Happy birthday to the best dad I could ask for! I wish I could be home to share the day with my family, but alas, I cannot travel four thousand miles for only one day. 

Actually, if I could pick, I'd probably spend the day with my dad skiing in the Alps, something that I know he would love maybe even more than I did. Maybe someday we'll have the chance to do that together. 

From my dad I get my love of the ski atmosphere, along with my love of writing, a hint of sarcasm, and yearning for travel. There are a lot of things I miss about being home, and one of them is spending time with my dad, cooking, watching the Ken Burns series of Nation Parks: America's Best Idea, and reading the hilarious blogs of James Lileks

Happy Birthday Dad, I hope one day I can be as wonderful of a parent as you have been for 20 years. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to see the world!

Yesterday afternoon ESDES took a group of students to Oceanográfica, a big aquarium in Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences. It's also the largest aquarium in Europe with several buildings, a shark tunnel, and a dolphin show. 

We arrived and began our tour just before four, and since it was a weekday we nearly had the whole place to ourselves. The aquarium is set up in a series of buildings, organized by region: Arctic, Mediterranean, Red Sea (Mar Rojo), Dead Sea (Mar Muerto), and Wetlands. All the tanks and exhibitions are underground and the aquarium has two tunnels, a shark tunnel and a Mediterranean tunnel. They even have a "come sleep with the sharks" night for kids where you can bring your sleeping bag and stay on the floor in the shark tunnel. 

At four thirty everyone went to the dolphin show which was pretty cool. It was sort of like a smaller version of Seaworld, except the voiceover was in Spanish and told a story about the dolphins and how they became friends with the humans. At least I think that's what they were talking about. After that we had only an hour before the aquarium closed so we hurried off to see the Arctic. Sadly, the walruses were not "home," but we did get to see belugas and penguins.
We had about three hours until the bus came back to pick everyone up, so a group of us decided to walk around through the City of Arts and Science since none of us have spent too much time there. All the buildings are very cool, and include an opera house, Imax building, science museum, and more. As the sun began to set, we walked over to a mall where rebajas were in full swing and the sales were reaching 70% off in some stores. Justin, Shannon, Hannah and Ryan got Lemongrass (Thai food) while I grabbed a kebab and then we headed off our own ways for a little shopping. Justin ended up getting some new shoes on sale which was a great purchase. After walking around every single day for three weeks on Christmas break, you see why everyone tells you that when you go to Europe, take good walking shoes.

After shopping we returned to the science area to see everything at night, and since it was a balmy 65º in Valencia, we were not rushed to return to the warmth of the bus. The afternoon was a great break from Sagunto and we had a wonderful time seeing Valencia and spending time together outside of school.
For awhile now I've wanted to write about each of my classes, what we learn in them, and who teaches them. Since I've switched groups I'll also tell a little bit about the teachers I had last semester that I don't have anymore. And yes, probably every explanation of a class will be followed with "and the teacher is so nice!" because all of the staff here at ESDES are some of the warmest, kindest, people I've ever met.

There are four classes that you have to take when you come to Spain, and the rest are electives. This required classes are Grammar, Composition, Conversation, and DELE. Then you can choose electives such as Art History, History of Spain, Folklore, Spain and Culture, etc. Last semester in addition to the four required classes I took Folklore and Bible. This semester I'm taking History of Spain and Literature. 

Each group has almost all the same teachers, but when we switched groups we did gain two different teachers. Last semester I took Grammar from Maria Jose, a teacher at the secondary school who was the sponsor of Group D. She was always so kind and patient with us when we didn't understand topics, and she always made it fun in some way, with singing songs or playing games. Now I'm in Grammar with Pepe, who teaches E and F. Pepe is so funny and works really hard to help us to understand everything that's happening. I've noticed that one of his favorite things to say is, "Espera, tranquillos," (just wait, and calm down) when we are not sure if we understand a new concept. He takes everything one step at a time and tries hard to make sure everyone is caught up. He is taking English classes and tries out words on us once in a while, and we help him when he asks how we would say a phrase or word in English. I can tell that Pepe really cares about us and wants us to do well. 

