These boots (okay, trainers) were (not) made for walking

I’ve just arrived back in Santiago after catching a painfully early bus this morning from Muxia, the final destination of my four-day walk. That pilgrimage that I talked about possibly doing a couple of posts ago? Yeah, I actually did it.

And it was honestly one of the best decisions of my year abroad. I had the best time ever. It’s difficult to pin down what exactly made it so good. Obviously, it’s not particularly exciting – after all, the lion’s share of the day is taken up by walking – but the landscapes, the headspace, the escape from the city, and the other pilgrims all combine to make for a very enjoyable experience.

Day 1: Santiago to Vilaserio (34km)

On the first day, I left my flat at 7:00am after having been woken up even earlier than I’d planned by my flatmates ringing the bell after a night out. Meanwhile, the other flatmate, who isn’t really a flatmate at all but a guest of one of the actual flatmates and who has been here for a month, not paid any rent, monopolised the living room, and STILL NOT LEFT (but I’m not bitter…) was having some rather loud sex. Needless to say, this and the doorbell incident made me ever more keen to get away. By 7.30am, I’d started the proper, marked route. The whole thing is marked by yellow arrows and scallop shells:IMG_7202
which, thankfully, make it quite difficult to get lost. Although I still managed to, briefly (more of which later…).

Starting a bit earlier than I’d planned actually turned out to be a blessing: on all four days, the time before about 9.30 in the morning was my favourite for walking. The temperature is perfect, the birds are singing, and the morning sky is just beautiful. There’s also a certain sense of satisfaction about walking 15km by 10.30am. I’d planned (in the loosest sense of the word) the route so that the first day would be the longest; it was 35km to Vilaserio, my first stop, and I got there at about 2.30pm. The village turned out to be a throbbing metropolis composed of the albergue (the type of hostel that’s especially for pilgrims), the attached bar/cafe, two farms, and that was about your lot. However, I soon discovered that I didn’t really need a lot else: after arriving, food-shower-nap-food-sleep was the literal order of the day. The salad that I had in the cafe was so good that I also had it for dinner.

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All of the protein. All of it.

I was in a room of 16 beds but, sadly, none of the other pilgrims on the first evening were that talkative, and I went to bed early in preparation for the next day. However, that first night set the tone for the rest of the week: loud snoring and the constant opening and closing of the door by people going to the toilet meant that not many people got a lot of sleep.

Day 2: Vilaserio to Hospital (24km) 

The whole dorm was well and truly woken up by the alarm of someone who had gone to the bathroom and forgotten to turn it off. I was keen for another early start, and so left the albergue at 7.00am. The breakfast in the bar seemed kind of expensive so I decided that I’d just have a snack before leaving and would stop at the next cafe I came to along the camino. This turned out to be a very good idea: it meant that I got 7km of walking under my belt before breakfast, and the next cafe offered two very generously sized tostadas with butter and jam and a large mugful of cafe con leche for €3.

It was shortly after this that I met my first camino friend, Andre from Holland. After walking next to one another in awkward silence for a good five minutes, I plucked up the courage to ask, in Spanish, how long he’d been walking for. Turns out that he doesn’t really speak Spanish, and so we chatted in English and walked together for probably about two hours, although the time seemed to pass so quickly that I can’t be sure. It was during this time that it started to rain for the first and last time over the four days. Out came the raincoat meant for boys aged 12 to 14 (it was cheaper, okay?) and the borrowed rucksack cover. Andre stopped at the next bar we came to; I ploughed on, had a quick snack in a bus stop, and eventually neared my next stop, Hospital. As I was coming into the village, I managed to acquire three more friends; our search for the albergue united us. Greg and Hélène are a Canadian couple from Canada, and Marylisa (at least, I think that’s her name…) is from Holland. We finally managed to find the albergue, where Andre joined us shortly after; despite being the youngest by at least 30 years, I ended up spending the whole of the afternoon and evening with these people. They were hilarious: a particular highlight was Andre’s attempt to lull us all to sleep with a Dutch lullaby.

