Christmas in Madrid

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Christmas in Sol, in the centre of the city.

It feels weird to talk about Christmas in the middle of January, but I feel like last Christmas is one I’d like to have a record of on the blog. Not that Christmas in Madrid was hugely different from Christmas in Ireland, but it was fantastic all the same.

There was still the Christmas concert in schools across the country. In my case, our school had a Christmas carol concert, where they sang a mixture of songs in English and Spanish. My third grade’s song, Mi Burrito Sabanero (My little Savannah Donkey) has been stuck in my head for some time now, and even today at school, kids were singing it. The school also recorded a video of all the different classes and all the teachers singing a Christmas song, which was very cute. You can find me in the video with one of my second-grade classes and of course with the teachers! Thankfully, my school is fantastic and has a great blog, so if you’re interested you can watch the children’s concert and our fun video!

Concert carols: http://ceippenalta.blogspot.com/2019/01/penalta-en-navidad.html

Video: http://ceippenalta.blogspot.com/2018/12/feliz-navidad.html

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This was the Christmas Tree in my school, which had the face of each of the 300 students on it. The kids loved it, as the photos were all from when they entered the school, normally at 3 years old.

And of course, we had a Staff Christmas Party! However, I have to say, the Spanish do it better. After the concert, we headed to the restaurant all the teachers go to for lunch on Fridays and had a feast! No one was lacking food or drink, and it was lovely to get to know some more of the other staff. After three hours of eating, it was decided we needed an activity, so the principal headed back to the school to get a projector and started some karaoke! Only for the fact that the restaurant kicked us out 4 hours later, we probably would still be singing.

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The Christmas Markets at Plaza Mayor. Most of the stalls sold Christmas decorations. The Spanish are obsessed with Nativity Scenes, or Beléns, and each house or business has one infinitely better than any Irish one I’ve seen.

Yet, there are some things that are different when you celebrate Christmas in Spain. The first is the wonderful Christmas markets in the capital. Though Dublin has started to try and have Christmas markets in the past few years, they really aren’t the same. I went to the ones in Plaza Mayor, the main square, on a few occasions, and each time something new made me smile. It really was a fantastic atmosphere, though it lacked something like mulled wine to walk around with.

Perhaps one of my favourite Christmas thing in Madrid was the Naviluz Bus. The idea of the bus was to travel through the city centre and see all the Christmas lights. It was such a cool way to both see the lights and the city, as it was the only time I’ve been on a double-decker bus in Madrid. It was cheap enough, at €4 a ticket, but the tickets sold out before the start of December, so its key to buy them quickly. It was also freezing on top of the bus, and though we were wrapped up warm, we needed more layers. I would definitely recommend doing it with kids, who seemed to be the target market, but even for us 20-odd-year-olds, it was a fun experience.

Another Christmas tradition is El Gordo, the Christmas lottery. Drawn every year on the 22nd December, it’s the biggest lottery of the year and pretty much everyone participates in it. It’s not cheap, however, at about €20 a ticket, but seeing as I’ve never bought a lottery ticket before (and don’t plan on buying many more), I decided it would be fun to join in. Unfortunately, as you would have known by now, I didn’t win anything. At least it’s a fun memento!

Christmas Day, though I didn’t celebrate it in Spain, is also a different affair. Christmas dinner is on Christmas Day and is traditionally lamb or fish or both. Like Ireland and a lot of the world, it’s a big family day, with people travelling home to see their loved ones.

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The first and second-grade children delivering their Christmas letters to the 3 King’s page.

The biggest difference is that Christmas does not end with Christmas Day (or St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland). Instead, it continues on until the 6th of January. This is due to the 3 Kings, the givers of gifts who bring the end of the season. Unlike us, it is not Santa who brings the presents, in fact, in some houses in Spain, Santa Claus is nearly a bad word. Instead, the 3 Wise Men bring the children their Christmas wishes. Spanish Children write letters to the Kings and give them to the kings’ pages in school. In my school, they even get to ask for a present for the class, which they got on their first morning back. It was really interesting to see the kids write their letters and talk about their favourite kings (most of them chose Baltazar).