For Composition, all the groups have the same teacher, Chelo. Composition class is held three days a week and it's one of my favorites. On the last day of class each week, we write a 150-word composition about any topic that Chelo gives us. Some are harder than others, but they are always fun and challenge me in vocabulary and writing structure. The other days we learn about how to write various other texts, articles, letters, arguments, and opinion pieces. When I first got to Spain and didn't understand hardly any Spanish, Chelo was the easiest teacher for me to understand. She'll do anything to help get her point across, and almost everything she says is accompanied by gestures and comments on the side. Chelo actually reminds me a bit of my mom, sort of like a tiny little hummingbird that's always cheerful and busy and makes you excited to learn.

Last semester I had Conversation class from Christian, who teaches groups A-D. Conversation is a harder class for me because there are so many phrases that we learn from hearing and speaking, but sometimes it's hard to figure out what would be an equivalent in English. We also go by topic, so each week we would learn about a different theme to increase our vocabulary: items in the house, food and containers, having a party, or going to the doctor. Christian always had fun activities to do in class to get us talking with each other and using our new words. One project he is doing this semester is movie-making with his classes. Since I'm not in his class anymore, I didn't have to do this project but a lot of my friends did and their movies turned out so funny! Here's the video my friends Jon, Eloise, Sara, and Rena made. It's a Spanish spoof on The Bachelor and it won first place:
I hope it's not too hard to understand despite being in Spanish. On Monday afternoon everyone went down La Frontera (aka student center) and we had a movie viewing of all the videos made in class. It was really fun and lots of the videos were very well done!

Anyway, this semester I have Ana for Conversation. Last semester she taught my Folklore class which I enjoyed, and now I'm really liking Conversation with her. We still go by topic but use lots of other resources besides the workbook which I enjoy. Ana has us read articles and then we talk about the vocabulary and our opinions. Our first topic of the semester? Rebajas (SALES!) which is sort of like Black Friday here in Spain. After Three Kings Day (January 5), the holiday season is pretty much over in Spain and so everything goes on sale. These sales last through January and into February at some stores. We also discuss more sober topics such as Euthanasia, and then useful things, such as any words you would hear while registering for classes at a University here in Spain. 

The other required class is DELE, which only meets once a week. In this class we just practice taking tests similar to the test we will have to take at the end of the year, and Ana helps us with the best approaches to different exams (listening, writing, grammar, reading comprehension, etc.). I must admit that I dislike DELE class greatly, since the practice tests are very hard, but no one really loves it, and I know it's just something we have to do.

For my extra classes I have History of Spain and Literature. Lidia teaches my Literature class and I love it! Right now we are reading Don Juan which is a strange play about a man named Don Juan and his endeavors to beat his friend at a rather strange bet. We also read poetry by Béquer and will continue with other works when we're done with Don Juan. This class is pretty big since it's groups A-F, but is entirely girls except for Justin and Ryan. Needless to say, in nearly all-male play, Justin and Ryan get to read aloud at least once a class period. I hadn't had a class from Lidia until this semester and I'm glad that I took this class! She's so nice and makes sure that everyone understands what is happening, and, like Chelo, doesn't hesitate to act out or explain further any words we aren't understanding.

Well, I hope this has given a little more insight into what it's like to be a student in Spain! Every day is different and I have learned not to be surprised by anything. For example, today we are going to Oceanográfico, the largest aquarium in Europe, a mere 30 minutes away in Valencia. However, we didn't know until lunch when we were leaving or how we were getting our dinner. Even though it may seem unorganized, I've realized that everything here gets done and nothing is forgotten, even though it's not the first way I'd pick to do it. All the teachers, faculty, and deans do everything they can to look our for us and help us beyond their job descriptions. Every day when the teachers pray at the beginning of class, they pray for us and each of our families back home, something that means a lot to me and shows that they really care about each of us.
Hoy fue uno de los mejores días aquí en España. No sé porque, pero estoy muy contento y feliz que es el fin de semana y siento buena, ahora, sobre mi Español. Tenía una semana muy ocupado pero ahora puedo relajar y disfrutar tiempo con mis amigos. 

