Archive for the ‘Erasmus’ Category

Carnaval and the Start of Fallas

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Exams have been and gone, I’ve recovered and become angered by The System, and the Poly is taken over by election fever.  Actually, it isn’t, but the candidates like to think it is, what with electoral debates on UPV TV and all.  One is promising laptops for all and has such a swish election campaign all it achieves is to look tacky.  They’ve both gone web 2.0 with blogs and YouTube clips and twitter and things.  To me it all seems a bit silly, so I’ll leave that topic there.

Currently I’m amused by a sentence on a BBC News story I read today, about the debate over the collapse of bee colonies:

It is believed these chemicals can act like alcohol on humans, disorienting the bees and causing them to get lost on the way home.

So is this implying that all humans get lost on the way home after chugging a pint?

The other amusement is coming from Spanish president of the government, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. He let slip in a televised statement that there now is, between Spain and Russia, an agreement to “stimulate, to assist, to fuck… to support Russian tourism”. Ooopsie daisy. It’s clear he realises what word has just come out of his mouth, but can you imagine being in that position? Dear oh dear.

The end of February kickstarted the season of celebrations, with Carnaval.  For those in GB that don’t know what it is, here is an article on Wikipedia.  Here in Valencia, it’s taken as an excuse for yet more partying, but this one is unofficial.  Apparently the Carnaval parade in my barrio was stopped by the police, who hosed them down and shot rubber bullets.  Here is a video on YouTube showing the dissolution into trouble. Either way, it was an excuse to dress up in disfraz and to get reduced entry to clubs for the effort.

Before any of the troubles, I managed to capture a video of one part of the parade in Benimaclet, with the human tower troupe.  (In my visit to Taragona there was a museum about it as they say they have the best ones there.)  Basically, people clamber on top of each other in an organised fashion to make this tower.  Check out the YouTube video below (or this link if you’re reading from Facebook and it doesn’t come up).

The first day of March heralded the start of Fallas, Valencia’s very own unique festival which lasts until the 19th of the month.  I’m not sure I can effectively describe it, so here’s yet another pointer to Wikipedia.  Or you can be patient, and as things happen and I take photos or videos and upload them here.

Meanwhile, below you can find are a selection of photos of the Mascletà in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.  As I described way back in October, a mascletà is essentially a fireworks display but for the sound rather than the visual effects.  It’s five minutes of eardrum-popping body-shaking explosions and lots of smoke.

During the festival, one takes place each day at 2pm prompt, the plaza filled with people and the fallas girls (there must be a name for them) standing on a balcony of the Ayuntamiento with their traditional costume.  Bizarrely, it is also relayed live by the local television and radio stations.

The Fallas girls.  Notice it is before the mascletà, before the smoke.

The Fallas girls. Notice it is before the mascletà, before the smoke.

It begins...

It begins.

 

Now you see it (just about)...

Now you see it (just about)...

...now you don't.

...now you don't.

 

Little puffs of smoke in the sky; sparks and flashes in the plaza.

Little puffs of smoke in the sky; sparks and flashes in the plaza.

 

And it's over...for today.

And it's over...for today.

Looking the other way down a street from the plaza.

Looking the other way down a street from the plaza.

 

Oh, and finally one last photo I’d been meaning to get for ages (actually, thanks go to Samuel for taking the photo). Since the day I twigged what it sounds like when said in English, I can’t now not see it like that. I’ll leave it there on that note.

 

Colon Fluid.  Nothing more need be said.

Colon Fluid. Nothing more need be said.

Written by Benjamin

March 5th, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Oranges, dogs and football.

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I haven’t written for a while, and that’s because nothing has really happened apart from the exams.  Now I am back to normal, still not much has happened.  I went to Tarragona and got rained on (but it was good fun nevertheless) and that’s about it.

I’m outraged at the stripping of the trees that line the streets of their oranges.  (In reality, they were starting to rot and make a mess on the pavement, so it’s for the best.)  No longer can I stand on my balcony, coffee in hand and gaze at the bright orange blobs dotted in the dark green foliage.  On the other hand, I am excited about the appearance and resulting perfume of orange blossom whenever that should arrive.