I also went to see the parade, or Cabalgata, of the Kings in Madrid on the night of the 5th of January, which for Spanish Children is their “Christmas Eve”. It was amazing to see the procession of the kings, but even more amazing to see the other floats. The parade started with the local firemen, and I was kind of confused to see the crowds go wild for them until the pelting started. From that moment on we were attacked by sweets thrown by each float, and the scramble for the fallen candies on the ground was fierce. Nearly every family had a bag to collect the goods together, but it wasn’t only the children who were searching for the sweets, adults were just as aggressively collective. It didn’t take me and Cathy long to join in, though we left most of the sweets for the children around us.

Though I wasn’t in Madrid for Christmas Day, I feel like I got to have a great experience of Christmas in Spain, as well as getting to go home to spend my time off with my family. Most of my time in Ireland was spent relaxing at home, but I got to catch up with all my friends and even got to do a little sightseeing as well! More about that another time.

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Catch up time

 

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My first Sunday back meant a long walk in El Retiro Park with my housemates. This is El Palacio de Cristal (The Glass Palace), an exhibition space there. Even though its January, its still beautiful out here in Madrid.

Hi guys!

So it’s apology time. I’m really sorry that I haven’t been active on the blog for nearly a month now. With preparation for Christmas and being home in Ireland for two weeks, I just let it slip and suddenly I was being asked, “when are we going to get another post?”

However since I got back from Ireland and settled back into life in Madrid, I’ve been busy! I’ve had to get my life in order again, head back to work, catch up with some Madrid friends and even squeeze in a trip to Ikea! This week ahead is looking busy too, with my sister Jenny arriving tonight (!!!!) and then one of my good friends, Imogen, coming over for a few days too! I can’t wait to be a proper tour guide, showing off my new home and pretending I’m a local.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is articles are coming! I promise! For the rest of my time here in Spain, I’ll be aiming for between 1-2 articles a week – there is so much to write about – and hopefully, I’ll be back in the rhythm soon. It just might take a little while longer. I’m sorry but I promise they will be good!

I hope you forgive me,

Sarah xo

 

P.S. I’m so glad to be home but also very glad I found this amazing model of Plaza Castilla one of the 6th Graders made for a class project. Such a cute representation of my barrio!

How to get my job and why to do it

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Back when I fell in love with this city, with my friend who told me about the program

So up until this point on my blog, I’ve only talked about my travels and my experiences here in Spain. I thought it was about time that I discussed how I actually got here!

About 3 years ago, while in Madrid doing a Spanish language course, I met an Irish student who had plans to take a gap year from college and live in the north of Spain. As someone who had planned to spend a year in Spain after university, I was intrigued to know what he planned to do for the year. He explained that he had applied to a program which got him a job teaching English in a secondary school, which sounded perfect for what I wanted to do.

Fast forward to last Christmas, when I message my friend. At this stage, I’d seen what a fantastic year he’d had abroad, the evidence all over Facebook and Instagram, and was more certain than ever that I needed a gap year! He was more than happy to pass on the info to me and thoroughly recommended the program.

It was only then I actually got to know what the program was about. The idea, stemming from a European Union initiative, was to have native speakers from across the continent go to different countries and pass on their natural knowledge of their languages. They would also work as a cultural ambassador, promoting their own country and its history.

Now if you know me, you know that I love to talk, but I also love to talk about Ireland, the EU and their history. I read all this and decided to make this my number one (and basically only) option for my year abroad. The application process was pretty easy, well, it would have been easier had I not waited until the last hour to drop off my application. Thank goodness the Irish Department of Education (who dealt with my application) was close to my apartment!

