Sicily Roadtrip!! (4/14-4/18) [and updates]

on Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Before I start my post I want to say how lucky I feel to have such a wonderful family. The recent deaths of my mom's uncle, my grandpa, and Owen Thomas, a fellow junior from Wharton, serve as reminders of how fragile life is and how important it is to make the most of everyday. I think that it is really easy to lose sight of what is actually important and meaningful and to let the days go by without consciously thinking about the decisions you make; however, these recent events motivate me to constantly try to be the best person I can be and to constantly treat others with respect. Here is a great picture of my mom, brothers, and me with Dave after midnight mass for Christmas:

While I am writing this blog so that I can come back and read it some day, I know that my mom and brothers read it regularly to see the pictures of me as I travel. I can't wait to see you guys- You mean the world to me and I am very proud of you! Francisco will be here in 3 weeks and I couldn't be more thrilled to be able to share part of this experience with him. Some other good news are that he learned this week that he was accepted to study abroad in Ecuador next semester so I am excited for him to have such a unique experience.

Overall, I am having a good week. I have a cold though, so I have stayed in for the past 4 nights studying for my JPM test. Hopefully I start getting better soon! I am not that sick but I have a cough and am still congested. It probably doesn't help that I had McDonald's for dinner yesterday (with Daniel Kim) and today (with Marine). I literally eat more fast food here in Italy than I did back at Penn which is sad. I should really stop doing that, for the sake of saving money and taking advantage of all the great food! Yesterday after dinner Daniel gave me the music off of his computer and I have been listening to the songs all day. He downloaded the Billboard top 100 for April so I have all the current most popular songs. I am also looking forward to the 2nd leg of the Inter-Barca Champions League Semifinal. It would be incredible if Inter won the Champions League while I was here in Milan. Although the final will be in Madrid, Francisco will be here with me in Milan so we could go to a bar and watch it with all the crazy people! This week is also shaping up to be really busy for me because I have a couple of big group project coming up that I need to work on.

Alright amigos, its time to recount my time spent in Sicily, or Sicilia (Seecheelia) as we Italians like to say. After I got back to Milan from Spain I had to study for my midterm in Alternative Investments but during those 5 'study days' I did everything but! The first day I got back I went to the park with Oscar, Johan, and a few other friends to soak in the sun and kick around a soccer ball. We also brought hot dogs, bread, and chips with us to make lunch since Jorgen brought a disposable grill. We didn't actually end up grilling at the park because not everyone was that hungry, but it was still nice to be outside on such a beautiful day (easily the most beautiful in Milan up to that point for me). The next day was the Milano Marathon and the course went right past my apartment so I went on my balcony and watched people run by for a while! The day before my midterm I really tried to study though and I think the exam went well so I was happy about that.

The trip to Sicily started with a tram and metro ride with Johan to Stazione Centrale (you guessed it, Central Station) to meet up with Johan van Eck and the rest of the gang. Like my roadtrip through Tuscany, the group of people I went on this trip with were very diverse! There were 4 guys and 1 girl from Holland (Johan, Joris, Toine, Jaap and Karolina), 1 from Sweden (Johan), 1 from Iceland (Tomas), 1 from Canada (Oren), and 1 Colombian American (yours truly). Keli (another guy from Iceland) was also supposed to join us on the trip but had emergency surgery to get his appendix out a couple days before. Once we were all there (except for Jaap who met us later at the airport) we took the shuttle to the airport in Bergamo called Orio al Serio. The reason we flew out of Bergamo, is because it is the only airport in the region that RyanAir, the super low-cost carrier, flies out of. The round trip airfare only cost like 50Euros per person so it was a good deal. Unfortunately, the bus ride was terrible. We got stuck in traffic so it took an hour and a half to get to the airport and it was really hot on the bus. I remember I kept telling myself that suffering on that bus was not worth the cost savings of the cheap flight. Needless to say, I will try to keep flying EasyJet for my next trips. Once we got to the airport everything was going well until we got all the way to the front of the security line and they made Oren and I go to the check in counter to get stamps on our boarding passes since we aren't from the EU. Fortunately, we decided to just skip the line and go under the ropes to the front of the line after arriving back to security and no one seemed to care. After we got past security and caught up to everyone, we met up with Marine, Pascal, Rachel, and Sabrina, (all friends from school) who were on our same flight. It was a huge coincidence though because we originally planned the trips separately. We were renting cars upon arriving in Palermo though and they were staying mostly in the city so we didn't see them that much besides at the airport. I sat next to Tomas on the flight and no one sat in the seat between us so it was nice to have the open space there. We talked for most of the flight which I really enjoyed and before we knew it the flight was over! As soon as we stepped off the plane the humidity was very noticeable and you could tell that we were really close to the sea.