This morning I walked passed the world’s gayest scene.  As I wandered down the street, I glanced in a hairdresser’s to see (1) a super-camp looking hairdresser guy with super-camp hair and (2) matching tiny palm-sized dog, sitting on the side by where he was working, dressed in very similar attire to its owner and with identical hair.  How cruel to give a dog that gay choppy-hair look.  At least the highlights were natural.

Tonight is the England vs. Spain friendly.  For one day only I’ve developed an interest in the sport.  EEENGEERLAAAAND! (etc.)

Written by Benjamin

February 11th, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Posted in Erasmus, Valencia

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Exams and Public Paella

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This time I write to you not from an airport departures lounge, but from the middle of the first examination season here.  Revision time, like the departures lounge, is one of those points in life that no-one likes to be.  One is here, waiting for the next step (flight or exam) whilst trying to find something to do, whether that be ruffling through notes or browsing duty-free (despite being on an intra-EU flight).  I wouldn’t go so far as to say revision time is killing time (ha! I’d like to say it were), but it’s definitely a limbo of ill-ease.

Each time I find myself facing exams, I notice certain characteristics of my approach.  Procrastination has become refined; it’s no longer a random process of finding a distraction, I now mentally select what I will do to break the revision.  Here in Valencia, that involves going for a walk to the greengrocer’s (fruit is healthy! It’ll help in the long run…) or making tea in the microwave (kettles aren’t usual items here, at least no-one seems to have one) amongst other things.   Another choice of course is writing, which when you’ve been scribbling sums for hours is a blessed relief.

A lot of the exams I take involve a multiple-choice test as part, if not all of it.  These things I don’t like for many reasons, the main one being you have no way of proving you know something about a topic even if you can’t arrive at an exact answer.  They’re fine for testing “bullet point” facts, or perhaps even quick calculations of fundamental quantities, but to test and probe someone’s knowledge is impossible.  The ones I’ve faced here are negatively marked and designed to catch you out with real red-herring answers.  The idea is to pick the “most correct”, so several could be correct but not the whole picture.  Added to that there is the subtlety of language used.  My fault has always been not to read the question properly, so throw in language doubts, and there’s a real problem.

As a relief from exams, the other day with a couple of friends I took the Metro line I live on out of the city into the surrounding villages and countryside.  I’ve got to say it was a blessed relief to escape, if just for the afternoon!  To be walking along the sleepy streets, through the dead town square, reaching the edge of the village and continuing into the farmland and orange groves was just the thing I needed.  Picking the odd orange or clementine here and there from the trees or the ground and smelling the rich, sweet aroma of the fruit in the air definitely lifted the spirits.  Between mouthfuls and with hands sticky and dripping with the fruits’ juices, which, perhaps because of the situation, seemed much sweeter and tastier than usual, we were checking for an irate farmer with shotgun.

Whither will the road take us?

Whither will the road take us?

"Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clements..."

"Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clements..."

An odd encounter in the town at the end of the line, Rafelbunyol, were the smoking remnants of fires laid to cook paella, en-masse.  Not just one, but there were at least a couple of dozen smouldering heaps of ashes and bits of log all in a line, surrounded by discarded rice packets and bits of spilt paella.

Written by Benjamin

January 18th, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Happy new year

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I wrote this waiting in the departures lounge at Gatwick on my way back to Valencia:

Ok, so I never did write about Madrid, which is just me being lazy more than anything.  We’ve found ourselves now in 2009; and with that I wish a merry new year to anyone reading this.  At the moment, more specifically, I find myself in Gatwick south terminal’s departure lounge after the person-rape of security here.  To be fair, it didn’t feel as invasive this time as it has done before, or perhaps I’ve got used to it now and accept that it’s acceptable to plod around with no shoes on in a grimy public space taking my belt off.

Anyway, I’m on my way back to Valencia after a slightly odd Christmas (various at-home things), but it was a pleasant break nonetheless, despite being so short!  Too short in fact, and I even went home before the term ended.  One thing I’ve noticed about the Spanish academic year is how long it is, with very little time to rest, recuperate and assimilate all that knowledge from all those notes.