For my application (for the academic year 2018-19), I needed:

  • Application form (with photo)
  • C.V.
  • Proof of knowledge of the Spanish language
  • 2 letters of recommendation
  • Doctors letter of good health
  • Certified copy of my transcript/degree (a degree, or working towards one, is compulsory for any country).

To be honest, the hardest part of the application was choosing the region where I wanted to go. You didn’t technically get to chose your region, but you got to choose preferences out of 3 groups. I decided Madrid was my first choice, despite my friends’ encouragement to go somewhere new in Spain (this is my 4th time in the capital…). I kind of randomly chose my other preferences, which I would not recommend because it turns out I was extremely lucky to have gotten Madrid.

Then I just had to wait and see if I got into the program. I think I applied at the start of April, which was the month of my finals. This led me to completely forgot about the application until the middle of May when I had nothing else on my mind other than my future!! After waiting and waiting, with no sign of when I would get news, I politely emailed the Department of Education in Ireland, and got the answer I wanted – I had gotten placed in Madrid!!

For the rest of the summer, I waited in anticipation for more news. I went along to an Irish information day in the Institute of Cervantes in Dublin, where an official from the Spanish government Department of Education explained to us clueless Irish what was going to happen. Nearly everyone else at this stage had received their official “nombramiento”, their school placement, detailing their school level, its location and their contact info. Only myself and the other guy heading to Madrid hadn’t received ours yet. We were told Madrid was like this, as it has the most language assistants, from the widest variety of countries.

Madrid was to become the exception to every rule. Due to the higher cost of living in the capital, we were to work 4 more hours – 16 in total (I know what a chore!), but would receive €1000/mth instead of the standard 12 hours work for €700. We were told we might also not be paid promptly the first time, due to admin setups etc, but that wasn’t a problem for me. Also, we were contracted to work an extra month more than the rest of the regions, working until the 31st June instead of the end of May. This suited me fine, more money and a longer contract sounded great, but it is something to remember if you apply to the capital.

However, I soon received my nombramiento and got in contact with my school. It turned out that my school wasn’t in Madrid, Madrid. It was in a tiny town, about two hours journey on public transport from the city centre. This threw me at first. Somehow my brain had decided Madrid = Madrid city, forgetting totally about the rest of the community. Despite the journey, I decided (and was recommended) that it was best to live in the city and commute, a decision I haven’t regretted.

Once I got to Spain, I realised that this wasn’t unusual, that most auxiliars (language assistants) had to commute at least 30 minutes each way. But the moment I knew that I would be ok was, after talking to other auxiliars, how prepared my school was and how much they wanted us to be there. Since that point, everything has been easier than it first seemed.

Even Spanish bureaucracy wasn’t as awkward as I was told it would be. I had to get a NIE, basically a number identifying me as a foreigner so they could tax me for living in Spain. As what I do is classified as a student program, and a government one at that, I don’t get taxed, and this was more to register me as living here. I also had to set up a bank account and declare myself a resident in my apartment, but again both these things were easy as I have good Spanish. I’m very lucky I’m a European with the right to live here, as the MANY Americans on this program do not have this luxury. Definitely house hunting was the hardest part in Madrid, but that’s for another post.

I suppose what I’m trying to say with this post is that I would really recommend this program. It is relatively easy to apply to (if you have the language of the country you are travelling to), provides a great routine and salary, and essentially for me, gives you time to figure your life out and to experience other countries. I hope I’ve explained everything well, and I’ve added some links below, but please comment with any questions!

Irish citizens – this is where your info is! For us, Spain isn’t the only option – you can also go to France, Germany, Austria and Italy! https://www.education.ie/en/Learners/Services/English-Language-Assistant-Scheme/English-Language-Assistant-Scheme.html
If you are British, the British Council looks after your applications: https://www.britishcouncil.org/study-work-abroad/outside-uk/english-language-assistants
If you are American, my friend and fellow auxiliar, Cathy, has written a great post on her application here:
https://www.thegirlwhogoes.com/low-inscrita-number-auxiliares-de-conversacion-spain/
Just so you know, the Community of Madrid accepts native English speakers from Ireland, the UK, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines (I think that’s everyone!). They also employ native German and French speakers for those languages. And if all else fails with these routes of teaching English in Spain, you can also apply to be an assistant through an agency or teach English grinds with an agency or independently. There’s always a way!!