Day 3: Hospital to Finisterre (27km)

Our albergue in Hospital was the last establishment offering sustenance of any kind for 15km, and so I took full advantage of this by indulging in a hearty breakfast of eggs (luxury!), toast, fruit, and, of course, cafe con leche before leaving. I didn’t realise that this would be the last time I would see my new friends, but I did at least have the foresight to get their email addresses. A big breakfast, combined with a playlist called “Throwback” (we’re thinking JoJo, Busted, Rusted Root…) meant that I absolutely powered the first couple of hours of walking, which I was later very pleased about because it soon got very hot. The 15km of nothingness were a dream, not least because a lot the time was spent going downhill; Cee, however, the next town on from Hospital, was less delightful. In fact, it was horrible and poorly signed into the bargain, and I walked through as quickly as possible without bothering to stop for a breather.

The final stretch of day 3 was to Finisterre (meaning “the end of the world”), a coastal town with a famous lighthouse on a small peninsula. The last couple of kilometres were along a glorious beach, but I was so hot and desperate to get to the albergue that I didn’t stop for a paddle. I fear that, had I done so, I might still have been there now.IMG_7216

The albergue was fab: modern and clean, with a huge kitchen and social area…and, to my delight, a supermarket right across the road! After food and the obligatory nap, I walked to the lighthouse…which was, if I’m honest, slightly disappointing. The views of the ocean were great, but the lighthouse wasn’t as rustic or as impressive as I’d hoped. Never mind, eh?IMG_7224

The most popular time to go to the lighthouse is just before sunset, but tiredness and the fact that the path leading from the town to the lighthouse was bordered by a sheer drop to one side meant that I didn’t really fancy it. Instead, I went back to the albergue, chatted for a while to an English guy called Peter (who I still can’t figure out) and went to bed.

Day 4: Finisterre to Muxia (30km)

My final day got off to a bad start. Having woken up especially early to get as much walking done as possible before the heat of the day hit, I ended up getting lost. The signposting out of Finisterre wasn’t very clear, and I went hopelessly round in a circle before the help of a kind man named Carlos put me back on track. By 8.30 I was frustrated with myself and had wet feet from going through a field, but at least I was on my way.

The unclear signposting continued for the whole of the day, and this is because it’s possible to walk in either direction between Muxia and Finisterre and so the arrows and shells point both ways. I went off track again about 7km and was on my way back to Finisterre before coming across some other pilgrims and asking them which direction they were coming from. The fourth day was also the hilliest and the hottest – not a great combination – and so I was very pleased to reach a signpost saying that it was 2km to Muxia. The last stretch was, again, coastal, and a very welcome breeze came off the water.

The final albergue was probably the best of the four. It was recommended by the owners of the albergue in Finisterre, and so Peter and I had booked rooms in advance. We ended up spending the afternoon together and, although I’d got a bad first impression of him in Hospital (“You’re at Oxford? You must have rich parents then!”) he turned out to be a really nice, insightful guy. Muxia’s famous church, Nosa Señora da Barca, was only five minutes away, and so we went to see it together.IMG_7233

I definitely preferred Muxia to Finisterre: it has all the beauty but is a lot more untouched and less touristy.

Then, this morning, the adventure was officially brought to a close when I got on a 6.45am bus back to Santiago. It is difficult to adequately express how pleased I am that I decided to do the camino. It’s given me insight into myself and into other people, and I actually think that I could seriously get into walking. Several people asked whether I’d be tempted to do another of the routes, maybe starting in France or Portugal, and the truth is that I really would be. Something for the future, perhaps.

I’m leaving Santiago on Monday; all that’s left to do is pack my suitcase and say goodbye to my friends here. The situation in the flat is less than ideal, even though it seemed to have such promise to begin with, so I’m keen to get away from that. However, it’s a shame because my social life has really taken off in the past couple of weeks: I’ve been out a few times and have made some lovely friends.IMG_7127

I’m spending three days in Madrid before going back to the UK, and at some point I hope to do a final year abroad-based post to tie up all the loose ends. Today and tomorrow, however, I intend to get some well-deserved sleep. After all, it’s only a matter of time before walking 120k starts to take its toll on the old legs.