After we got everything settled at the airport we headed out to find the cars that we rented for the trip. One of the first things I noticed at the airport was the huge number of police officers and security guards. I know that Sicily is known for the Mafia activity so maybe that's why? The cars that we got were a Lancia (an Italian company) and a Volkswagen Rabbit. Johan, Joris, Johan V, and I took the Lancia and this proved to be a great decision because the leg room in the back seats was truly amazing. The cars and the groups of people in them never changed throughout the trip so we got to enjoy the added space for the duration of the trip (you'll see later why this became so important). Johan and Johan V were the drivers in our car and Oren and Jaap drove in the other car, so we had a good balance of 2 drivers per car. Another thing that was nice was that the GPS that we rented actually worked decently compared to the horrendous one that kept getting us lost in Tuscany. We headed straight to our B&B (Bed & Breakfast) so drop our things off before heading out for a bite to eat. However, making it to the B&B proved to be harder than we first imagined because some of the streets that we drove down were EXTREMELY narrow and we got stuck a couple times. At one point we were holding an Italian man up and he got out of his car to shout "vai vai vai!!" (go go go!!) at us while we were trying to squeeze between two buildings. If not for having folded the side view mirrors in, we would not have fit! After struggling to find the place we finally made it and it was quite a relief. Before I keep going I want to make sure that I mention that the radio stations in Sicily are hit or miss, but when you find a good one they are AMAZING! I didn't think the day would come when I would say that about a radio station but they literally played great songs like non-stop when they were working. After dropping everything off in our rooms (I shared a room with Johan) we all went outside to wait for Karoline to get ready. This proved to be a common occurrence during the trip since the 7 of us guys always got ready really quickly. After walking around and not finding a place to eat we found a nice place to have a panino and beer really close to the hotel near the beautiful marina which we drove past on the way to the hotel. After dinner Johan, Jaap, and I headed in because we were really tired but everyone else wanted to stay out and try to find a club or bar to go to. I honestly am not sure what they ended up doing, but I sure am glad I was able to get some rest that night because I was exhausted.

The next morning I was the first person up and at breakfast so I had to wake everyone else up so they wouldn't miss the free breakfast. Everyone else still had a ways to go before being ready to head out for the day so Johan and I decided to go out and explore the surrounding area while we waited. We headed to the marina next to where we ate the night before and right away we could tell that Palermo had a much different feel to it than the other Italian cities we had been to. In a strange way it seemed less developed and the traffic was completely erratic. It made the driving in Milan and Colombia look tame. There would be 6 cars next to each other on 2 lane roads and this was just one example of things being less organized. Next to the marina is really smelled like fish because there were several vendors on the side of the street selling fresh fish. After walking around the marina we head in a circle to get back to the hotel and walked next to a really really nice park which had the craziest tree I have ever seen. It was huge but the crazy part was that from the branches there would be other trunks which probably started off as vine that grew downward to the ground hundreds of years ago. It is hard to explain but I will post a picture so you can see what I am talking about. In the picture it looks like a bunch of different trees but they are all the same tree and all the small 'trunks' join the main one up higher. After this, we meet up with everyone else and then bought water at a grocery store before basically retracing the same steps that Johan and I had just walked while waiting for them. During this time 2 unfortunate things happened: 1. I stepped on dog poop and 2. Johan lost his sweater. However, 2 miracles also occurred: 1. It was a miracle that it took 3 months for me to stop on dog poop, because it is literally all over the place on the sidewalks here in Italy and 2. Johan found his sweater on the ground near the park. After we got back to the park, we all collectively decided to leave the city and drive to a beach to enjoy the weather. We figured that we could spend the last day in Palermo to see the city before our return flight.

