’t unusual for me to browse old photos and to long for Spanish life and language (and coffee), but my perspective was different today. More than simply recalling the trip as a whole with a sense of nostalgia, the photos took me back to specific memories, to first impressions of the historical places that became the backdrop of my daily life. And most importantly, back to times of reflection while walking along the Río Guadalquivír and through the Parque de María Luisa, where my views on time and love and life permanently changed in ways that I did not fully recognize until I returned to the U.S.

As I was discussing with one of my Spain roommates the other day, life for us will always be divided into before Sevilla and after. The “after Sevilla” consists of a life that seeks joy in small, quotidian pleasures, one that prioritizes a healthy work-life balance. It is one in which differences are opportunities to learn from others, change is a challenge to be faced head-on, and fearlessness leads to unimaginable adventures. One where there is always something new to discover, where complacency is no longer an option.

Spain is the place where I had the chance to develop into that person, one that I had been trying to become my entire life up to that trip. The person I lacked the courage to be until studying abroad threw me forcefully out of my comfort zone. Once you are removed from a life-altering experience, however, it is not always easy to maintain those changes when you return to your old world. Much like a language barrier, the old and new worlds, the before and after, do not always understand each other. The balancing act is a daily challenge, but one that I am determined to master.

Because although I was born American, a major part of me will forevermore be sevilliana. As they say in Sevilla, no me ha dejado, “Sevilla has not left me.”

Nos vemos de nuevo muy pronto, mi carísima ciudad.

-Steph

 

 

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Spanish Fútbol

I couldn’t very well live in Spain for five months without attending at least one fútbol game, now could I? I have never been particularly into soccer since a) I’m an American, and b) I didn’t play YMCA soccer as a kid like many of my classmates. Nevertheless, this was a part of Spanish culture that I wanted to make sure I experienced. Even though, to my surprise, my host mom and sister said they don’t like fútbol much, which I thought was pretty much a crime in Europe.

I didn’t see the more famous Real Barcelona or Real Madrid, but I did go to a game for each of Sevilla’s teams, Real Betis and FC Sevilla. FC Sevilla is part of La Liga, while Real Betis is in the second-tier league (I think there is some inter-league mobility, but I’m not exactly sure how that process works). Team loyalty is strong and dependent on what part of the city you live in, like the Cubs and White Sox in Chicago. FC Sevilla plays in the more urban part of Sevilla, in the Nervión neighborhood, and Real Betis plays on the more traditional side of town by Triana and Los Remedios (where I lived).

To me, fútbol is a pretty slow sport, because I’m used to watching fast-paced and more physical hockey (and the dramatic exaggeration of “injuries” in soccer drives me crazy). But I did enjoy seeing just how passionate fans are at the games. A little girl sitting near us at the Betis game kept turning around to share the highs and lows of the game. At the FC Sevilla game, the entire crowd loudly sang their team’s song, “Himno de Sevilla,” and the father in front of us which was teaching his young son the words. I didn’t learn all of the lyrics prior to the game, but bits and pieces of the song still get stuck in my head every now and then and make me a little homesick.

I don’t think Spain converted me into a fútbol lover, but attending the games was fun way to feel like part of the Sevilla community. Fútbol stayed with me right up to my final moments in Spain–I wore my FC Sevilla jersey on my flight back to the US, and as I was standing at the Torre del Oro bus stop to go to the airport at 4 AM, some people still out from the night before asked me to take a photo of them. They were a little offended that I was supporting the wrong team, haha. So since I lived in Los Remedios, I guess I should stick with the home team and say ¡Viva Betis!

-Steph

 

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Sevilla: la Feria de abril

If there is one time of year that defines the heart of Sevilla, Spain, it’s la Feria de abril. This April festival, celebrated in various cities but most famously in Sevilla, originated in the 1800s as a livestock trade, with shared food and drink in true Spanish fashion. Since then, it has evolved into a week-long celebration of Spanish traditions: family and friends, flamenco, and food and wine. Between la Semana Santa and la Feria, I got two spring breaks during my semester, but I chose not to travel at all during la Feria because I wanted to experience every bit of the week. And I’m so glad I stayed in Sevilla, because I got to go to the rose-filled Parque de Maria Luisa and la Plaza de España every single day.

