Friday, August 28, 2009

Introducing...Gnomie the Traveling Gnome!

Gnomie is a traveling Gnome.
Around the world he likes to roam.

Gnomie researching hostels online...very helpful.

Gnomie loves fromage and so do I!

Gnomie on the window ledge in San Sebastian.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

From Aviles we headed along the northern coast on the A-8/E-70 and down to Santiago de Compostela (also known as Saint James of Compostela). From what we've seen, Spain has an excellent road and bridge system for cars, bikes and hikers alike!

We could have easily passed 100 bikers and hikers total on our way to Santiago de Compostela which is a pilgrimage destination for people all over Europe (mainly Spain and France I would imagine). I met a student at my school who said that he made the pilgrimage in three weeks by foot staying at hostels along the way and eating with other pilgrims. Belowis a picture of what the modern day pilgrim looks like...Canterbury Tales anyone?

Welcome all ye pilgrims!

The Cathedral (above) marks the destination of pilgrimages dating from the 9th century! Gnomie, our notable travel gnome, was thrilled to have a gander at the spectacle!

We were quite pleased to arrive in Santiago around 2pm and spent most of the day exploring! We managed to find ourselves in a park (connect to a school perhaps?) among beaucoups of leisurely park dwellers.

Then, we met up with our couchsurfing host for the night - Dr. Jon Shock, who works in the field of string theory and is brilliant! We had such an awesome time staying with him and after a quick stop at the grocery store we were cooking with steam (in the picture below, Phillip is resting his arm on Jon's stackable steamer). The meal was excellent and so were the conversations that followed! Woo-hoo!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

First Day of School!

The bus into Puyricard, a town north of Aix where classes will be held, was packed full of students this morning for the first day of a two week-long French or English (depending on where you’re from) course before actual school begins. I placed into level 3 French (intermediate – advanced - holler!) with about 20 other students from all over the world.

My French class is only in the morning which allows afternoons free to explore while my roommates, who are in the other levels, are in class. So far, meeting people has been very amusing. My name is particularly difficult to say in any language other than English. The French have an especially difficult time saying ‘Heather’ because of the first H which is silent in French, and the ‘th’ which doesn’t exist in the French. I’ve been getting a lot of ‘Heater’ – which is a good attempt, but I haven’t been called Heater since the 4th grade when my teacher misspelled my name one day and the nickname stuck! I really don’t mind. In fact, it’s a great conversation starter. I write down my name for them, they write down their name for me, and we both learn how to spell our weird names. And there are a lot of weird names considering the school is the home of international business management programs for students all over the world. Today I met people from Brazil, Germany, Holland, China, India, Mexico, and a few other locations I’m not as familiar with. It’s nice to meet some new people and expand from the cluster of Americans I typically find myself with these days!

Yesterday a few of the MGIM students and I took a beach trip to Marseille which is about 25 minutes away. We left Aix by bus, arrived at the Marseille train station (gare), then took the metro down to the beach. It should have taken us about 45 minutes to do this, but since there’s a first time for everything, it took about an hour and half. So far it’s been really nice meeting everyone in the program. Most of the students from the US are from NCState University. By the way, if you’re interested in what my program is, check out the program’s site: I have a difficult time explaining it because it is pretty general, and was initially intended for engineering and science backgrounds – of which I am neither, ha!

Friday, August 21, 2009

My Arrival in Aix-En-Provence

At present, Phillip, Emily (the first of three roommates to arrive) and I have officially moved into our flat which isn’t very flat as it occupies space on three floors. This cozy place is quite charming and ideal for two however we are four which means we’ll be getting very well acquainted. Phillip leaves tomorrow, to my hearts dismay, and will be starting his final year of school in Bordeaux on Tuesday. Tonight, my third roommate arrives, the forth tomorrow, and then we have orientation with the rest of the students in the program! So far I’ve met almost all of those who live in the States for either dinner or a group trip to a Durham Bulls game. The consensus seems to be that none of us have a clue what we should expect of this first semester experience in France. Luckily we’ve allowed a few days to settle in and become familiar with our surroundings before we’re challenged and put to the books.

I’ve passed a few of the same people in the streets everyday and have identified who the locals are and who the tourists are…there are a lot of tourists! Everyday I pass the guy with dreadlocks and athletic calves who moves furniture near the church; the drunk in the courtyard near the bar; the guy who starts playing the accordion around 2pm everyday which I can hear from the 4th floor of my building; and the sound of the obnoxious child calling “Papa! Papa!” repeatedly from downstairs leaving me to wonder where in the world that child’s father is and if they could kindly respond so that the child can stop calling.