The drive to the beach was very nice but none of us were prepared for how beautiful the beach was!

I can't remember the last time I had seen water that looked so blue/green and it was just beautiful. It was the closest I had been to paradise in a REALLY long time. We parked the cars and walked on the boardwalk toward the water but it got cloudy while we were walking and the water was still quite cold so we didn't get to swim in the sea like I was hoping. After a few hours at the beach (unfortunately I don't remember what it was called) we headed to Catania which is the 2nd largest city in Sicily. Palermo is located in the NW part of the island while Catania is on the West coast so it was a hearty, but beautiful drive along the coast. We stopped along the way for a coffee (in my case a Gatorade) and it was nice to not have any worries since I had already taken my only midterm. Now that the exam was not looming over my head, the only thing I needed to worry about for the time being was relaxing and enjoying the trip. When we finally got to Catania we had trouble getting to the B&B because the GPS kept trying to lead us down extremely narrow streets that we would have never been able to drive through. We finally made it though and the lady that ran the B&B was extremely nice and also very beautiful. She also had a small child (I am guessing around 12-18 months old) named Ricardo who might have been the cutest baby I have ever seen. Okay maybe the 2nd cutest after Francisco, I remember he was quite the looker back in the day. The best part of the place was the fact that our room had a huge balcony facing a very nice square in the center of the city. As we stood out there and looked down at all the people it was like being on the Pope's balcony at the Vatican.

Once we were all settled in we asked the lady from the B&B if she knew of any nice places where we could have dinner and she recommended a place so I made a reservation for us. Before dinner we headed to the grocery store to buy drinks for later in the evening and then headed back to the hotel. On TV they were showing the top 50 soccer goals of the year so we watched that until it was time to go to the restaurant. We ended up taking a long-cut to get to the place because on the way home it took a fraction of the time to get back but we are glad we went because we were not expecting the dinner to turn into such a memorable experience. The restaurant was called Tratoria Casalinga and its specialty was seafood. Right away we were greeted by an extremely energetic older man who called himself Nino (short for Antonino).  It turned out that he owned the restaurant and his sons were the waiters. None of us knew what to order for the primo piatto (first plate is usually a pasta) so Nino just said he would give us his specialty. We all hesitantly agreed but he was so confident in the way he said it that we all trusted him. WOW!!!!!!!!! My taste buds have still not recovered from Nino's specialty; Everything I eat still tastes bland in comparison. The plate came with 2 different kinds of pastas and sauces but the pasta with the red sauce was easily the best I have ever tried. I had previously said that the pasta in Siena was the best but this was on a completely different level. I have no words to explain the flavors. It was like adding a different dimension to eating, like seeing a 3D film for the first time or seeing TV in color for the first time. As the meal progressed Nino began to talk to us more and he really took a liking to Johan V. He kept teasing him and asking him where he was from and from then on, the rest of the dinner was more of a show than a meal. Nino and Johan V. kept going back and forth jokingly giving each other a hard time. At one point they were using a pepper grinder/shaker and a coat rack as props for their jokes. Nino also opened up 2 bottles of wine and drank them with us. He would pour us a glass and then toast and have us drink them quickly and then do it over again. For being so old, he sure was full of life! I made several videos of him so I wouldn't forget his way of being.

Halfway during dinner I received an unknown number from the US so I stepped out to answer in case it was my family or JPMorgan  and I was surprised when it was Joanna from the Wharton Council. She called me during the weekly WC meeting because they were about to vote for co-chairs for next year and wanted me to talk about myself so the new members could learn a bit about me. I wasn't expecting to be put on a conference call in the middle of dinner in Sicily but it was really nice to hear everyone. The next morning I found out that I was voted co-chair and it is truly an honor to lead such a fine group of individuals. I want to work really hard next semester so that I can make those that came before me proud! After 4 hours at the restaurant and 4 bottles of wine we decided to head out and see other parts of the city. It was a Thursday night so we figured there would be a lot of young people out looking for something to do. We found a bar with tables outside so we sat and talked for a while. Afterward we headed into an Irish pub and were surprised when it turned out to be a gay bar (the lady who recommended it is probably still laughing) so we called it a night since nothing else was open (of course we stopped for a kebab on the way home though).