I started off the celebrations at a local bar, where the bartender that our study abroad group had gotten to know was throwing a party for some friends. Not just any party, but a fiesta de pelucas, a wig party. Meghan, the other student not traveling that day, and I found some great neon green and blue wigs, learned the basics of the sevilliana form of flamenco, and tasted our first rebujito, a blend of manzanilla sherry and Sprite that is traditional for la Feria. Somewhere there are some wig photos, but I just can’t seem to find them, oh darn 😉

As a nod to the livestock trade origin, La Feria officially kicks off with families parading in horse-drawn carriages through the major streets of the city. But the real celebration begins with el Alumbrao, the lighting of a huge archway entrance to the fairgrounds that is modeled after a different building in the city each year. The grounds are divided into a typical fair with carnival rides and games, and rows of striped casetas Casetas are elaborate, mostly privately-owned tents where Spaniards host dinner and dancing for their family and friends. There are a few public ones with bars-like the ones sponsored by political parties-but luckily for our group we were able to get into some nicer ones through some people we knew. In some other cities there are more public casetas, but in Sevilla you see the more traditional, somewhat class-based model.

Sevilla is a constant back and forth between modernity and tradition, but for la Feria, Spaniards dress in traditional flamenco wear. For women, that means a flamenco dress (polka dots are popular, as well as floral patterns), heels, flowers for your hair, and bright plastic jewelry. I tried unsuccessfully to find a colorful flamenco dress-first with the help of my host mom and her closet and then at a secondhand shop-but I guess I’m just not the shape for those beautiful dresses. Or maybe we had just consumed too much bread and gelato by April. Next time. Nevertheless, I had fun helping my roommate pick out a dress and taking photos of everyone as they learned how perfect these dresses are for spinning.

Our TCU group enjoyed a night or two of the carnival side of the fairgrounds, but my favorite part was walking among the rows of casetas, dancing into the early hours of the morning, and just soaking up the culture around me. The best moment was seeing an elderly couple elegantly dance the sevilliana outside, because nothing keeps you young like love and dance 🙂

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Spaniards know how to party, that’s for sure. Many people stay out until 6 or 7 a.m. each night of the week. One of my professors at la UPO told us that extra pop-up churro stands open during la Feria because “you stay up all night and then go get churros for breakfast to absorb the alcohol.” He wasn’t wrong, haha. Although I definitely did not keep up with that pace throughout the week, la Feria de abril was one of the best experiences of my study abroad time, and one of the times that I felt like a true sevillana with a sense that life is something to be celebrated. It may be January right now, but already I’m dreaming of spring and thinking of what the Spaniards say as April approaches: Ya huele a la Feria…

-Steph

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Barcelona, Spain

It has been over a year since I’ve written on this blog. I keep meaning to catch up on blogging my travels, but graduating and starting grad school and just doing life have been getting in the way. Now that I’ve survived grad school semester one, what better way to relax over winter break than a trip down Spanish memory lane? My grandma has been asking when I will get around to my Barcelona blog since, well, April 2015, so without further ado…

My travel mates—Abby, Alayna, and Courtney—and I began our weekend with a walk around the iconic La Rambla, a street filled with vendors, the gigantic market La Boquería, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Antoní Gaudí, who designed much of Barcelona’s major architecture, used a pattern of curved lines to make La Rambla appear wavy, though it is actually flat. A massive crowd made it difficult to move around inside la Boquería among stands selling macaroons, produce, and fish (including the octopus that I never decided to stomach).