Polly the potential pilgrim

Before I arrived here in Santiago, when they found out that I was coming here, people would often ask whether I was planning to walk any of the famous camino de Santiago. I would laugh nervously, slightly ashamed to admit that I knew next to nothing about the camino, and mumble a vague reply. It’s only since arriving here that I’ve realised just how big of a deal the pilgrimage trail is.

Camino de Santiago can refer to any of the routes that finish at the city’s Cathedral, supposedly the home of the remains of apostle St. James the Great. The tomb was discovered in around the year 800AD, and pilgrims have been completing the trails pretty much constantly ever since. Popular starting points include Lisbon, Porto, Arles, and Le Puy; along the way are cheap boarding houses, known as albergues, where walkers can settle down for the night for as little as €5. Traditionally, of course, spiritual enlightenment was the desired outcome; nowadays, tourists keen to say that they’ve done the camino seem to be the order of the day, and the number of pilgrims welcomed by the city rises year on year.

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Image taken from Wikipedia

Being the destination of so many pilgrims, Santiago might as well have a license to print money: the zona vieja is crammed full of souvenir shops and the bars and restaurants must make a killing from all of the appetites worked up by walking.

I’m writing about this now because I transformed my room into an albergue (free, of course) over the weekend for a friend. I met Katie in France when she very bravely signed up to come to the château to work as an animatrice during the October stage. We didn’t get to know one another that well then, but year abroad friends are friends for life, and so when Matt told me that she was walking the camino from Porto I was very swift to message her offering up my bedroom floor. She accepted (because who turns down free accommodation, really?) and arrived in Santiago on Saturday after ten days of walking. We went to midday Pilgrim’s Mass and she introduced me to some of the friends she’d made along the way. We had the most fun-filled weekend ever, during the course of which we discovered that we have a scary amount of things in common. Highlights included numerous positive affirmations (Katie, if you’re reading this, remember that you don’t owe him anything), tinto de verano, octopus (which, despite being unwilling to try, Katie loved), and many hot drinks.

And it was clear that she’d had an absolute ball during the walk. She’d met a lot of interesting people from all over the world – most of whom we went for dinner with on Saturday night – and had spent a lot of time reflecting. She’s inspired me to seriously consider doing a bit of the camino before leaving Spain. I’m not religious at all, but I do enjoy a good walk and I would definitely be very glad to have done it. From Santiago, there’s a route to Finisterre encompassing 90km and three days (at least) of walking; I could do it from Friday to Sunday. Check back for more updates on this probably overly spontaneous, still-to-be properly thought-through plan.

This weekend, one of my closest school friends is coming to stay, and I’m hoping that the weather forecast (which is looking good at the moment) will stay positive enough for us to go to the Islas Cíes for a day. After two false starts, I might finally make it to this mystical paradise. I’ll be sure to let you know.

Blink and you’ll miss it

In five weeks’ time, I’ll have left Santiago and arrived in Madrid. When I was in Granada, I spontaneously booked flights and a hostel for a three-day trip to the capital…alone. It seemed like a great idea at the time. From there, I’m flying back to the UK, and then that’ll be it. It’ll all be over. As my friend, Ella, said recently, “we are so nearly there”. (You can check her year abroad blog here. It’s great and far less rambly than mine.)

It’s a strange thing, year abroad. It is preceded by a build-up spanning, literally, years: everyone who considers studying languages at a UK university knows that the course includes an obligatory year abroad. So potential applicants tend to be aware of its existence at least two years before starting university, which is two years more before actually having to go abroad. Potentially four years of preparation.

Then, in first year, tutors will occasionally mention it, often by way of reassuring students that the year abroad is the time when their spoken language will really come into its own (which, judging by my experience, is the truth). As a first year, you’re blissfully aware that you’ve still got a whole year to think about it before actually having to go. Getting into the swing of student life takes priority.