Catania's central square and duomo are a World Heritage Site so we got up early to go out and see the parts of the city we still had not seen. On the way there we walked through a nice outdoor market where you could find anything from watches to scarves to CDs and cooking pans. Once we got to the piazza at the Duomo it was really beautiful. Johan, Tomas, and I arrived first so after taking a look around we headed to the fish market which is renowned world wide.

Besides all of the really big fish that we saw, we also ran into this guy!!! :

It was actually really nice to see Nino again to kind of get a last goodbye since the night before we left kind of quickly. He was extremely nice and everyone at the market knew him! He said he was there to buy fish for his restaurant so it was apparent that buying fresh food was really important to him. No wonder his pasta was so good. After we left the fish market we met up with the rest of the gang and Oren & I went to a pastry shop near the Duomo for a famous Sicilian treat: the Cannolo, or Cannoli as Americans call them. These special pastries are famous and I could definitely tell the difference between that one and the other ones I have tried before. It had pistachio shavings on top which made it even better. For those of you who aren't familiar with this tasty creation, it is a "pastry horn filled with cream cheese, candied fruit and chocolate". Believe me, they are delicious but they are so sweet that you can't eat more than one.

Leaving Catania was hard because it was so beautiful but we were all very eager to travel to the next location on our itinerary: Mt. Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. The drive to Etna was nice because it was very hilly and it almost reminded me of being in Colombia. When we got to the point where you can take a gondola up we were appalled when it cost over 50+Euros to go up. Instead of paying an arm and leg to go up we decided it would be a better value to climb a nearby hill on foot and still get some spectacular views. The trek up this mini mountain was much more difficult than I was expecting because the ground was so unstable due to the loose lava stones. My boat shoes & no socks were also not the appropriate shoes to wear for such a hike but I survived nonetheless and even got my family lava stones as souvenirs (shhhhh don't tell them though because I haven't told them yet).

The final night of our trip was approaching so we drove to Cefalu, the last city on our schedule. The drive was also nice but the highlight was when a Lamborghini flew past us on the highway. After seeing that I was tempted to move the Lambo above the Ferrari on my "to-get" list. Cefalu was a very special stop because it is truly an oasis.
We were staying at a hotel which was right across the street from the ocean so we had amazing views. As was routine, we dropped all of our things off at the hotel and then went into the heart of the town for dinner. We decided on a seafood restaurant and I started my meal with a pasta with sardines. It was my first time eating sardines but it was the restaurants specialty so I tried it and it was fabulous. My 2nd dish was another fish and that was really good as well. Overall, I absolutely loved the cuisine in Sicily.
After dinner we went to the center of the city to the main church and hung out on the steps since everything else was seemingly closed. I talked to a couple of people who were from the city and they said that everything was closed on Fridays which didn't make any sense at all. We ended up following a group of people to a bar/lounge but Jaap, Oren, Johan, Tomas, and I left early and headed home because it wasn't that fun. When I got back to the hotel I checked my email before bed and was shocked to see an email from JPM asking me to confirm that I was returning to TMT this summer. I emailed them back to tell them that I never worked in TMT and was worried that I wouldn't get a fair shot at the group placement process. Since then I have had the chance to talk to different groups and regardless of where I end up this summer, I know I will be in a great group.