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Historically, Barcelona served as a hub for major artists, who gathered at the Quatre Gats (Four Cats) café. The owners have preserved its old feel, and it was really neat to sip our tea and contemplate the conversations the great artists must have had in that very spot. We also perused the Museu Picasso, a museum dedicated entirely to the works of Pablo Picasso and an artist he inspired, Salvador Dalí. Rather than his more famous pieces, this museum focused on Picasso’s education and early years, including class sketches and his renditions of Velasquez’s Las Meninas (the most reproduced work of art in the world). What I loved about this museum was that it was small enough that you could examine every piece without feeling overwhelmed or pressed for time. And lesson learned from two of my roommates: I should have taken an art history class. So if you’re studying abroad any time soon, do that.

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Quatre Gats

Our next museum stop was totally different: the Museu de Xocolate. We opted out of the actual museum part of the chocolate museum and instead went straight for the chocolate in the café. The next day we got a second chocolate fix at Escritá, a packed café where I tasted thick hot chocolate with caramelized violets, which tasted much better than it sounds.

To work off our chocolate, we headed to the Parc de la Ciutadella for some row boating. I had never done this before, but we eventually found a rhythm and managed not to topple the boat, though we came pretty close when we tried to switch places so we could all row. Our final stop on day one was the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the largest opera house in Europe. The gorgeous mirror-lined walls of the intermission gathering room were decorated with gold quotes about the value of music, theatre, art, and language. We didn’t get to see much of the inside of the theatre, but we got something even better. They were rehearsing a show, so we got to sit in the back and listen! I’ve never been much of an opera person, but after listening to their beautiful French singing, I think I’m gaining a better appreciation for the art.

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Gran Teatre del Liceu

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Parc de la Ciutadella with Courtney, Alayna, and Abby

Day two in Barcelona began with perhaps what the city is best known for: la Basílica de la Sagrada Familia. All of the religious buildings that I visited in Europe were beautiful, but this one is in a class of its own. Another one of Gaudí’s designs, the Sagrada Familia has a whimsical feel with spiral staircases and columns, decorative statues depicting Biblical scenes outside, and rainbows of stained glass windows. Gaudí also left a clever algorithm in the church: a box of numbers whose rows and columns add up to 33 (age of Christ at death) or 48, the sum of the letters INRI (Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx lūdaeorūm, “Jesus, King of the Jews”). You can read much more about the architecture here. Whatever you believe in, just stepping inside the Sagrada Familia is a religious experience. The basilica is still under construction (damage during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s set back the work), and I cannot wait to come back when it is expected to be finished in 2026!

You can never get too much of Gaudí in Barcelona, so next we took a long, uphill walk to his Parc Güell, which feels like stepping into the world of Dr. Seuss. Hiking through the vine-covered trellaces and up a decent hill, we found an incredible view of the entire city all the way to the port. That was when we realized how far we had walked, and little did we know that this would be our record-setting day for the most miles in one day abroad (18).

After some amazing paella, we trekked to the opposite side of the city, with a little help from the metro, to the 1992 Olympic Village and the medieval Castell de Montjuïc. The Olympic Village was underwhelming because it had not been kept up, but there is a museum if you’re interested in summer Olympic sports. (I’ll refrain from a lengthy discussion of the detrimental economic effects of the Olympics on host countries). We didn’t have time to check out the inside of the castle, but the outside gardens and archery courtyard were cool, and it was worth spending the time to just walk through more residential neighborhoods outside the touristy areas. It was sort of fun to get temporarily lost on the way back towards the main city. We ended day two with an important lesson about travel and Spain: rosé and Chinese food do not go together. And really, just don’t eat Chinese food in Spain.

The morning before our flight home to Sevilla, we had time for one final Gaudí stop: la Casa Battló, a whimsical house with design inspiration from an interesting combination of a human skeleton and the ocean. There are hardly any straight lines inside, which mimicks ocean waves, and slits at the top of the house, modeled after fish gills, provide ventilation. Every detail of the house has aesthetic and functional purpose. Travel has gotten me into architecture more than ever, and Barcelona played a tremendous role in developing that interest.