Then, before you know it, it’s the start of second year and there’s suddenly not that long to go. The faculty starts to host language-specific talks; emails advertising internship opportunities come fast and furious; deadlines start to fly by. The people who decide to do British Council (working as a Teaching Assistant) have it relatively easy in terms of organisation: they fill in one form and, to an extent, they’re sorted. I suspected that British Council wouldn’t be for me; having worked with children in France, I can confirm that my suspicions were correct. Don’t quote me on this, but I would guess that roughly 50% (?) of Oxford students decide to do a British Council placement. For those who study abroad, the university has a fixed number of places available at certain European universities (including Salamanca, SciencesPo, and the Sorbonne); alternatively, you can choose to sort yourself out with a different university. I don’t really know a whole lot about either of these options as studying wasn’t something I ever considered.

In terms of arranging a work placement, a lack of fussiness helps. I knew I wanted to work but I wasn’t really sure about the specifics. I was just keen to get something organised. I saw the advert for Langue & Nature, thought it sounded fine, and applied for it. I was told that my application had been successful in January, and that was the first six months of the year sorted. Sighs of relief all round.

August rolled round and that was it: I was off. I don’t want to use the word “anticlimax” because it wasn’t at all, but I can’t think of an alternative for describing the realisation that, after so much preparation, this was it. I was doing my year abroad.

Because of how things worked out (my family has been dealing with a difficult, unexpected situation for the past few months), I ended up organising the Spanish half of my year abroad when I was in France. To be honest, knowing what I do now about the Spanish lack of urgency, it would have been a miracle if I’d been able to organise anything before then. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I found the Granada hostel through Workaway; I then found ESN Santiago through a website called Erasmus Intern. I would really recommend both websites; with hindsight, the former is definitely better suited to people wanting an excuse/reason to travel than it is to year abroad purposes, but the latter is perfect for students looking for work placements.

By the time I got to Spain, I was almost 2/3 of the way through because I’d only managed to organise 14 weeks for Spanish in comparison to 24 in France. That’s 38 weeks in total (A-Level Maths right there) of which four weeks remain. How?! This year, with all the build-up and preparation, is almost over. I don’t feel like I’ve wasted time at all, but it’s still difficult to believe just how quickly it’s gone by. In a few short months I’ll be back in Oxford attempting to tackle finals. In all the rhetoric surrounding year abroad, people have a habit of skimming over the fact that you have to go back and sit what are probably the hardest exams you’ll ever do…and all after a year of (and I think I speak for most people when I say this) doing very little academic work.

This post has turned out to be a bit longer than I was expecting, so I’ll leave it there. There’s not really a lot more to say in terms of updates. Saturday’s trip to the Islas Cíes was rescheduled, as predicted, due to bad weather, and I can’t go on the new date which is a very sad state of affairs. Instead, I went to A Coruña for the day for some sightseeing which was cool. I also ate some great octopus but sadly didn’t get a picture.

A friend I made in France is currently hiking the camino de Santiago and is due to arrive on Saturday so I’ll be spending the coming weekend with her which should be fun. There are few things I enjoy more than playing the tour guide. Having visitors is also a great excuse to go out for dinner. Although, what with spending so much time alone, I’m finding that I don’t really need much of an excuse to do that anyway. Whoops.

The swings and roundabouts of Spain

Suffice to say that it’s been an uneventful couple of weeks here in Santiago. I’ve got very little news for my fans (meaning my parents and approximately three friends who actually bother to read my blog) so, instead, I thought I’d write a post similar to this one that I wrote when I was in France (for which, by the way, I am growing more nostalgic by the day…). Here is a list of a few of Spain’s quirks that I’ve found especially noticeable.