The next day we began to hear about more and more airport closing due to the Volcano eruption in Iceland which resulted in a huge ash cloud over much of Europe. Needless to say that morning was pretty crazy once we heard our flight was cancelled because we weren't sure when the airport would be re-opening. It turned out that flights were cancelled for like 5 days in Italy and even longer in other places like England so that was pretty crazy. We decided to drive the rental cars all the way back to Milan and it was a huge relief for me,  because I was worried about missing the HUGE Champions League Match that I had been looking forward to going to so much. After buying a chicken and splitting it with Johan for lunch and sitting out with the whole group in the sun we decided to head out. It was going to be a really long drive to Milan and we wanted to drive non-stop so we wouldn't have to pay for an extra days car rental. The drive home took 19 hours in total and we drove onto a ferry to get back to the mainland. The drive to get to the ferry however was really memorable because it was composed almost exclusively of bridges and tunnels. I have never been in or seen so many tunnels in my life. It was incredible. Something else that was really crazy was that the ferry had train tracks on the bottom floor and  a train drove into it!! I made a video because I couldn't believe it.

To ensure that the drivers wouldn't be too tired to stay awake we had a system where the driver and co-pilot pairs would switch every 4 hours so the others could sleep in the back seat. This is why the huge amount of leg room in the car turned out to be so great! Whenever Johan and I would drive we constantly talked and I had a wonderful time. I am actually really glad our flight was cancelled because that was one of the most fun drives I have ever been on. Unfortunately we never got to see more of Palermo but I did get to ride through practically all of Italy! When we finally got back to Milan the next morning it was so nice to be back in my room and have my own bed. The drive was really exhausting but I had an amazing trip.

Many thanks to Johan V. for organizing such a nice trip. All of the places we stayed at and visited were very nice and I am really glad I was able to go on the trip.

It is getting late and I have class in the morning so I should get going to bed!

Buona notte!


Messa nel Duomo

on Sunday, April 25, 2010

I woke up early this morning to attend mass at the Duomo to pray to my dad and grandfather. Rachel, one of my friends here, goes to mass regularly so I asked to join her and she was more than happy let me tag along. The service itself was really nice and fortunately I understood most of the Italian. The highlight though was when Rachel gave me a letter that her grandfather had written for his grandchildren with advice for them. She said they didn't find the letter until after his death when they were cleaning the desk in his office and it was a really nice gesture for her to give me a copy.

After mass, we went to Burger King and ate at a park since it was so nice out. I then headed home and spent the rest of the afternoon studying accounting and analyzing financial statements for the pre-training exam that I have coming up for JPMorgan. I submitted my group rankings last week and am now waiting to hear back to see where I will spend my summer and potentially, the next 2 years of my life following my graduation. After ranking the groups, I spoke to even more people from the different groups and I would love the opportunity to work at any of my top choices. Today I also had the chance to talk to my mom for an hour on the phone which was really nice- I can never really get enough of my family! I think I wrote about it before, but Francisco was hoping to study abroad in Brazil next semester; however, the program told him last minute that they were no longer taking students so he had to look for a new program and decided on going to Ecuador. I hope that he gets into the program, because he is really excited to go.

Two nights ago I went shopping with a friend named Daniel because he had heard of some outlets in the north of Milan. After shopping, Oscar invited us to an aperitivo and it was really good- the food, the ambiance, the company... it was all wonderful! We finished off the evening at Oscar's house for a little get-together and then we all went to Limelight for some dancing. Overall it was a great day, but I wanted to post a picture from the aperitivo because they seated us in the center of the restaurant on a huge round table on a platform and it was really cool!

I will try to post entries about Sicily and the Champion's League soccer match this week so stay tuned!


Madrid and Toledo!! (4/6-4/9)

on Saturday, April 24, 2010

After a wonderful wonderful week in Paris I was really excited to visit Spain. I had always wanted to visit Spain partly because that is where my ancestors came from before they traveled south to Colombia hundreds of years ago. Not being able to speak French also made traveling around Paris difficult at times so I was excited to be able to understand and communicate with people on the street. The part I was most excited for though was seeing my cousin Carlos Andres, or Cacun as his family and friends call him. I had not seen him since I was seven years old so it had been way too long!