I’m sick of being sick

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On a rare escape to the outside world

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, I can’t believe it’s been so long. The reality of the situation is that over the past two weeks I haven’t been myself.

Week 1 was all about pain. I got a root canal done in September before I came to Spain, in a tooth I’d had trouble in for nearly a year. Despite a checkup in November, it seems to be causing me a lot of pain when I have a cold. So I spent most of that week taking ibuprofen and paracetamol every few hours to deal with headaches and toothaches.

And then Week 2. After feeling better pain-wise at the weekend, I headed to Parque Warner, a theme park near Madrid, on Sunday with a friend. Staying outside all day and being blasted with cold air on the rides probably wasn’t the best idea, as when I got into bed on Sunday night, my throat did not feel ok. I ended up the next day in my local health centre and was put on antibiotics for tonsillitis, and given two days off work.

To be honest, of all the weeks to be sick, this was probably not a bad one. The 6th of December in Spain is Día de la Constitución, the anniversary of the country’s return to democracy, so I had Thursday (and Friday) off work. This gave me a full week to get better before I had to go back to work, which has really helped.

The hardest part of this has definitely been the fact that I had to cancel my trip to the North of Spain. I have family in Santander, and I had hoped to visit them, as well to visit the neighbouring cities, Bilbao and San Sebastian, during the long weekend. My little cousins followed me on Instagram just before I cancelled the trip, so I spent Saturday and Sunday seeing all their cute Christmas activities wishing I was with them. I know I can visit them again in the New Year, but it still sucks.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of plans go array since I got to Spain in September because of my health. Many of you will know that before I left Ireland, I realised I had Glandular Fever (or mononucleosis) after several bouts of Tonsillitis during the summer. This has meant from Day 1 that my energy levels have been a lot lower, I’ve gotten tired really quickly, and I’m more susceptible to illness. Last Monday was my third visit to the Health Centre on my street, and between prescriptions and general medications, my local pharmacists know me well.

So at this stage, I am completely sick of being sick. I have had enough. But I know that I just need to get over it. As my lovely doctor explained to me the other day as I stressed in his office, this is only temporary. Some people are lucky and never realise that they have Glandular Fever and some people are like me and it takes over their life. The one thing keeping me sane through all this is the fact that it’s not Spain’s fault that I’m sick, that this would be happening if I was at home. At least in Spain, my visits to the doctors are free!

So I know this post is a little more negative than the rest, but I think it is important to show all sides of my time here in Madrid. Living and working in a country is not a walk in the park, and there is no point pretending it is. This experience has forced me to be a different type of independent, dealing with different types of situations in Spanish.

And the important thing is that I’ll be ok, eventually. I’m hoping 2019 and Spring will bring good weather and good health, and I will be able to fully enjoy life here in Madrid.

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I haven’t had a drink in a while, but maybe a Guinness would cure me? Remember, Guinness is good for you! 

 

“La Granja”

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Wondering what I’ll find

Before I headed home for graduation, the English coordinator in the school, and our boss, started to talk to Cathy and I about a trip the kids would be taking to “a farm” at the end of November. At the time, we weren’t sure if we would go – we were given the option of going with 1st to 4th grade (5-9 years old), or staying at home and working with 5th and 6th grade, who we never see.

When I got back from Ireland, I was asked again did I want to go. At this stage, Cathy had ruled herself out. As she does not work normally on Fridays, she decided to take the Thursday off and head to St Petersburg, Russia, to spend Thanksgiving with her cousin. So it was up to me to decide whether I would go or not, though I didn’t have much time to decide. About 10 minutes after being asked again by the co-ordinator, my 3rd grade class interviewed me for the school radio and put me on the spot – “Sarah, are you coming to the farm with us?”. I suddenly found myself saying yes, before I could even confirm with my boss.