My flight’s disappeared off one information screen onto the next in the series that happens to be broken.  Having found one of the few seat that actually face an information screen this is a bit annoying!  (Why do airport information screens always point nowhere in a direction that doesn’t appear useful to anyone?)  I’ll have to move off and find something to do and sacrifice my seat.  Tata.

Written by Benjamin

January 8th, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Erasmus

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Tata for now

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Alright, I know I said I would write about Madrid, and I will.  I still need to sort out the photos and things first, and then I can finish writing about it.  After all, a picture is a thousand words.

It’s come to the end of the first “cuatrimestre” here in Valencia, and tomorrow I’m about to jet back to the familial abode for, in theory, rest and relaxation.  In reality, it’s going to be two weeks of solid, horrible revision in preparation for the exams literally the day after I arrive back after the break.

The festive feeling is quite strange here.  For one thing, the trees are full of oranges (which are now starting to drop and be squashed and annoying on the pavement, adding to the instinct that you need to develop to avoid the dog shit) and there are no mince pies.  Christmas is not Christmas without mince pies.  Another thing is how it can still be 18ºC in winter.  I’m not complaining, but it’s strange!

Naranjos! Tarongers! Orange trees!

Naranjos! Tarongers! Orange trees!

Then there are the usual Christmassy things, like huge nativity scenes (see below for the one in my School) and humungous Christmas trees (like the one in the main square).  The one in my School is studded with notes to the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men, or in the case of one, to “Gauss, Fourier and Laplace”) asking for improvements to the department building or for certain lecturers to improve their personal habits.  I should’ve noted them down, some of them were pretty inventive…a tradition that would be pretty cool to introduce in Bristol!

Nativity scene in my Escuela

Nativity scene in my Escuela

Christmas tree in Plaza del Ayuntamiento

Christmas tree in Plaza del Ayuntamiento

Another thing I encountered the other week in my School was this bizarre trophy, given for the traditional troupe of male singers, musicians and general merrymakers, called a “tuna”.  Apparently it’s “la Dama de Elche”, whoever she is, but to me she’s more like Princess Leia.  Decide for yourselves…

La Dama de Elche and/or Princess Leia

La Dama de Elche and/or Princess Leia

I meant to mention before about the concept of “botellón”, which features quite largely in the life of the yoof in Spain.  Essentially it’s a huuuuge number of people that take to the streets en-masse to drink between about midnight and 5 or 6am.  In Valencia it’s in the roads around one of the campuses of the Universidad de Valencia and there’s usually literally hundreds and hundreds (if not thousands over the course of the night) of students.

Botellón in Tarongers

Botellón in Tarongers

The idea is to get very drunk, very cheaply.  The streets quickly become littered with discarded Fanta bottles and the glass of vodka and rum bottles is smashed everywhere.  It’s not unusual at all to turn up with glasses and ice too, or the dedicated (aka boy racer chavs) bring their cars with pimped-up stereos for entertainment.  Fanta (or coke) with the cheapo 56-cent cartons of red wine to make “tinto de verano” (or “calimocho” with coke) is a surprisingly popular combination.

Oh, one last thing, here is the infamous 24-hour bread machine of Benimaclet.  So useful, practically right outside my door, and full of fresh baguettes baked the same day.  Why don’t they have more of these around the place?

24-hour bread.  What more could you ask for?

24-hour bread. What more could you ask for?

The last few months have gone as fast as anything, and I expect the next will go even faster.  So tata for now to Valencia, and see you in the new year.  ¡Felices Fiestas!

Written by Benjamin

December 19th, 2008 at 5:02 am

¡Feliz Fiesta!

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I must admit I have been rather lax (or should that be lazy?) in keeping this blog up-to-date.  The idea was for it to be my communication channel back home, and also for my own benefit to keep a record of what’s happening to me this year.

Right now November is almost out and winter has arrived.  I say winter, the coldest it’s been here that I’ve noticed has been 7ºC, which can’t exactly be described as freezing.  It certainly feels it though.  Does that mean I’ve adapted to the warmer climes and when I step off that aeroplane at Gatwick in three weeks’ time I will turn to a block of ice?