My trip to Madrid started with an early morning drive to the airport in Paris with Dominique. On the way to the airport we drove past the soccer stadium where France won the World Cup in 1998 so that was cool. My flight was at 6:50am so it was really nice to not have to take a bus to the airport because we already had to get up at like 4am to make it on time. I had a nice flight to Madrid and I flew EasyJet again. Once I arrived at the airport in Madrid, it was wonderful to see all of the signs in Spanish. French is a lot easier to read than understand when spoken, but being able to understand everything was something that I missed (even in Italy). Cacun had class that morning so he couldn't meet me at the airport, but there was a metro that went from the airport to within 3 blocks of his apartment so it was really easy to get there. He left the keys in the lobby of his apartment with the doorman and when I got there I just dropped off everything and headed out to explore the city. My cousin lives off of Calle Maldonado which I thought was cool so I obviously had to take a picture of the street sign.

Feeling hungry since I had already been awake for like 6 hours I decided to grab some breakfast/lunch at a nearby cafe. Unfortunately they didn't have a menu so the waitress just told me what they offered and at first I thought she was talking in a language I had never heard before. I didn't recognize a single thing she said except "tostadas" so I had to get toast since it was the only thing I recognized. When I asked her what kind of "jugo", or juice, they had she looked puzzled and after I said it a couple more times she said "oooh zumo". Clearly, my first interaction with a Spaniard didn't go quite like I was expecting when I arrived in Spain. After telling my cousin the story later that evening I was relieved when he said that many of the words for foods in Spain are different than in Colombia and he had to learn them after arriving. After finishing my toast and juice (maracuja!) I hopped back on the metro and headed into the center of the city. As soon as I got out of the station there was a tourist information center so I went and asked for a map of the city. Fortunately, communicating in Spanish was no problem at all and I proceeded to plan out what I wanted to see that day. From talking to my mother who loves art, I knew that no trip to Madrid would be complete without a trip to the Prado Museum. I took the metro a couple stops and got off on a beautiful avenue called La Gran Via. As the name suggests, this is a major and historic avenue and the buildings that lined it were beautiful. There were a few large governmental buildings and to make things even better, the weather was absolutely PERFECT. It was about 23 degrees Celsius which is like 73 degrees Fahrenheit with clear skies, so after 7 rainy days Paris it felt like paradise.
The Prado is a few blocks off the La Gran Via and the road to get there was also very beautiful. It was lined with fountains, statues, and trees and it almost hard to make myself go into the museum because I just wanted to stay outside and enjoy the weather. The line to get into the museum was rather long but it moved really quickly. The outside of the museum and the nearby buildings were all really really nice and the city had much more of a contemporary European feel than I had imagined. Unfortunately photography was prohibited but I took a couple pictures before I realized it wasn't allowed. The museum, for the most part, was full of religious paintings which is something I have seen a lot of in Italy but it was still really nice. Since the building had been built before electric lighting was standard, the ceilings were all open with large windows to let the sun in, and I had a really nice time walking around. The thing I enjoyed the most though was that there were several artists throughout the museum replicating famous pieces on their own easels and canvasses. I have always really admired people who could paint and draw well so I found myself perplexed as I watched these young adults replicate (almost perfectly) works by the likes of Goya and El Greco. Halfway through the museum I decided to take a short Burger King break before returning to the museum to finish walking around. Like in Italy, the Burger King's and McDonald's in Spain serve beer so I decided to have a #2 with fries and a beer. The people who ordered in front of me were Italian and it reminded me of when I was in France and would immediately recognize Italian because I would be able to understand it, unlike French.

