Originally, my great college friend Kristen was supposed to visit for my Spring Break. We had plans to enjoy Genoa and the Cinque Terre (classics for all my first time visitor friends) before snagging a cheap flight down to Sicily where we would enjoy beautiful weather and impressive scenery. My father and I got a peek at Sicily that fall, also in the shoulder season where the crowds are nonexistent, and the weather is warm and sunny. I was really looking forward to this girls’ trip: great conversation, wine, laughing and exploring with a fun buddy I haven’t seen or even really talked to much since I moved due to our schedules.
Big breaks are a big deal for an international teacher, since we usually get shorter ones or weekends for our travel, and on the really big breaks like Christmas and Summer, we fly home. This year, my father and I visited Sicily for our first ever fall break, I went home for the 2.5 weeks at Christmas, and my mom flew over for our annual February trip to Dublin plus a Swiss ski adventure. This was my last break of the school year. I chose Kristen, leaving it wide open for her.
Then I got the text: “I’m sorry, don’t hate me. I have a massive caseload at work that goes right over those dates. I can’t get away until later this summer.”
I was disappointed, yet I have to admit that I was super excited because my spring break became all mine! I could do whatever I wanted to do, at my own schedule, at my own whim. I’m great company, and I love to follow adventure, ramble about for hours, write in my journal, sit at a cafe and people watch, or just do absolutely nothing. My vacation, my style. I was excited by the treat, and enthusiastically began planning.
Originally, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities. Then slowly I got some focus. I wanted warm, good weather, beaches, and . . . well, thinking back to how much I loved Barcelona that Fall, I wanted more Spain. In particular, Andalusia has been on my must-see list for years, and my friend Jessica of European Escapades told me that I must also see Valencia as she raved about it while rambling about Barcelona with me on the heels of her solo adventure in Spain. I decided to visit Seville, Malaga from the recommendation of another coworker who adored it, and finally Valencia. I booked a flight straight out of Genoa with Vueling, a low-cost air carrier that only runs a few days a week. To save money and avoid flying out of Milan, I ended up with a long layover in Barcelona, so I just popped into an airport hotel, enjoyed a great dinner, and flew out early the next morning, arriving in Sevilla with a full day to explore. The vacation ahhh!
I hopped on the affordable airport bus, and arrived quickly and easily in the city center, where I followed the blue dot on my google maps for the short walk to my hotel. Hotels are cheap in Spain! Since this was my spring break, I decided it was worth paying a tiny bit more to get an even nicer hotel in a great location. My hotel had a rooftop deck, which I have to admit was a big selling point. I left my luggage, aware that check-in was a few hours away, then strolled around the corner for breakfast and a coffee. I sat outside and ordered an American breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, coffee and fresh OJ! You order weird things when you travel as an expat. The things we crave are often the familiar comforts of home when those are often the big no-nos of travelling on shorter jaunts from America.
I felt a supreme sense of calm and joy lingering over my coffee. Then I wandered through the winding streets of the neighborhood, magic and mystery around each corner. I relished each step and discovery, grateful that I had this opportunity. I instagrammed this collage during that walk to showcase my first impressions of Sevilla:
I vowed that I would not allow “Site-Shaming” on this trip, or to feel guilt about things I should be doing. If I see it, great. If not, no sweat. I’m on vacation! Also, I tried to do only minimal research on my location to leave as much wonder as possible and minimize disappointment. With this approach, it is more of an adventure with more surprises and awe. As it was just before Easter, the streets were calm and the churches were packed with visitors admiring impressively ornate floats featuring saints. The one pictured here is Our Lady of Macarena. Everyone was taking photos in awe. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was seeing until later, but I followed along.
I wandered for hours, along roads lined with red banners, and eventually used the blue dot to find my way back to the hotel, eating up my international cell phone data. There must be a better way to use my data for Vodafone in Italy while travelling. Well, there was; it’s called the Passport, and only 4 euros a day. I just didn’t understand the Italian well enough to know about it, but my students told me later on a school trip I led to Dublin. Changed my travel life. But on this trip — ahh, I didn’t know yet. I realized we have become so dependent on our smart technology. I learned that lesson the hard way when first arriving in Milan and stayed at the spa so long that I missed the last train back to Genoa. Instead, I figured I’d grab a cheap hostel. But my phone died. So I just wanted to find an Internet cafe. I wandered for hours to no avail, then ended up grabbing a hotel by the train station in lieu of sleeping on the station floor, although I definitely could have had a great deal at a hostel. I also noticed that hotels no longer give directions that you can print out and find later. Now you need to use google maps. Sometimes, all they give you are the coordinates. People expect you to have access to certain information. Like, who buys maps anymore. I didn’t have a Sevilla map. I needed my smart phone, at whatever cost.
Eventually it was time to check into my hotel room. I walked inside and was impressed by the cleanliness and beauty of the recent renovation yet also shocked by the size as it barely fit me and my bed. Location ruled here, though, and it was all I needed so I was thrilled. Eying the bed and relishing lazy vacation mode, I crawled in and lingered in a half nap daze for a few hours. I heard some drumming sounds through the double paned window glass. What’s going on outside? I was curious, but not curious enough to move quickly. Eventually, I peeled myself away to go for a run. The noise grew louder as I pounded down the marble steps to the entry way. There was a parade going right by the hotel. And TV crews were set up outside. I was right on the parade route for the Semana Santa pasos, or parades. It was Holy Saturday, and this was the climax.