Today was one of my favorite days in Spain so far. I'm not sure why but everything seemed to go pretty well today and I'm feeling better about my Spanish. I had a very busy week but now I can relax and spend time with my friends. 

This week consisted of lots of homework, reading books for class, monitor meetings, and orange harvesting. Sunday night I was feeling sort of bummed out about not accomplishing as much as I would have liked for a Sunday, so Justin and Shannon and I took a walk to the orange groves in the dark and ate several while we walked and talked. I never really ate oranges or mandarins until I came here, and now I'm addicted because they are growing everywhere and they are SO GOOD. Every time we walk into town or back, we walk through all the orange groves and I think about how much I love it here, and how I'm going to miss being able to just grab delicious citrus fruit whenever I want (don't worry, the farmers have already picked what they take and there are still tons left!).

On Monday, Pepe announced that we were going to have a Gramática exam on Friday and we began to prepare. Some day I'll write about each of my classes and teachers, but for now I'll just say that Pepe is one of the nicest, funniest teachers I've ever had, and he made sure we were good and ready for our test. I'm actually quite enjoying Group E while between spurts of panic and frustration. No, in all seriousness, I am stressed at times but I do like my new group a a lot and it's really not going to be impossible. Anyway, we had various other activities this week, a monitor meeting, teaching the niños, and doing homework. 

In preparation for our test, Hannah and I studied together for quite awhile last night. I'm so glad we can be in a group together and she's done such a good job of helping me to catch up with everything and to explain things I still don't get. We diagrammed sentence after sentence, went over the rules for the Subjunctive, and checked all our workbook pages. I was pretty nervous about the test but Hannah kept telling me that our studying would pay off and that he wouldn't try to trick us. Well, we took the test today, and she was right! It still was hard and took a long time but I think that it went alright. Pepe's tests are only ten points: six points for diagraming three sentences and four more points for various other exercises. Even then, it took a while but after that I was free for the rest of the day!

It was a beautiful day here, sunny and nearly 70ºF. I came back to my room, cleaned and swept with the doors letting in the fresh air, watched a Modern Family episode, and then headed to the caf for lunch. After lunch Hannah and I walked to Mercadona, enjoying the view of the ocean and the sunny day, and got a few snacks for the weekend. And, of course, on the way back, we were sure to harvest a few citrus snacks while we walked. 

Now it's Friday night here in Spain, and I am having a little down time before culto (vespers). It's so weird to think that around the world, my friends and family aren't even in Friday afternoon just yet. This week we've been having presentations by the theology students and they've been quite good. I've been able to understand a lot of what they are saying and their talks have been easy to understand and concise. After vespers I'm looking forward to talking to Mikey on the phone and probably drinking even more tea. Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and 70º (how can I not love this place?) so we might go on a hike and then go into Valencia tomorrow night for Jon's birthday. 
Oh, I almost forgot one more thing I wanted to share! On thing that makes my week is when I get mail. Mikey's been sending me letters every week since Christmas break, and my mom has continued sending postcards! She's sending me one from each of the places I've gone, and they are so cute and so much fun to get in the mail! Last week I got this one from Rome, the first place we went on Christmas break. I put them all up on my wall around my many maps of the world and Spain. I also got some cool vintage-poster postcards from Zermatt so I added those to my collection as well.It's not as cozy as my dorm room at Union, but I've managed to make the dorm here a place that I can call my home away from home. It sure feels good to come back here after a long trip! Speaking of trips, we have another school trip coming up at the end of February to northern Spain! I'm so excited, especially this trip isn't going to be as long and we will be pretty far away from Morocco and their salad. We even get to go to Andorra, which will be the smallest country I've ever been to! 