This started the wonder of what the trip was actually going to be. I knew that it was an overnight trip, Thursday and Friday, which kind of scared me due to the fact the youngest kids were 5 years old. When I asked about the trip, I was told not to worry about it, to bring old, warm clothes and to look forward to it. For a control freak like me, that’s easier said than done!

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I love going into the countryside, it’s a lovely contrast with life in the city, and it’s surprising how much cleaner the air feels! 

So I turned up at school on Thursday 23rd with my backpack full of a change of clothes and my stuff for the night, unsure of what to expect. I presumed that it would be a full on 48 hours, helping with activities and taking care of the kids. After working at a summer camp in Maine, USA, for the summer, I knew what that was like! The bus journey suggested this too, as we piled on and mixed with the kids as they sang away. One, which is like “who stole the cookie from the cookie jar”, was a particular favourite, and was repeated what felt like 1000 times. About 45 minutes later, we were there, and the kids couldn’t contain their excitement.

Once the bus was unloaded, the team of 9 teachers headed up to the dining room for a coffee. This was perhaps the first indicator of what was to come, as we sat chilling while the kids began their activities. Soon I realised that this was our role during the trip, to supervise the children from a distance, but to let the monitors take control and the kids enjoy the experience.

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We were freezing pretty much the whole time we were there. Spain is so cold at the moment – I’d never thought I’d be colder here than at home! 

Hence, though we spent most of the time wandering around from activity to activity, chatting to the kids and watch them proudly from a distance. The fact that this place turned out not to be “un granja” (a farm), but instead an adventure centre, did not seem to matter to the kids, who were having a great time. They went zip-lining and on nature walks, they learned about bees and became “master chefs”, and they balanced high in the sky on an assault course.  When we weren’t watching the kids, our time was spent relaxing among ourselves in a cabin they had set aside for us, where we ate and drank to our hearts content. It was perfect for my Spanish, with a new level of difficulty due to the group conversations and the colloquial language that I didn’t experience every day.

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I got asked did I want to have a go at the assault course, but I decided I was too much of a chicken to do it in front of the kids! 

This meant that despite my worries, my two days away became more of a working vacation (though that’s basically my life normally!). I helped with the kids, and loved spending time with them as always, but it was also fantastic to get to know the other teachers better and to be forced to work harder on my Spanish. I’m so glad that I got the opportunity to go on a trip like that, not every Auxiliar does, and I’m very grateful to my school for constantly encouraging me to get involved. I’m really hoping that I’ll get more opportunities to do more things like this during the rest of my time in Peñalta.

 

I don’t have many photos from the trip, as I was cautious of photographing the children too much. However, some of the other teachers took photos for the school blog, and I’ll link them here when they go up!

El Escorial

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Looking up at the Basilica of San Lorenzo de El Escorial

About a month ago, I was talking about all the different day trips that you can take Madrid, from cities like Segovia and Toledo, to hikes in the mountains and Franco’s tomb, with my French housemate. Like me, she’s eager to see as much of Spain as possible while she is here. Understanding how enjoyable it is to see things in a group, she invited me along with her university class group to go see El Escorial.

 

El Escorial is a town to the north of the city, close to the mountains. It’s a beautiful picturesque town, with little streets that make you want to constantly take photos. Yet, as much as we enjoyed wandering the streets, the main reason for the visit was to see the famous monastery/palace which is the reason for the town’s existence. San Lorenzo de El Escorial was built in the 16th century by King Philip II of Spain, in honour of his father, Charles I. He imagined an impressive monument to the Spanish monarchy, focused on the Catholic faith, learning and maintaining the dynasty.