I’ve also become familiar with the church bell which looks like a picture in a frame at night through our window and rings on the hour and half hour starting at 7am; the motor scooters that zoom through the streets while people dodge them to get by; and the never-ending heat which becomes easy to confuse with a fever! Don’t tell our mothers, but Phillip & I have both just gotten over a fever which we probably acquired during the 8 hour car ride from Spain to Montpellier in the sun with little to eat. It really shouldn’t take that long to drive that route but we drove along the coast which followed the contour of the cliffs jutting in and out rather than the straight highway.

And now, we’re waiting for our wonderful landlord, Sylvie, to return with a third set of keys. Sylvie is a very outgoing and friendly lady. She’s French and studied American Literature as a young student, then studied cinematography in Aix, where we are currently living. She is a casting director and just finished choosing the cast for an HBO movie and a FOX show – one of which is Gulliver’s Travels, so let me know if you see it! She should be arriving soon, so catch up on H&P Bilbao & Aviles below while I wait for her!

Ps: my address is 15 Rue Gaston de Saporta, 13100 Aix-En-Provence

H+P Road Trip: Bilbao to Avilés, Spain

After a night of unexpected fun and excitement, we awoke around 7:30am to retrieve our car and head to our next destination Avilés by way of Bilbao to see Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao and many distinctive art installations inside. Our early start paid off as we arrived before the rush, plus we got a student discount which saved us half of the admission. Portable headsets are awesome at museums because you can learn so much more…so we got two for free (with admission)! As someone who has been to a lot of museums all over the world, I’d have to say that the Guggenheim Bilbao is one of the best museums I’ve seen with some of the most over the top installations.

Inside, we weren’t allowed to take pictures (although I snuck one while no one was looking). I had no set expectations from looking at other people’s pictures which made the experience even more unique. You may have experienced this – you have your hopes built up about seeing something but once you see it you’re a little let down because you’ve already seen it a dozen times on the internet. Luckily, that wasn’t the case for this museum and we were impressed with everything. One of the neatest installations was a pack of 80 or so stuffed life-sized wolves in a large room frozen in the action of running, leaping and crashing into a large glass wall before returning to do it again. We spent just over two ours at the museum but could have stayed a lot longer.

We arrived in Avilés and were a bit lost for a good hour. Avilés isn’t that big but our directions weren’t much avail to find our evening pension. But we found it! We stayed in an area occupied by locals and saw absolutely no tourists – which was great and gave us a chance to work on our Spanish! After check in, we stumbled upon what appeared to be a quick and easy café but turned out to be a large open air Spanish restaurant called ‘Yumay’ where all of the neighbors congregated for familiar evening meals. It was awesome. We felt very comfortable and lucky to have found a great place to eat great food and observe culture and happiness! Our waiter was hilarious and considering our obvious language differences he provided us with an entertaining and memorable experience for our short one night stop in Avilés on our way to Santiago de Compostela!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Greetings from San Sebastian (one week late)!

We arrived in San Sebastian in exactly 5 hours at 12:30 stopping only to pick up some French cheese and Perrier for our couchsurfing hosts later on in the trip. We stuck to back roads provided by michelin.maps in an effort to avoid the toll roads and a ton of weekend vacation traffic.

Finding our sleeping arrangements for the night was the first item on our list and it wasn’t too hard. After entering the beach city nestled between two large hills we became easily oriented after driving around for only a short bit and some how managed to stumble upon our pension which was basically an apartment space rented out by a couple for short visits. We were in luck! The couple was incredibly helpful and eager to point us in the right direction. We also arrived on the first night of a week-long celebration, and had four wonderful roommates from Uruguay (two of whom live in Barcelona and you’ll hear more about them in the Barcelona section of our trip). After parking and lugging a few bags up to the apartment, we were headed out – map in hand – as tourists on the go!

San Sebastian is known for their food, and Phillip and I love food! Almost all of the bars display a variety of finger foods, called Pintxo (“pincho”), along the bar top for pub crawlers to munch on with a tasty cervesa!

The city is small enough to be easy to get around on foot in a day which was great for us because we only had a day! We followed the beach where about five dozen surfers were waiting to catch a wave, then headed down the river and crossed over to where the festivities were being set up for the night.

After a hike up the hill on the western bank we made our way back down to the streets where the craziness began!! Somehow we managed to find the beginning of a huge parade through the city featuring locals wearing 3 foot tall paper mâché heads and historic costume followed by a drum and flute band – it was awesome! We marched along with the folks into the streets and stopped at a few more bars for some more food and some great conversation with a few French vacationers!