The other thing telling us winter is upon us is the arrival of festive themes in Mercadona.  The ceilings are swathed with tinsel, the carrier bags wish us “Feliz Fiesta” and the legs of jamon serrano are out in stacks.  It’s an odd sight the huge containers full of legs of ham, the skin with a subtle gleam and the dozens of trotters waving us a jolly merry Christmas.  I would’ve taken a photo, but who takes photographs in the middle of a crowded supermarket?

Not my photo, but you get the idea.  JAMON.

Not my photo, but you get the idea. JAMON.

The other thing I’ve been meaning to make comment on is the language thing.  Obviously that’s a big part of the experience of moving to another country, so it should get a mention!  My own experience of it is that there’s always a background feeling of frustration: conversations never seem to get any easier.  This I put down to the fact that the more vocabulary and structures you learn (or become comfortable using), the more complex conversations become and the more you have to learn again.  In essence, the more “conversational doors” you open, the more the scope broadens and the complexity increases.  It really is a case of practice makes perfect.

After a long day of lectures and practical sessions, often my head is swimming with all the hard work it’s done.  As it goes, I’m a bad one for learning from lectures as I zone out most of the time, so here I have to try twice as hard to be on the ball.  The juggling of listening to the other language and learning new concepts at the same time is exhausting.  At the same time it is pleasing to realise that it is possible and that I can do it, if not 100% of the time.

With friends, the problem is one of the speed of conversation and the use of slang: obviously, the way you chat in a bar is far removed from the language of laboratory notes!  Again it is rewarding realising you do understand after all, especially when you comprehend a joke, or better, crack one of your own.

This week I head off on a trip to Madrid for a few days, so that should mean photos and more stories very shortly.  I never make promises, but I’ll make an effort to get something written.

Written by Benjamin

November 29th, 2008 at 7:48 pm

Posted in Erasmus, Valencia, general

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A little about my neighbourhood

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Now I have settled into my new flat here and am getting to know the local area, I thought I’d give a little account of my barrio.

I live in the Benimaclet area of Valencia, which used to be a small town in its own right until it was swallowed up into the city by an act passed in the 1970s.  The name is Arabic in origin, so it must be pretty old…in fact there’s even a Wikipedia article about the place.  I had intended to post more pictures of Benimaclet, but it’s a bit dull and rainy at the moment.  As soon as it’s jolly, I’ll try and get some up here.

I’ll start with the block of flats where I live.  Valencia is a city of the high-rise, and there are very few houses here; most living in flats.  Spanish building standards, not being particularly fussy about many things, mean that you soon get to know your neighbours, if not by name then by habits.  My neighbours above are Ecuadorian, and relatively quiet.  To one side are an old couple, with a squawking bird and deaf ears.  They shout at each other constantly (most of the time not in argument, but at times they are frightening), their television is loud, their radio louder, and the man hammers on the lift to make it arrive faster.  On the other side is a family with a large dog that at times likes to howl, and I don’t know much more about them.

A view down the street from my terrace.  A pretty typical suburban Valencian view.

A view down the street from my terrace. A pretty typical suburban Valencian view.

The flats are arranged about a central core so that interior rooms still have natural light.  However, the other effect is that not only do you hear your immediate neighbours, but those in the rest of the block.  So now let me introduce Sr. Emphysema, the man that cycles hanging out of his window with his nicotine habit and with his lung problems.  I’m disturbed during the day by his hacking, and woken and night by the sound of the window flying open and the coughing commencing.  Other characters include the Arguers, a family with a poor put-upon father and his ungracious teenage children.  I won’t bore with details of the familiar arguments they like to have.  The Yappers have a small but ferociously loud dog, which is yet another alarm clock in the morning.  Their solution to making it quiet (after the other neighbours yell “’¡callale!”, “shut it up!”) is to give it a squeaky toy that is just as loud as its yap.

Opposite the flat is a small park, and in the vicinity are all manner of shops.  Most close by is a greengrocer’s (next door to the entrance to the flats) and then there are newsagents; a sweet and dried fruit shop; a bakery (with 24-hour automatic bread machine); a fishmonger’s; a few butchers and delicatessen; some takeaways; more bars than you can count; and half a dozen Chinese random crap shops.