The result is an absolutely stunning creation, striking from the offset. But unlike many Spanish buildings, it isn’t stunning because of its ornate details or pioneering architecture. Instead, it’s simplicity is what makes it special. The monotone of the cream brick, stretching high into the sky made me stop and stare in a way that I don’t think I have before. It is the symmetry and the colossal mass of the space that creates the impact. 

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A portrait of a young King Philip II

Walking through the buildings, which were constructed in a way that placed the Basilica in the centre,  you cannot help but feel humbled by the simple grandeur. The concept of the place seems very much to force any visitor to feel small and insignificant in comparison to the space. This is emphasised by rooms such as the Hall of Battles, a long, wide passageway with huge paintings of Spanish military power on the walls. You can only imagine how intimidated an enemy of the crown must have felt walking through this room.

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The ceiling in one of the sections renovated by the Bourbons

Elegance seemed to be more of the choice for intimidation in El Escorial’s middle age, with the Bourbons creating chambers of wealth and extravagance for their trips away from the capitol. Only here do you feel like you are visiting a palace, with the older royal quarters feeling much more modest. They instead appear as more of a museum, a request from Philip II before he died. There you can visit his bedchamber and view his rooms as they would have been during the 1500s.

Another well-preserved part of El Escorial is the magnificent library, with collections of artefacts and books from across the world. I adore Trinity College Library in Dublin, but this is a completely different type of beauty. The ceiling is covered with impressive frescos, inspired by the Sistine Chapel, that depict subjects of learning. These frescos were incredibly detailed, capturing the essence of each of the subjects, ranging from philosophy to religion. However, though I struggled to look away from the ceiling, the most interesting thing for me was the fact that all the books were stored with their spines against the wall instead of facing forward. I was told that this was a Renaissance technique of storing books, with the aim being to keep them aerated and well preserved. I’ve never seen anything like it, but I don’t know if I’ll be trying it myself!

 

However, as much as I enjoyed the library and the rest of the tour, it was the visit to the crypt that was the most special for me. Though I’d seen signs for crypts in the past, when visiting churches and cathedrals, I’d never gone into one before. Yet, I don’t think anything would have prepared me for this. As you walk under the Basilica, you encounter identical tombs of white marble, holding the remains of members of the royal family through the centuries. It’s an impressive show of the size of the dynasty, all joined together for their journey to the afterlife.

At the end of the passage, you pass down a staircase into a small, round room, directly beneath the altar. Here the Kings and Queens of Spain lie in rest. It’s incredibly impressive, not only due to the use of different colours of marble and bronze, but also due to the identical caskets belonging to each ruler. Yet, the sight of them stacked on top of each other was a little comical, as if they were all on bunk beds. But the sense I got through walking through the entire crypt was the strength of this family, the long-standing rulers of Spain. The name of the dynasty may have changed, moving from Habsburg to Bourbon, but it has controlled Spain (almost) continuously since the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1469.

 

After all this time underground, our last stop of our tour was the gardens that wrapped around the back of the monastery and looked out on the surrounding countryside. We visited in Autumn, which gave a gorgeous backdrop of orange, yellow and red. These colours were a beautiful contrast to the simple cream buildings behind us and added an extra sense of majesty to the setting.

San Lorenzo de El Escorial is an utterly stunning place, and definitely a must see if you are visiting Madrid. Less than an hour’s train journey, covered under the metro pass, it is like nothing I’ve seen before. The combination of religious buildings with a royal palace and a place of learning, along with the lush gardens is unique to my travels so far. It is certainly a place not to be missed.

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With my travel buddy Clara
Things to note: Entry to San Lorenzo de El Escorial starts at €5. Travel is free with the Student Metro pass if you take the Cercanías. Also, photos are prohibited inside the buildings, though we snuck a few pictures before we realised.  
A huge thank you to José María Marco, the professor who invited me to join members from his class on Comparative Cultural Studies in Universidad Pontificia Comillas. I had such a fantastic time accompanying them and I learned so much from his tour.

 

Alcalá de Henares

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The main building of the University of Alcalá de Henares.