Well, it's going to be time for vespers soon and I'm thinking of all my friends and family back home. I miss you and love you all, and I can't wait to see everyone again, but for now, Viva España.
¡Feliz Sábado todos! School is back full swing and this week I was so busy that the week flew by. We've had a lot to do and it's not going to slow down any time soon. Last weekend we went into Valencia to celebrate Ryan's and Jaci's birthdays and got LemonGrass, a delicious but very affordable thai restaurant we love. On Sunday Justin ran a half-marathon here in Sagunto and I worked on homework and reading my Spanish books all day. On Thursday, for "Aula cultural" ("cultural classroom" which really just means chapel) several students got up to tell about their Christmas breaks and what they did. Some shared about going back to the states, some went to Thailand, and Justin got to tell about our trip in Europe. He did such a good job, and spoke so well in Spanish without even having to read his notes! Among the points he made was his favorite, "torres nunca decepcionar" (towers never disappoint) and everyone enjoyed that.

I am enjoying my new group but finding challenges in it every day, from sentence diagraming to learning how to discuss difficult topics like euthanasia in Spanish. Somehow, though, for every confidence-blow I get, something comes along to counteract it. 

It's hard to describe what it's like to be in school for four months when your classes are only in Spanish. Somehow everything gets done, you know what you're supposed to do (más o menos) and you accomplish it, but for me there's always a slight feeling of helplessness I get when I can't communicate exactly what I want to say, when I want to say it. I'm at the point now where if I listen closely, I can understand quite a lot, nearly all, that my teachers say. This is wonderful, but it's hard when they are asking for response out of us and it takes so much longer to form thoughts and sentences. Sometimes these little instances add up to make me feel like I'm having a terrible day, Spanish-wise, but it sometimes takes the littlest things to bring me out of this feeling. 

This week I had my first personal monitor meeting with my new monitor, Elliet. She's very nice and we talked for an hour (well, mostly I talked and she listened) about everything. I even went so far as to explain Pinterest in Spanish, which she brought up on her iPad and decided to create an account! After that I felt a lot better about my progress. Sometimes it's getting one answer right in Grammar, talking to the ladies serving food in the caf, or deciding that in 30 years you probably won't even remember what level you got on the DELE exam. Sometimes it's dropping the homework for half an hour and picking oranges with Ryan and Shannon, or singing hymns after worship with Justin and Jon. One thing that always makes me feel better is looking out at the Mediterranean and remembering where I am and why I came here. Justin's saying, "towers never disappoint" is true, and I'd like to add that for me, sunrises in Spain never disappoint. It's very rare that we have a morning here when the sky isn't hot pink or orange and I love it! Spain doesn't disappoint, it's wonderful here and I'm so glad I have this opportunity. 
¡Chicos! ¡Estamos en España!

These are words we're heard quite a lot in the last few months and after three weeks out of the country, it's good to hear them again. All too often, when the bell rings and class is officially "done" we all begin chattering, yes, in English. That's when our teachers give us this subtle reminder that "GUYS! We are in SPAIN!" to which we reply "lo siento" before heading outside to finish our conversations. As if it's better to speak English outside than in the classroom. Maybe we should all have New Year's resolutions to speak only Spanish during school hours. 

We've only been back for two days but it feels pretty much like we are picking up where we left off! Justin and I jumped up a group with three other previous Group-D amigas, and we are now officially in Grupo E. This included a few teacher changes and a level change from B2 to C1. Basically C2 is the top level and we started the year in B1. So right now we are all trying to make the jump from Bs to Cs. I'm most worried about grammar, because we skipped basically a whole book and have to make it up in just a few weeks as we learn new material. The Group E people have been so nice though and are going to help us get caught up. 