  1. Fast? Pero qué significa? I was warned that the Spanish couldn’t do anything fast or on time, but I’m not sure that I quite realised the extent to which this, ahem, cultural foible seeps into every aspect of la vida española. Going to an event that’s scheduled to start at 9:00? Don’t bother turning up much before 10:30. Need to get somewhere fast? Then best leave plenty of time if you’re going by foot because no doubt you’ll get stuck behind someone who is walking excruciatingly slowly and is apparently oblivious to the fact that tienes prisa but can’t get past them because they’re taking up the whole of the very narrow pavement. I get more annoyed by this total lack of urgency than I should: I’ve been conditioned to expect everything to start more or less on time and, when it doesn’t, it disconcerts me. Flexibility – something that I readily admit to often lacking – is necessary, but reminding yourself that all this waiting around feeling like time is being wasted is good for personal growth isn’t awfully helpful when you’re trying to speed-walk past a couple linking arms and blocking the pavement.
  2. The day starts about four hours late. Everything about the day in Spain is delayed by about four hours to what I’m used to. For example, my flatmates usually get up at about 10.30am, eat lunch at some time between 3pm and 4pm, have a siesta (yep, Spanish people actually do this), and go to bed at 2am. At least, I think 2am is accurate, but I wouldn’t swear to it because I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve still been up at midnight since arriving in Santiago. Nights out don’t really get going before about 1.30am, as I found out on Friday when I went out for my first, and quite possibly last, time in Spain. The British custom of starting pre-drinks at 8pm would be a fatal error. I find this relaxed approach to tackling the day quite cool but, unfortunately, am far too used to early mornings and fond of early nights to be able to adapt to it in three short months. Something for the future, maybe.
  3. Living expenses are, comparatively, so low. Certain things in France – wine, mainly – made me balk at UK prices, but Spain is on a different level. Obviously, as an unpaid intern, this is a huge advantage for me. My rent and bills comes out at around €200 per month; my best friends in Oxford pay £85 a week. Food is inexpensive, both at the supermarket and in restaurants. Bizarrely, I’ve managed to spend the entire second part of my year abroad in two of Spain’s only cities where most bars offer free tapas with every drink – and we’re not talking peanuts and olives here. Think generous slices of tortilla and chunks of local cheese on fresh bread. To my delight, I recently found a cafe that does takeaway coffee for €0.80.  The size of Santiago means that I can walk everywhere, thus meaning that I don’t really spend any money on transport. In summary, whilst I’m not earning any money, I’m also not spending a whole lot of it either. However, I am in the process of preparing myself for the shock of returning to the prices of the UK (which are, I now realise, extortionate by any standard).
  4. “Pero hablas bien español!” Refreshingly, the Spanish, unlike the French, do make a considerable effort to understand non-native speakers’ attempts to speak Spanish without immediately switching to English upon detecting the accent. Much to my amazement, people compliment me on my Spanish on a fairly regular basis – something that happened very rarely in France, even during my final few weeks there. Of course, I remain convinced that my ability to string a sentence together alludes me at least 50% of the time, but it’s still a relief to be understood. There was a particularly embarrassing exception to this last week: I repeated the word cortado (basically a macchiato) about ten times before being understood. Needless to say, I have not been back to that cafe since.
  5. Everyone does an Erasmus exchange. Okay, not literally everyone, but it is fair to say that I’ve met far more Spanish people who have been abroad as part of their degree than I have Brits. In fact, studying abroad is something that seems to be far more accessible for students, regardless of their degree subject, in many European countries than it is for us. There are so many things to be learnt from spending time abroad as a student, and it seems a shame that the majority of students in the UK are never presented with the opportunity.

Despite sharing a border, France and Spain are, in some ways, starkly different. I’m very glad that I’ve been able to spend a decent amount of time in each of the two countries – language skills aside, living abroad is an eye-opening experience in more ways than one.

Speaking of France, tomorrow I’m leaving Santiago for the weekend to go to Porto to visit Matt. I’ve never been to Portugal and I’m pretty excited. As a reminder of the (many, many) hours we spent together at the château, here are some lovely photos of my fun-lovin’ co-intern (he’s probably not reading this)…

I’ll write next week about what I get up to in Porto; until then, adios amigos!

“Why I love…Santiago de Compostela”

WARNING: This post is little more than shameless self-promotion.

A friend from Oxford who is working for a chain of luxury hotels for the Spanish part of her year abroad recently asked whether any other year abroad-ers would be interested in writing a post for the company’s blog. The brief was that the post should focus on the positive aspects of living in any given city (given that the company is trying to get people to stay in their hotels, negatives should be skimmed over…) meaning that I couldn’t say anything about Santiago’s constant rainfall. However, whilst writing the article yesterday (yay for free Friday mornings) I realised – not for the first time – that there is actually a lot to like about the city. Here’s what I managed to produce – apologies if the overall tone is nauseatingly positive…

Why I love…Santiago de Compostela

Nestled in Spain’s top left-hand corner, in the region of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela is best known for being the final destination of world-famous pilgrimage route Saint James’s Way, or el camino de Santiago. The discovery of the remains of apostle St. James at the beginning of the 9th century transformed the city into one of the Christian world’s most important holy sites. Hoards of pilgrims continue to visit the city today: according to Santiago’s Oficina de Peregrinaciones, more than 11,000 arrived last month alone. However, this seemingly unassuming city has far more to offer than some travel guides may have you believe….