After the museum I decided to cross the city by foot and see the Royal Palace. As I walked into the heart of the historic center of Madrid I began to realize how beautiful the city was. I had always heard my friends say that in their opinion, Barcelona is the most beautiful city in Europe but none of them ever mention Madrid. Maybe it was the fact that I had no expectations for the city but I was really taken aback by it. I thought the streets were all really beautiful and amongst the nicest I had seen in during my time traveling this semester. I saw some really beautiful squares or plazas where hordes of people would be sitting out and enjoying the weather. It felt like a city I could definitely see myself living in. As I neared the Royal Palace I walked past a really nice looking pastry shop so I stopped in and asked the woman behind the counter if they had any specialties. She immediately directed me to these small bread like pastries which were made with chocolate, wine, or sugar so I got one of each to give to my cousin and his wife. I continued my walk toward the palace and stopped at the main cathedral of the city and was not ready for what I was about to see. I had been to many famous Italian churches and chapels during my time in Italy and France like the Duomo di Milano, St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and Notre Dame, but I thought this cathedral was the most beautiful of them all. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for the cathedral in Madrid you'll see that it is a small fraction of the length of the entry for the other famous churches I mentioned, and doesn't include works by Raphael or Da Vinci but I absolutely loved it. Instead of the usual frescoes you would see in the other churches ceiling's, this cathedral had beautiful patterns painted in extremely vibrant colors. To me, it really seemed like you would go there to celebrate the life of God and to worship Him. I really liked the fact that the building just seemed cheerful and happy inside rather than the dark and gloomy churches I had gotten accustomed to.

After leaving the cathedral I finally made it to the Royal Palace, which was directly adjacent to the Cathedral. I just walked around the outside of it and opted to skip the free tour because after being at Versailles a few days earlier, I assumed it would pale in comparison. I continued to head north and stopped at the Parque de la Montaña which was full of people laying down and soaking up the sun. In the center of the park there was a monument called the Templo de Debod and I sat on a park bench for like 25 minutes to rest. Once I was feeling more energized I continued to walk north and then west to get to my cousin's apartment. It was fun to just walk down random streets to try to get a feel for what the city is like. Once I realized I was too tired to keep walking all the way back I found a nearby metro station and headed "home". Once I arrived I used the computer my cousin left out for me to check my email and facebook until he and his wife got home from school and work respectively. Maria, Cacun's wife, got home first and it was really nice to meet her for the first time. After a few minutes Cacun came home too and I think we were both really excited to finally see each other again. We just shared stories about our families and I told him about my time in Italy until we heard his neighbors on all sides of his apartment start screaming "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL". It was not until we heard this that we realized that Barcelona was playing Arsenal in the Champions League Quarterfinals. Arsenal opened up the scoring first and since everyone from Madrid hates Barcelona everyone was celebrating the goal. Maria made a pasta with pesto for dinner and it was really good and we all sat around the TV and watched the soccer game in true Spanish fashion. It was a fun game to watch because Messi scored all 4 goals for Barcelona and proved why he is the world's best player. After the game Cacun helped me plan out the things I would see the following day and then we set up the inflatable bed he has for his guests.

After a long nights rest and a long list of things to see, I had cereal for breakfast before heading out. The cereal was incredibly good and easily the best tasting healthy cereal I have ever had. I am a big fan of Special K Red Berries, but this cereal was in a class of its own.

After eating, I set out for a full day of sightseeing. I began by walking down to the Parque del Retiro which is like the Central Park of Madrid. The walk down from Cacun's place was nice and I walked down a street lined with really nice shops and boutiques. Perhaps it was Madrid's '5th Avenue'? At the corner of the Parque del Retiro there is a famous arch which was really nice. I then headed down a main avenue toward the Plaza Mayor but stopped at Plaza Sol. Both plazas are major open spaces but the Plaza Mayor is the center of the historic part of Madrid with Plaza Sol being more of a cultural center like Times Square. Both were really nice and it was a very scenic walk. Next to the Plaza Mayor I went to Mercado de San Miguel which was a new market full of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. I stopped in and had a papaya smoothie and it was delicious. I had seen the market the day before but had no idea what it was, but my cousin told me I had to visit it. I had also been right next to the Plaza Mayor the day before but didn't even realize it was there because it is enclosed.

By this time it I was starting to get hungry and it was already lunchtime so I headed to a Colombian restaurant called Patacón Pisao which Maria recommended. I ordered a Bandeja Paisa and drank a Pony Malta and Colombiana. A Bandeja Paisa is a very typical Colombian dish which literally means 'tray from the countryside'. It is basically an assortment of many different foods and I enjoyed every bit of it. My dish came with arepas (a cornmeal patty-delicious), platanos (plantain), frijoles (beans), arroz (rice), carne molida (ground beef), chicharrón (fried pork rinds), aguacate (avocado), chorizo (sausage) and fried eggs. A Pony Malta is a malt soft drink and a Colombiana is a soft drink but both are extremely typical beverages and it had been a really long time since I have had them.