This semester I'm taking the usual require classes, Gramática, Conversación, Composición, and DELE (once a week test prep class), plus Literatura and Historia de España y Europa. It's so strange to have a first day of class where I actually understanding nearly everything that is being said! When I think back to my first weeks here, I had NO idea what anyone was talking about ever! Now I can sit through a class and understand almost everything the teacher says. I can't believe how far we've all come, and we are only 1/3 done! I was a little worried about starting up again after 3 weeks speaking only English and hearing German, Italian, and French everywhere, but I think my brain appreciated the break and is ready to work hard again. 

Today in Composición, Chelo told us about the top 3 New Years resolutions that people always attempt. The first two are fairly easy to guess: to stop smoking, and to lose weight. The last was surprising but made me realize how lucky I am! Apparently, a New Year's resolution that is a big deal in the world is to learn English. I have that one covered! (and since I don't smoke and I'm quite pequeño myself, I guess I'm off to a pretty good start). When learning Spanish, I always think about how lucky I am to have grown up learning English. Not that I had any say in it, but I'm so glad I did. Learning Spanish is hard stuff, but it's nothing I'm sure to learning English. Not only does our language have crazy rules and exceptions to rules, but we often speak it so fast and run together all our words that I don't know how anyone ever learns. And I know that I still don't know everything there is to know about our grammar and the intricacies therein. 

This last year, I began accomplishing a goal. I'm not a huge New-Year's-resolutions fan, but I do have a small list of general life goals stowed away in my head. One of them was to spend a year traveling and/or doing something amazing, which turned out to be ACA, and to learn another language. Starting in September, I began that goal, and now here I am and I plan on finishing it out strong in 2013. Already this year I've had opportunities that I never thought I would have. On the second day of the year I got to ski in the Swiss Alps with the most amazing friends. (I guess we could say it's all downhill from there . . . no pun intended). I have been so lucky and I am thankful every day for the opportunities I've had. For 2013 I plan on completing my DELE and feeling confident in my fluency levels in Spanish. I can't wait to see what else this year holds!
Our final stop on Christmas vacation was Geneva! I was excited to see the city since my dad spent almost a year there, across the border in France. We arrived Thursday afternoon and looked around that evening for a bit before going back to our apartment and making a huge dinner. The fountain was on when we arrived and we discovered that we could see it from our place, right out the window! 

Geneva was a beautiful city. The next day we walked right up to the fountain, saw the cathedral and (of course) climbed the tower to see over the city. In the afternoon we decided to make our way into France to see Colonge, the French ACA school. We took a bus to the border and walked right over and up the hill to the school. The campus was lovely and the sun was just setting for Sabbath. We walked around a bit but didn't really see anyone since they were probably also still on break. We took the bus back and made another delicious dinner and went to bed early since we had to catch a train to Milan before our flight. Here's a few pictures from our last stop!
Yesterday we left early and after a slight time of panic which included us almost missing our train which would have caused us to miss our flight, we at last made it back to Valencia after nearly 12 hours of travel. It's so good to be back and to see everyone again! We also got assigned to our groups and Justin and I both got to move up to Group E! I'm so excited but nervous because it's going to be pretty hard. The good thing is that it will make me practice Spanish even more and hopefully bring me one step closer to fluency. I'll keep you all updated as the new semester begins! Happy January of 2013 everyone!
Today was one of the most exhilarating and fantastic days I’ve spent in Europe so far. Even though we didn’t get off to the best start, our day skiing in the alps was more wonderful than I ever could have imagined. 

A month or two ago, Shannon asked me if I would be interested in skiing during Christmas while in Switzerland. I said that maybe I would, but was unsure about the difficulty level and the fun-to-cost-and-pain ration being worth it. Even yesterday I wasn’t sure if I would ski or not, and Ryan and I had decided that if we didn’t, we could spend the day in Zermatt and explore the town while the rest skied. However, with everyone else talking about it and looking forward to the day, we decided to take the opportunity and give it a try. It was so worth it!