Since I arrived in Madrid, I’ve kept hearing about this city to the east, of Alcalá de Henares. I originally presumed that it was like the rest of the towns that have been absorbed into the city, extending the reach of Madrid into the countryside. But when I brought up Alcalá with the teachers in my school, I could sense it was something different.

Their reactions were that of wonder, of a beautiful place to escape to outside Madrid. I was told I’d have to see it, that I’d love the buildings and the feel of the place. It surprised me, to be honest, because no other place I’ve mentioned has gotten such a response.

So I decided to go visit the city and meet my friend Katie from my rugby team back home. She is studying in the university there for the year on the Erasmus program, as part of her Spanish degree. For me this visit ticked two boxes – see a new place and meet a familiar face.

I took a Cercanía train to Alcalá from Chamartin near my flat, about an hour’s journey and covered under my travel card. As I left the city, I passed industrialised areas and commuter towns, nothing specials in these suburbs. Once off the train, the scenery didn’t really seem anything special. I started walking towards the centre of the town, to some of the sites that I had googled on my way there.

For the first ten minutes or so, I was left wondering why did everyone think this place was so special. And then I turned a corner and I saw this peculiar little house, so traditional and bizarre amongst the apartment buildings and shops. A few more metres and I found a stunning red building, to me it looked quite Moorish, which turned out to be a museum, the Palacete Laredo. It was closed (I went on a Monday when many attractions in and near Madrid close), but the sight of it gave me hope for what was to come.

As I walked further into the city centre, I could understand better why people enjoyed coming to Alcalá. Its little streets hold so much character, a mix of modern and traditional, of red brick and a cream and black style. There were great contrasts between the styles of architecture, with some buildings, like the university, making you stop in your tracks to stare at their beauty, while others, like the cathedral, were stunning through their simplicity.


The University of Alcalá de Henares is something you can’t miss seeing if you visit the city. You can’t miss it, because it is perhaps the most beautiful university I’ve ever visited, but also because its buildings are everywhere! I kept stopping to take pictures of different buildings, before looking closer and realising that they were all part of the university. This gives the city the feel I suppose other University cities, like Cambridge, Oxford and St. Andrews might have, with students rushing across town from class to class, the chatter in the streets and a mix of languages and cultures. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever regretted not doing an Erasmus year, because wandering through the university, I kind of longed to be back in the classroom.

But I soon left the university area of town and wandered further to the west. I had read of a cathedral, dedicated to two martyred brothers, and decided to check it out. Once inside, I saw that you could climb up the bell tower, and knowing that this is the best way to see the city, I happily paid €3.

It was definitely worth it. After panting my way up the narrow spiral staircase, I reached the town to incredible views. The top of the bell tower gave you a view of not only the town but the surrounding countrysides and mountains, an amazing backdrop to city life. I’m not going to lie, I was pretty scared of the height and found the journey down quite difficult, but I would recommend it to anyone visiting the city.
For me, these were the two most important things to see in Alcalá de Henares. It is also the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote de la Mancha, perhaps the most famous book by a Spanish writer. I visited his birthplace, but, being Monday, it was closed, so I plan to come back and see it another day. Alcalá is so beautiful and so lovely to visit that I will have no trouble making a second trip.

Graduation and Going Home

Looking back at grad

Late on Friday, 2nd November, I flew home to Ireland for the first time since moving to Madrid. It was the weirdest feeling, heading to Dublin for a trip, a holiday, during my days off from work. I struggled to deal with it in the days before, but once I drove up my driveway and opened my front door, it was like I’d never left.

My five days at home were a busy blur. Saturday was spent rushing to Dublin to see friends and family, with little time spent with each group. Sunday is a rugby day, so I drove up to the outskirts of the city to watch my college team, Trinity Women’s Rugby, and some of my best friends, play one of their toughest matches of the season. On Monday I finally got a bit of a break, but also had to go shopping and to a dentist checkup. I really hate the dentist. Monday night was lovely, getting to spend time with my brother driving back to Dublin and staying in Front Square in Trinity, looking out onto the square where I would graduate the following day.