After the HUGE meal I am not sure I had ever felt that full in my life. My stomach hurt from eating so much but everything was so good that I just couldn't put my fork down. The next destination for me was the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, which is the home of famous soccer club Real Madrid. They have a daily tour and I had been looking forward to visiting this colossal stadium for days. The tour was a lot of fun and I met a couple guys from Napoli (Naples), Italy and a family from California who were all really nice. I was able to see all of the trophies that the team had ever won as well as memorabilia from their most significant moments. The coolest part for me was getting to sit in the chairs that the players sit in during the games.... talk about comfort! Following my visit to the stadium I went to the Plaza de Toros to see where the bull fights were held. Unfortunately when I got there it was closed but it was still cool to see the outside because it was really beautiful. One day I would love to be able to see a bull fight. I know a lot of people want them outlawed because they are cruel to animals, which is true, but I can also appreciate the artistic side of it. In America we are still executing human beings (by firing squad in Utah), so comparatively they are probably doing better in Spain with regards to what is humane. By this time it was already time for me to head back for dinner. Maria and Cacun wanted to take me out to a place called El Lateral for Spanish Tapas and all of the food was absolutely amazing. The highlight for me was the shrimp tartar guacamole and also the morcilla.

I slept in a little later to recover from the long day of walking and went straight to the train station for a day trip to Toledo. I was excited for the day trip to Toledo because from my Spanish history class at Penn, I remembered that the city had Muslim influences so the architecture was much different than that of Madrid. The train station was probably the coolest one I have ever been to because there was a large garden in the center with huge plants and a pond full of turtles. It also had a Burger King inside which was a huge plus. Try to guess how many turtles there are in the picture below. I believe I counted like 20!

The train ride was only 30 minutes and only cost 11Euros but I was really surprised by how nice the high speed trains were in Spain! The seats had an incredible amount of leg room compared to the trains I had been on in Italy so I was ecstatic that I could relax and enjoy the ride without feeling too cramped. Once I got to Toledo I walked up the hilly streets (the city is built on hill, with the most historic parts being highest) to the center and just spent the day walking around. I went into the cathedral which was built in the 1400's which was really cool and I also really liked a square in the center which was full of young students. The city had much more of a desert feel to it and in a sense you could really feel the Muslim influence. It almost felt like being in a different country (except they spoke Spanish). I found a store which was essentially called Tienda Maldonado (I don't remember the exact name, but it was something like that) so I stopped in and talked to the owner who told me the history of the Maldonado family in Toledo. The craziest part of the day was definitely when I ran into the family from Southern California that I met at the soccer stadium the day before. We all laughed when we saw each other and stopped to talk for a couple minutes- I should have taken a picture with them! I had a wonderful day trip and the weather was also perfect so that made the day even better.

I headed back to Madrid for my final evening with my cousin. When I got to his apartment he had forgotten to leave the keys with the doorman so I called my mom on Skype from my iPod since I could get internet reception when standing outside of his room. After Cacun and Maria came home, one of their friends called and invited them to a bar. Maria wanted to stay home but Carlos Andres and I went out to celebrate my visit and because it would be cool to meet his friends. I had a great evening which included my first aguardiente, having to pick up a barricade at the US embassy which a friend accidentally bumped as we walked past it, and meeting his friends which were all very nice. The best part was definitely talking to and spending quality time with my cousin. We ended up getting home really late and I only slept for an hour before I had to take a taxi to the airport, but Francisco called me to wake me up which was a big help. The rest of the morning was basically a blur but I made it to Milan safely. When I got off the plane in Italy I felt like I was finally home. This was the first time when I had returned to Milan from a trip and really felt like I was back in MY city, and it was actually kind of weird. I don't think that 2 years ago I would have ever believed that I would call Milan, Italy my home one day.

I feel extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to travel to Spain and France. I am not sure what I did to deserve this opportunity but I am definitely making the most of it.