Our school schedule only allowed us to stay for the weekend, but there is so much more to see in Barcelona. The city’s artsy vibe is already begging me to come back, and I can’t wait for my next adventure there. Since national identity is one of my research interests for my degree and career, I’m sure making it back to the capital of this unique Catalán nation won’t be too difficult!

-Steph

 

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Not a Place

 

One of the many breathtaking views that I miss and long for quite regularly. {Morocco}

One of the many breathtaking views that I miss and long for quite regularly. {Morocco}

This weekend I got to see an old and very good friend.  We were talking about the places where we live and the places we’ve been to or want to go, and I commented that I wish I were back in Spain instead of in the U.S. at least once a day.  Every single day.  Because despite the challenges of studying abroad, I found genuine happiness there, more than I had experienced in quite some time.  But my friend’s response really resonated with me:

“That’s a terrible way to live,” he said.  “You just have to find what it was that made you happy–not the place or the people, but how you lived, what you did with your life–and do that here.”

I really admired his wisdom in that statement.  First, because although the city of Sevilla is my heart and soul, it is far from perfect.  Timeliness and efficiency aren’t exactly strengths there, I may still be recovering from the volume of bread we consumed, and sometimes your favorite café is randomly closed with no notice/explanation.  (Yes, Café del Valle, I am still bitter that you closed for the Corpus Cristi festival on my last day in Europe). Second, because although our TCU Spain group is familia and I can’t imagine going through my study abroad experiences with anyone else, I also missed some crucial people in my life while I was Spain.

What I really miss about Sevilla is the way I lived.  I’ve written before about missing the art and the food (Okay, the sangria.  But the food too.) and the travel…but it’s more than that. My entire approach to life was different while I studied abroad.  Priorities changed.  My first thought waking up in the morning was not, What’s on my long to-do list that I have to accomplish today before I’m allowed to crash and fall asleep?  It was, What new adventure am I going to have today?  Where can I explore?  Where can I marvel at something beautiful?  What will I learn about the world, about someone else, or about myself today?  I knew my time in Spain was limited, so I tried to live every moment purposefully.

What would happen if we woke up with those questions at home, living our everyday lives, and not just when we’re traveling?  Pretty radical idea, isn’t it?  What if we lived with an energy for the life we’re in right now, regardless of the specific circumstances? One of my professors seems to have a good grasp on this idea.  I mean, this guy gets excited about ordering a pizza after work on a Friday night.  And he brightens the day of everyone around him because his zest for life just overflows.  I’m still trying to figure out his secret.

Our Spain group has dubbed Sundays to be #sevillasunday, which basically means masochistic Instagramming.  But this weekend, I’m happy to be in Texas.  I cheered my Horned Frogs to victory at my final home football game as an undergrad, I spent time with a dearly-missed friend, and I enjoyed a Model UN dinner with the best group of poli sci nerds that I know. Since I leave for the Czech Republic on Friday (ahh!!!), my schedule/to-do list before the trip is daunting.  But instead of viewing those tasks as obligations to check off a list, my goal this week is to see them as opportunities to learn about the issues that drive my passions for international relations and foreign language.

I can’t travel constantly (though if somehow I could make a career out of that, I wouldn’t complain).  But purposeful living doesn’t have to be confined to travel.  Because ultimately, adventure isn’t a place.  It’s a way of life.

However, since it’s late and I have a lot of papers to work on, I wouldn’t mind trading my American coffee for some good Spanish café con leche right about now.

-Steph

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When the adventure ends.

I have yet to catch up on tales of adventures of Spain, Austria, and Germany, I realize.  Those stories will come.  And next month I will have a Czech Republic trip to share with you as well.

But today, I want to talk about what happens after the adventure.  That thing that we all try to escape.  That thing called reality.