We were lucky enough to be apart of the parade, but we didn’t expect to end up running from a bunch of protesters in the streets… While walking from bar to bar we encountered a mass of runners (numerous times) and thought that either a bull had been let loose or a bomb had gone off – one can only guess when they’re frantically running with a bunch of Basque Spaniards in a narrow street. Apparently, a large group of demonstrators decided to protest against the inhumanity of torturing and killing the bull for sport and they were running from the police!

It was very exciting and the atmosphere was charged to the max. We had no idea we'd be arriving during such an active time! Another things I have to mention is that the police squad was completely decked out from head to toe including face masks to protect their identity because a lot of them have become victim to attacks of the separatist movements taking place in the region! to put it in layman's terms, there are Spanish regions strong in culture and identity and want to separate and be recognized as their own country apart from Spain. These movements have come with a lot of violence and defiance from both sides.

Our afternoon was incredibly exciting and we'd only been there for a few hours. We met up with our pension-mates in the evening and headed out for fireworks which would take place everynight during the celebration week. I've never seen such awesome fireworks! Each series of fireworks were put on by a different pyro-technical fireworks artist! Although it was drizzing rain, it was super neat! The festival had officially commenced with live dance shows in the streets, and people running around with fake bulls on their heads and fireworks coming out their tail ends. Those Spaniards sure know how to party!

It was only the first day & night and so much had happened! We were exhausted, but excited to see what our next destination had to offer! Stay tuned for Bilbao & Avlés next!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Eh, No Updates???

I've received a few emails concerning why there have been no updates! for H&P European Road Trip Part Dos (Spain, Portugal, France) and the reason for this is because we haven't had internet! In fact, this is our 4th stop and we finally have internet with our couch surfing hosts Leila & Martin - a couple from Brazil who are currently living in Porto, Portugal. We've taken A TON of pictures and a bit of video here and there and have yet to upload it so bear with us!

Last night we stayed in Santiago de Compostella on the Northwest tip of Spain.
We stayed with a wonderful host named "Dr. Shock", also known as Jon, from Oxford, England. Jon is a brilliant man who works in particle & material science and combines string theory and quantum mechanics = holy moly! Our short stay with him was wonderful because of our amazing science lesson over a steamed veggie and seafood dinner!

On the drive to Santiago from Aviles, Spain, we stopped in Bilbao for an amazing trip to the Guggenheim. We were both blown away by the massive artistic installations on display throughout the museum along with the museum itself!

Before Aviles, we spent our first night in San Sebastian - Spain's Basque Country which harbors a culture apart from the rest of Spain, with a dialect of its own. This particular day was charged with incredible energy as it was the first day of a week long festival as well as a time of demonstrations and protests! The city was literally packed with people from noon until well into the following morning. I took a lot of video of all the craziness that occurred and I'll be posting that soon!

So much to say! In the mean time, things that might interest you to look up (aside from the supplied links above):

1. Read
(provided by Dr. Shock) - Work Hard. Be Nice. (How 2 inspired teachers created the most promising schools in the USA) by Jay Mathews

2. Download (also provided by Dr. Shock) - Ted Talk (just search for it online) Brian Cox's 1st Talk on the LHC Particle accelerator.

3. Speak
(provided by Leila & Martin) - Learn a language by visiting

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jupiter is Bright in Spain!

Currently traveling in Spain - Stories to come, please stay tunned!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

T-Minus 1 Day and I'm Off!

Bonjour mes amis!

The time has come - holy vache!! It has finally sunk in that I will be leaving for more than a vacation, more than a short stop that skims the surface. 5 months in the grand scheme is brief - but the best thing about being at DAY 1 is that I have no idea what to expect. I'm anticipating a wonderfully long awaited experience that has the potential to change my life in the best of ways!

I hope you'll join me in this experience be it from your computer screen (your comments will make this blog a lot better - hint hint!), through contributed pictures of your travel adventures, or by purchasing a ticket in the fall (when tickets are cheap-er) to come over for a visit!

Either way, expect to read some good stuff. I'll be posting yummy recipes, museum visits, plenty of Pics of the Day, weekend retreats to sizzling locations, phrases in French, and updates on my studies & masters program. Stay updated on your google browser by clicking on Join This Site on the right-hand side (scroll down) where all of my sensational followers are located or by adding TravelString to you favorites. Should be a good time - hope you're along for the ride!

<3 Heather A.