1. The Cathedral

…which is not to say that you should disregard them completely. The Cathedral, located in the enormous Plaza do Obradoiro, is not to be missed. Incidentally, directly opposite is the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, which was constructed in 1486 by Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Fernando.  The Cathedral is free to go in if you’re happy to wander around by yourself; additionally, guided tours of the building’s excavations, roofs, and galleries are available for a cost. The Cathedral’s gem, the tomb of St. James, is included in the free part, and photography is allowed. If you’re interested in historical specifics, consider a paid tour; if all you’re looking for is an overview, the free version is more than sufficient.

2. Tarta de Santiago

Originating in the Middle Ages, tarta de Santiago is a simple cake comprising of just three ingredients – ground almonds, eggs, and sugar – and its protected status means that anything labelled as such must be produced in Galicia. Desserts don’t always do it for me, but I was instantly seduced by the nutty sweetness and dense, melt-in-the-mouth texture of tarta de Santiago. Whole tarts, available in two sizes, can be found in most bakeries; cafés and bars also tend to offer it as a merienda, or afternoon snack. Bar La Tita (Rúa Nova) does an especially good one, served in large slices and to be enjoyed after the free portion of tortilla española served with every drink.

3. Its perfect size

A sprawling metropolis Santiago is not; with a population of fewer than 100,000 and a centre that takes about 45 minutes to cross by foot, its size is ideal for long weekend breaks. The city’s extensive bus network is largely unnecessary but may be appreciated by those averse to hilly terrain and frequent rain. Despite Santiago’s compact size, you’re unlikely to run out of things to do: the old town is packed full of museums (with theMuseo do Pobo Galego (the Museum of the Galician People) reputedly being amongst the best), historical squares, cafés perfect for people watching, and independent shops stocking everything from jewellery to gastronomic specialities of the region.

4. Student Life

The University of Santiago de Compostela welcomes 500 Erasmus exchange students every year and has a student body totalling more than 42,000; indeed, the city probably owes much of its buzzing ambience to the students’ omnipresence. Needless to say, then, that bars and cafés cater to the needs of the students and so life in Santiago is inexpensive. Expect to pay up to €15 (at the very top end) for a three-course lunch with bread and coffee or, alternatively, take advantage of the free tapas (with a drink) served at almost every bar in the city. Notable establishments for enjoying the latter include La Tita (mentioned earlier), O Piorno (Rúa da Caldeireria) and A Taboa de Picar (Rúa do Pombal). Want to get a taste of the nightlife? Thursday and Saturday are the student nights out and the drinks offers are ludicrously good value, but be aware that nobody in Spain heads out before about 1am. If you have a few hours to kill, grab a map from the tourism office (Rúa do Vilar) and take a self-guided walking tour around the University buildings; some of them date from 1495 and are well worth seeing.

5. Accessibility

Finally, a boring but important consideration to take into account when travelling: getting to and from your chosen destination. Thankfully, Santiago de Compostela has its own airport about 11km away, with a bus leaving for the city centre every half hour. Ryanair and Easyjet both offer inexpensive flights to and from London; Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris are all easily accessible too. If you’re keen to explore further afield without the faff of a flight, Spain’s bus network is exemplary. ALSA runs daily buses to and from Porto; several companies go between Santiago and Galicia’s other towns and cities, including Vigo and A Coruña. And don’t forgo the opportunity to visit Playa de Rodas, named a few years ago as the world’s best beach by The Guardian.