When you travel, be it a short vacation or longer-term studying abroad, in the back of your mind you know that it can’t last forever. Eventually you have to return to work and school and your life back home.  I took classes in Spain, I still had to work for my grades, I still got stressed out.  But in Spain, I didn’t spend every waking hour being hyper-productive.  I got healthy amounts of sleep, when I wasn’t taking a midnight bus to Portugal or chasing down pasos during Holy Week that is. I sipped tea or café con leche (or sangria, of course, always a good option) and discussed life’s great questions with good friends.  I explored.  I took walks by the Guadalquivir River.  I journaled in the Plaza de España.  And although study abroad certainly had its challenges, overall I think I thrived in that environment.

While I was in Spain, I told myself that those habits of taking time out of my day to enjoy life’s simple pleasures had to continue when I returned to the U.S.  That time did wonders for my life and my sanity, and I wanted to carry the lessons of Sevilla with me when I returned home.  Even if I wouldn’t have the time to slow down quite so much, I thought that surely I could find just a little time.  Well, as a fourth-year college student with a research-heavy course load/job, looming deadlines for grad school applications, and loads of other things overfilling her plate, let me be the first to confess that “a little time” is not always so easy to find.

I could list a thousand other things I should be getting done right now instead of writing this post, but sometimes, I have come to realize, you have to allow yourself to stop.  Maybe you think you can’t afford to take a short break, but sometimes, you can’t afford not to.  Pre-Spain Stephanie wouldn’t dream of doing anything else until she was completely caught up (which by my definition is “way ahead”).  Now, I try to be okay with taking a break if I need it and understanding that the world won’t end if I do.  In fact, giving yourself those little moments to recharge probably increases your productivity later.  I’m not perfect at it, but I think it is a worthy goal.

For me, those breaks mean journaling (I’ve actually been good about a page a day).  They mean annotating The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the hundredth time (please go read this life-changing book if you never have).  They mean committing to running (until now at least, stress fractures are the worst…and I may have attempted to not care about pain and run this weekend because I miss this outlet that badly after only a week).

Stop to think about what little joys you need to seek in your everyday life.  Because returning to reality doesn’t have to mean losing the beautiful traveler’s spirit that you cultivated away from your little corner of the world.

-Steph

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What I wouldn’t give to steal away to this place in this moment….

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Torn Between Two Worlds

(Posted a bit late because airport wifi didn’t work and because I was too exhausted after 24 hours of traveling to post.)

I confess I am a bit behind on travel blogging.  Since my last post, I’ve traveled to Barcelona and Granada, experienced Sevilla’s defining Feria de Abril, cheered on both of the city’s football teams, finished school, taken a trip through Germany and Austria, and just soaked up as much of Sevilla as humanly possible before returning to the U.S.  Which is what I’m doing now.  And it doesn’t seem real yet.  So in attempt to stay awake through 18 hours of flights and layovers to get back on Central Time, I’ll pen a few blog posts.  (And watch movies until my computer dies or I revert to Spanish custom and take a siesta, whichever comes first).  I realize by writing my “returning to the U.S.” post first I am compromising the time sequence of this blog, but perhaps Spain has taught me to be slightly less type-A and it won’t bother me too much.  At any rate, I felt it best to write about going home when I’m actually going so that you get the raw experience (then I’ll backtrack and share more of my adventures abroad, because it’s probably all I’ll be able to talk about for a while).

The best way I can describe the feeling of returning to the U.S. is totally bipolar.

On one hand, there are a lot of things I miss about my American lifestyle.  Living independently, peanut butter, efficiency and competitive motivation, Spotify, wardrobe variety, not being served copious amounts of bread with giant plates of more carbs….. Yes, I came abroad to embrace other cultures, but that doesn’t for a second mean that I have lost my American identity.  It’s who I am, where I’m most comfortable, where I thrive.  Oh, and I get to drive and turn up my radio stations and be alone when I go places instead of crowded into public transportation.  That is bliss.  If I remember how to drive that is.