Tuesday, the main event, was exhausting and wonderful and stressful and amazing. I don’t even really know how to explain it. Everyone keeps asking how did it go and I have no idea what to say. The morning was a rush, with trying to make sure I looked my best (I am not good at hair and makeup), to arriving extra early to collect my gown and take my professional photos. I had everything done before 9:15, a whole hour before the start of the ceremony. So I headed for a cup of tea with my friend Cathy, who lives in Trinity, to try and calm down. Soon, however, I was standing in line with my classmates, heading to our assigned seats, dressed to the nines.

Sitting in the Exam Hall in Trinity waiting for the ceremony to start was a weird experience. Everyone was crammed together in rows of chairs with not enough space, and you chat away to people, who in my case, I had never met before. My degree, TSM (Two-Subject Moderatorship – you study two arts subjects, a major and a minor) was so big and so diverse, that I only knew a handful of people well in the hall. So the waiting time is spent making small chat and jokes about how ridiculous the whole procedure seemed. 

And then the room gets quiet as the degree-givers process into the room and we all stand to attention and the Latin starts. At the beginning, the Latin was interesting, then funny, and then ridiculous. I adore tradition, but it was a bit much. First the really smart people got their awards and their Firsts, and I wondered if I hadn’t played so much rugby,  could I have been up there. Probably not is the answer to that one.

And then it was my turn and it was so real. My name was called with six others and I concentrated fully on not falling up the steps in my too-high heels. And then, and I don’t know why, I just felt so unbelievably happy. A smile was stretched so hard across my face as I was handed a piece of paper which I could not read. I must have looked insane. I think it was because suddenly it all felt so worth it and so special. I have loved Trinity for a long time now, but the pride that I felt as a new Trinity alumna was unparalleled.

And then, once everyone had gotten their degrees, we paraded out, past our parents and loved ones, into the square to present ourselves to the university as adults and alumni. As soon as the parade ended, I met some friends from my Spanish classes and I don’t think any of us could explain what had happened. The next hour was filled with hugs and congratulations, and most importantly, photos. I’m lucky enough to have such good friends who took me around Trinity and took photos in random places, including the rugby pitch and the Pav, of course. For the first time in a while, I actually enjoyed having my photo taken, and that can certainly be seen in the finished product.

Then it was off, once my sister arrived, to the Shelbourne Hotel for lunch. The Shelbourne is probably the epitome of fanciness in Dublin, somewhere you pass and think, I’d like to go in one day. My friend had recommended it for dinner, and finding it surprisingly reasonable for what it was, we booked in for lunch with my grandparents. It was truly a special lunch, with great food and service.  I’m sad I didn’t get a photo of our group, but it was an experience I won’t forget.

After lunch, I pretty much collapsed in my friend Molly’s house. I have a tendency to get fatigued very quickly since having glandular fever during the summer, and I ended up just lying on the floor for an hour and a half, taking a well-deserved rest before continuing the celebrations. Next, it was off to the Pav, our college bar, where I felt old but had to have a Druids and Blackcurrant to celebrate, before heading to The Ivy, a new 1920s bar and restaurant on Dawson St. It was gorgeous, with delicious cocktails, really special. The company was good too, and it was great to catch up with some of my favourite people. The night was finished with my Spanish class, and with the Joyas, my special group of friends from the class, in NoName Bar on Fade St. I could not have had a better day.

I am so grateful for the four years I had in Trinity College. There were many times I doubted my degree, but I never doubted my choice of college. Since doing Transition Year Work Experience in the Bio-Chemistry Labs at 16, I knew that Trinity was a place that I wanted to be. Though its weird to be finished by student days, at least for now, my graduation felt like a fitting send off to adulthood, and I’m so appreciative of everyone who helped to make it such a special day. It’s something I’ll remember fondly for the rest of my life.