Santiago de Compostela is so much more than a one-trick pony; whilst being the home of the remains of an apostle is an undeniably impressive accolade and, for some people, the only reason to visit, venturing away from the (literally) well-trodden path is the best way to go about discovering the city. Santiago is easy to overlook but it is brimming with cultural, historical, and gastronomical wealth. I’m yet to speak to anyone who has visited who doesn’t rave about it, and I am unashamed to say that I wholeheartedly count myself amongst their number.

The original post is on Splendia’s blog; it can be viewed here

Having friends to stay: a glimmer of normality

I’m into my second week in Santiago de Compostela and my time here is, so far, shaping up rather nicely. My suspicions about my flatmates being total babes have turned out to be correct, the city itself is super cute, I only work about 20 (twenty!) hours a week, and, best of all, I’ve actually managed to meet some people my own age. Working for ESN has meant that opportunities to meet Erasmus students here are abundant. I can take part in any/all of the activities and trips run by the organisation that I want – there’s a trip to Morocco at the beginning of June that, bank balance permitting, I’ll be first in line to sign up for – and, additionally, most of the other people who “work” for the organisation (I use inverted commas because it’s run entirely by volunteers, quite a feat in itself) are students too. Life in a certain French château this is not: I’m not made to feel like anyone’s inferior and blame is rarely apportioned to anyone. As far as unpaid internships go, I think I got fairly lucky with this one.

Some highlights of other things I’ve done so far: went on a guided tour of the roof (?!) of the cathedral; discovered the famous tarta de Santiago (spoiler: it’s delicious); went to a language exchange, run by ESN, in a very swanky bar; and took part in ESN’s International Dinner, in which teams prepare some food typical of their country and then award points to other teams in a Eurovision-style voting system. Turns out that there aren’t many Brits here; my team consisted of just one other person, Catherine, who approached me at aforementioned language exchange and proposed entering the competition together. Amazingly, our offering of finger sandwiches, cream teas, Eton mess, and sausage rolls (along with vegetarian alternatives) impressed the other teams enough for us to come second! Considerably better than the UK usually does in Eurovision.

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Any Brit’s staple diet. Obviously.

However, the best thing that has happened so far in Santiago was having a friend from Oxford, Lizzie, come to visit. It was so much fun – and made more exciting by the fact that this was her first time in Spain! – and having her here gave me an excuse (as if I needed another) to play the tourist in my new temporary home. We went out for many a coffee (always accompanied by the obligatory chats) and had a fabulous vegan lunch; having eaten hummus everyday in Granada, its presence on the menu came as somewhat of a relief (and I’m only exaggerating a little bit).

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Lizzie left this morning (getting up on time proved difficult after an unexpectedly boozy meal out last night) and I think I can safely say that pasamos la bomba during her stay.

I’ve had quite a lot of people come to visit me during my year abroad. Whilst Lizzie was the first to come to Spain, three friends from home as well as parents and brother came to see me when I was in Laval; I met up with two separate friends in Paris and visited my closest childhood friend in the city where she’s doing a British Council teaching assistantship. My excitement to see someone from home did not diminish as the number of visitors increased. Showing people where you’ve been living is exciting every time and offers the chance to do things and visit places that you wouldn’t normally, but I’ve realised that the real thing that makes seeing people from home during year abroad so refreshing is the feeling of calm and normality that they bring with them. Year abroad is many things, but relaxed is definitely not one of them: there are too many pressures (social, linguistic, work…) brewing in an unfamiliar environment for that to be the case. With friends from home, everything is easier: conversation flows more easily (probably read definitely aided by the fact that it’s in English) and there’s more common ground between the two of you. And who doesn’t love a good heart-to-heart? In my experience, whilst year abroad friendships can be great, they’re not often intimate enough for DMCs to be happening on the regs (although I did have a great one with a friend in Laval whilst sat on the kerb outside the town’s only nightclub).

I don’t miss the work at Oxford, really – although I do often miss the feeling of being constantly, overwhelmingly busy – but I do miss the casual nature of the social life: going to a friend’s room for a cup of tea, meeting in the college bar, sitting in the gardens with Pimm’s and strawberries (oh, Oxford). Having people to visit offers a way back into that life for a blissful couple of days. And, with only eight weeks of my year abroad left, a couple of days is enough to keep me going for now.