I also really miss my family and friends, and I am thrilled to see everyone very, very soon.  I only have one full day home in St. Louis, but I’ll get to hang out with my parents, my sister, my dog, my best friends…and finally catch up on their lives without battling Viber and trying to tune out kids’ birthday parties at McDonald’s as I search for a strong enough wifi connection to call.  Then I’ll be off to Texas for a summer research program and get to spend the summer near several of my closest TCU friends.

And finally, returning to the U.S. means returning to TCU, and this Horned Frog has seriously missed her community, her major, and the best professors  one could hope for.  I can’t wait to start fall classes amongst my fellow poli sci nerds, come back to the Model UN team (including leading them in NYC!), continue working on my senior thesis, and apply to graduate programs.  I’m excited for senior year festivities, football games, the Jarvis swing, Frog Fountain, and walking through a sea of purple all over campus.  Go Frogs!

But as wonderful as all those things are, they still don’t make it easy to leave Spain and return to the U.S.  Yes, I’m going home to St. Louis and then home to TCU, but I’m also leaving a home in Sevilla.  It’s crazy how quickly you can become attached to a place.  I became close with my roommates in my host home, one of whom is not a TCU student and I won’t get to see often.  Although I don’t want to sugarcoat Spanish customs and my experiences with them, many customs have become my new normal.  I found my favorite spots to wander and walk and reflect:  narrow side streets in El Centro, down the Río Guadalquivir near the Triana Bridge, the Plaza de España.  Our TCU group was incredibly tight-knit, and although we will still hang out on campus, it will never be exactly the same as our own little Spanish niche away from our campus and other friends and the distractions of American busyness.  Plus, we don’t have Café del Valle in the U.S., and that’s our place.  (Also it was closed yesterday for the Corpus Cristi festival and I was extremely sad about it.)

Yesterday was my final day in Sevilla before catching a 7AM flight, and even then I was torn between just wanting to get home (though partially that was to get the nostalgic goodbye over with) and feeling adamant that I could absolutely spend a second semester in Spain.  I’ve been sick the last couple of days, I was exhausted from traveling for 11 days, and the ability to collapse into an American pillow sounded like heaven (European pillows aren’t too great in my experience).  But as much as I have learned about Sevilla and Spain as a whole, that has only shown me how much more I could learn.  If I were here even longer, I thought, I could immerse myself even further and become more fluent and know all there is to know about this beautiful country.  Those extremes came in waves within the same hour multiple times yesterday.  Thankfully, my friend Alayna  was there so I didn’t have to ride that emotional roller coaster alone.  Though our personalities are so similar that we probably reinforced each other’s fragile mental states.

It didn’t fully hit me that I was really leaving until I had to walk away from the Plaza de España, my favorite place in the city, last night.  That’s when the tears hit.  That’s when I realized that no matter where else I live in my life, part of me will always be home in Sevilla.  I have so many homes now, all unique, all special, all mine.

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Sevilla’s motto is NO8DO, which stands for no me ha dejado.  “Sevilla has not left me.”  I heard a local explain it once.  She said that whenever a sevillano leaves Sevilla, he/she says that the city is always with him/her.  This city has taught me so much.  Spanish, to begin with (I am afraid to use the word “fluent” because that comes with such high expectations, so instead I’ll say that if I were randomly dropped somewhere in a Spanish-speaking country, I could confidently find my way).  Cultural understanding, communication, courage.  How to travel.  Perseverance, patience, priorities.  The importance of balance with everything in life, especially with time.  Reflection, resourcefulness, reliance on yourself and at times on others.  And as I’ve heard from past study abroad students, you don’t even realize how much you’ve changed until you get back, which means there are probably more life lessons I’ve gained and will discover later.

Sevilla no me ha dejado.  I may have left Sevilla, but Sevilla has not left me.  And it never will.  Jamás me dejará.  I am thrilled to go home to the U.S., and I am equally thrilled at the prospect of the returning to Spain in the future.  Whichever home I’m in at the time, it’s not a matter of saying adios.  It’s nos vemos, we will see each other.

-Steph

Triana Bridge

Triana Bridge

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