At home in the US, I’m not one for statues of saints, feeling that it’s a bit like idol worship. My Catholic self has grown more and more secular over the years, although I retained my spirituality and belief in God. Although walking throughout Genoa, I’d find myself saying Hail Marys at the many statues on buildings absolutely everywhere, including outside my living and bedroom windows. Here in Sevilla during the paso, I felt the emotion along with the crowd– the energy and reverence affected me. I watched families with awe and jealousy because I was far from mine. I was a camera, on the outside looking in, a temporary visitor, a wanderer. I wondered when I would have my own family. Would I? At 33, I thought I would be at least dating the man who’d become my husband. Dreaming about my family as a little girl, I always assumed it was a given. Now I realize nothing is guaranteed. I could follow my dream. I could do all the things I want, but I can’t plan love.
Time alone allowed me the space to wonder: what if I had made different choices? Career, Travel, Big Moves and Big Dreams, my love of independence. I had everything I dreamed about in this international adventure–all the things I wanted, a life for me. But in chasing that dream, was I not open to my other ones? Ultimately, I was so content to be single and alone in that moment, relishing the temporary, selfish independence. Would it become permanent? Everyone was surprised that I didn’t “find my husband in Italy.” Well, that’s not what I set out to do. That’s not the purpose of this experience. It was about finding me. That’s not right either. I was always self aware — rather, it was about giving myself the freedom to do, enjoy, experience and be exactly who I am. I was ecstatic.
So, as the parade wandered along, the crowd grew to a hush each time a float came close. These floats featured the stations of the cross, statues depicting the passion of Christ. I stayed a while, and then it was clear that the parade would last for hours. I went on that run, through the narrow medieval streets that spilled out onto a grand boulevard along a canal. I ran down to the canal, a place not really for tourists, where expats and students, families, and singles ran, strolled, and enjoyed. It was a bit gritty, crumbling and lined with graffiti. But I liked it– off the beaten path, into the local world for just a moment. I moved abroad for this continued experience, and even in my short travels I seek glimpses of this. Invigorated by my runner’s high, I wandered back through the streets and hit a jam on my way to the hotel. The parade was winding through. At this point, children clothed in black hooded robes passed slowly, guarding their candles. It was an eerie yet beautiful tradition, and I was grateful to be a part of it.
Eventually I found a clear route to my hotel, where I showered and went up to the roof to watch a bit, then down for some tapas. I randomly chose a place around the corner that looked quaint. I sat at the bar and asked what they recommended. My time in Italy had improved my Spanish listening skills, but even with 5 years of middle and high school Spanish, I was not comfortable in my speaking skills as I fumbled over my questions in an English-Italian-Spanish mix. Luckily, the server spoke some English, and suggested some delicious dishes and a stellar red wine that made me forget the wines of Italy. I didn’t write exactly what I had, and in a move so unlike me, I didn’t photograph the tapas. I guess I was truly living in the moment.
I later tweeted, “If you don’t like Spain, you are missing part of your soul. And your whole stomach.” I like Spain. Always did. It has a lot of the things I love about Italy: mountains, the sea, great wine, cured meat, delicious cuisine, small and flavorful coffee, ornate churches, family-oriented culture, passion. Yet Spain, and particularly Andalusia, had their own unique traits that enchanted me. Most of all, I felt extremely welcome and at home even while all alone. After a second glass of wine, I strolled around and caught the night-time portion of the parade, which was mostly folks carrying those candles. While watching the parade, it became Easter. I was filled with gratitude and said a brief prayer of thanks for this beautiful life and this beautiful experience.
Eventually, I grabbed a frozen yogurt under a starlit sky, and finished it on the roof of my hotel before crawling back into my cozy bed.
I awoke refreshed the next morning as my muscles unwound in the way they only can do when on vacation. I enjoyed breakfast up on the top floor, strolled out to the roof to survey Sevilla on Easter, then asked at the desk for the nearest church. I enjoyed mass, and noticed one of the floats from last night was in this Church. Shortly after a beautiful service, I emerged into the sunshine and wished everyone a happy Easter morning on Instagram:
and posted this collage featuring scenes from the past couple of days:
It was then time to decide on lunch. I finally had a real map in my hands, courtesy of the hotel, where I saw a Mexican restaurant advertised. It’s nearly impossible to get good Mexican in Genoa, and to treat myself and satisfy that craving, I committed another vacation no-no by having Mexican food in Sevilla on Easter Sunday. And boy did I enjoy it, gorging on guacamole, chips, and enchiladas banderas while reading my kindle outside a grand church and cobblestoned streets. I preferred to be outside, to be where I was, even though there was just a heavy downpour and I had to push water off the table and seats. I had my space and fresh air.
I posted this photo along with the quote, “If you have a book, you’re never lonely.”
Then I decided to visit the Real Alcazar upon the recommendation of a former colleague from NYC who had studied abroad in Sevilla. I didn’t want to site shame myself if I missed it, but I decided it was a perfect way to spend the rest of the day. I waited on a short line, then went in to the palace featuring beautiful Moorish architecture. I wandered the grounds, played with photography, and saw two peacocks. So . . .success!
That evening, I saw incredible flamenco that brought out every emotion of the universe. I booked an intimate performance venue tucked into the charming old quarter, where I could wander happily for hours. I’ve always been intrigued by the art of Flamenco, and even loved the touristy show I saw in Barcelona when I took my students on a school trip back in 2009. This one was more authentic, with more art, no photography allowed until the end, and so much passion I felt like I was watching something I shouldn’t… I recall this is how Samantha Brown had phrased it during her visit to Sevilla.
I rushed back a bit to catch friends and family on Skype for Easter, and I meant to leave the hotel to enjoy more nocturnal exploration of magical streets. But my bed was stronger than my will.
The next morning, I enjoyed one more breakfast, and then headed to Malaga at my leisure. But I was in love with Sevilla. I will return, one more of the many places where I left my heart.