Since we’re staying in Domodossola, it takes about 2 hours by train to get to Zermatt. It always takes a few hours to get ready and rent gear, plus the sun goes down so early this time of year and with the mountains it gets dark pretty quick and the lifts close at 4:30. Because of all this, we planned on getting up at five and leaving on the 6:15 train with one connection. Everyone got up and got all ready right on time with no problems. Shannon was kind enough to lend me pretty much everything I needed–rain pants, a thermal shirt, and even a fleece jacket. We packed up our bags and headed down to the hotel lobby right before six. Strangely, the stairwell was locked and we couldn’t even get out to the main door. Apparently the lobby and reception area doesn’t open until seven, so after a few minutes of running around and trying to figure out the way out, Justin used his sweet Spanish skills to talk to the Italian owner and finally we were able to leave. We got to the train station just in time and continued to the station where our connection left.

Once again, a few minor problems (not buying tickets fast enough) caused us to miss the first train to Zermatt and have to wait an hour. None of us minded too much and before we knew it we were on our way again. Even though it was quite dark and foggy, the train ride up to Zermatt was awesome. The track got very steep and we climbed higher and higher. We were worried that it would be too foggy to see the Matterhorn, and when we arrived in town it seemed that we were right. It took awhile, but finally we had lift tickets, skis (snowboards for Josh and Justin), boots and poles. 
Zermatt was such a cute town, but we could only see it for a little bit before it was lost in the clouds. However, the closer we got to the very top, the more the fog began to clear. We reached the top and I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. The view of the Alps was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I wish I could show it in photos but they really can't do it justice. The first few glances were crystal clear of the tops of the mountains, and looking down we were literally skiing above the clouds. As the day wore on, the sky cleared entirely and we could see all the way down to the village and all around at the top. The Matterhorn itself was amazing and seemed so close! 

Since the mountain is SO huge, we only ran the entire thing twice. We didn’t get to the gondolas until around eleven so we weren’t all ready to start skiing down until before noon (with a small mix-up about which stop to get off at). However, there are partial lifts on sections so we did run those a few times. The skiing was so much fun! It was also slightly terrifying for me since the last time I skied was almost two years ago in South Dakota and I’ve only been a handful of times in my life. Luckily I have the best of friends here who waited patiently for me at each fork and Shannon talked me through several turns on our first run. I fell plenty of times, which mostly consisted of tipping over into the mountain while turning. I was actually very surprised that I could do the runs without any walking or sliding down on my bum! Plus since the mountain is so huge, you just keep going down and down and it feels like you are never going to reach the bottom. Ski runs are a little different here so there’s no green circle, blue square, or black diamond. According to our map it looks like we stayed mostly on easy and moderate trails. 

It was about two when we reached the bottom the first time, so we all stopped for a quick energy bar before continuing. We ran the whole thing again and got picked up by the bus right around five. We returned our gear and headed for the grocery store we’d spotted earlier and loaded up on food for the train ride home since none of us had eaten pretty much all day. Happy and exhausted, I loved sitting for two hours, speeding through the alps and knowing that I’d not only survived but had loved my day skiing in the Alps. 
Happy New Year everyone! We spent a drowsy New Year's Eve in Interlaken, where we went crazy buying soda and fries and fell asleep to the sound of fireworks as everyone else brought in the new year. On Monday morning we left Salzburg with a 5 hour train ride followed by two more train rides that were about an hour and a half each. We got to Interlaken and found a tiny grocery store where I was delighted to discover that Switzerland believes in the sweet nectar of life, Dr. Pepper!

The Swiss Alps are beautiful and even though we only stayed in Interlaken one night, we spend the whole morning walking around and down to one of the lakes. It was cold but there was virtually no wind and the views were spectacular. I also enjoyed using francs as a currency because they are so colorful! However, food was very pricey there and even french fries were about 6 francs. 

After our walk, we caught the train around 3:30 and got to Domodossola by 6. It's weird because technically we are in Italy again so we're back to using euros for the night, but we'll be spending time in Switzerland. Tomorrow we are going to Zermatt to see the Matterhorn and ski in the alps!