Absolutely anything here, absolutely anything.

Absolutely anything here, absolutely anything.

These random-crap shops are actually rather handy; I’m in my nearest one at least a couple of times a week.  Anything from light bulbs to sheets to buckets to tasteless decorations.  You know the kind of place. Oddly, though, I didn’t expect to come across such classy labels in the footwear section:

Lovely.

Lovely.

Further afield in the bigger streets are all sorts of other shops, including, if I should ever need it, a large dog beauty salon (not for large dogs, I mean the place is big).

It also seems to be difficult to get away from Croydon.  There’s a Chavi Bar in one street, and a bit further away, the Black Sheep.

The Sheep! How I long for thee and a pint of snakebite black...

The Sheep! How I long for thee and a pint of snakebite black...

A bit blurry, but you get the point.

A bit blurry, but you get the point.

Coming soon: a reportage on my University, the local Poly.

[published at ben.corale.co.uk]

Written by Benjamin

October 18th, 2008 at 6:37 pm

The first few weeks

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[If viewing this at ben.corale.co.uk there may be some odd formatting issues.  Please excuse them.]

It’s been a long time coming, but here it is at long last.  As a fairly huge amount of things have happened since the move over to Spain, I’ll try to be concise and keep things in an intelligible order.

First off, initially I attended a language school organised by my university, the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), for two weeks at its campus in Gandía, which is about 60 km from Valencia.  It’s quite a touristy resort on the coast, but was pleasant enough.  I can’t really argue with a daily routine of being up at 8am, taking a swim in the apartments’ pool, going to class until 2pm, eating a MASSIVE lunch (more on the food later), taking a siesta, going to the beach to swim in the sea, going out for a few beers, sleeping and then doing it all over again for two weeks.

Erasmus students in Gandia
Erasmus students in Gandia

Often the evening beer, spent in a bar with temperamental wifi, would be spent alongside a group of elderly women gossiping while playing a board game with many dice.  I couldn’t work out what it was but it looked quite complicated.  Spanish people seem to like playing games at any opportunity.  Old men in bars will play dominoes, young people like to play naipes (a Spanish card game, with a deck comprising four suits of 12 cards) or other card games.  Everyone plays games given the opportunity.

One of the highlights was the sandcastle competition.  My team (“Los Pulpos”, or “The Octopuses”) devised a twist to the traditional sandcastle, combining it with a monster-of-the-deep giant octopus that wrapped its tentacles about a castle that sat atop a mountain.  (See the pictures!)  We came second in the competition (out of twenty or so teams of six) so it wasn’t a bad effort.  What was really pleasing was having people on the beach, ordinary holiday makers and locals, come over to take photos and express their appreciation of our work.  Above all it was a huge amount of fun.

Leaving party at UPV Gandia campus
Leaving party at UPV Gandia campus

Unfortunately, as comfortable as that routine sounds, in all that I had to get to Valencia city to look for a room to live in.  In itself it’s a fairly easy procedure: walk the streets in the area in which you wish to live and look at lamp-posts for notices advertising available rooms.  Make a note of the phone number, call and arrange to view.  Easy enough, but when you have to travel an hour to the city, it turns into a bit of a pain.

Of the flats I viewed, the first two couldn’t be more distinct from each other.  One sounded perfect from the description: “Attic flat in old building, high ceilings, large rooms, well decorated.  Friendly people that like to live together almost as a family.”  It was an honest description at least; the flat was actually somewhere I would’ve liked to have lived.  The downside was that it was basically a hippy commune.  Probably fun for about two weeks, but when reality kicks in probably highly impractical.

The second was its complete opposite.  A dark, gloomy, pokey flat in a completely anonymous-looking block, in dark, blank, characterless streets.  It seemed a bit creepy too.  The guy showing me round (who was 26 but looked 56) kept pointing out that it was a “home, not just a place to sleep”, yet the atmosphere must be kept quiet and studious.  I asked if it would be ok to have friends over for dinner, or a quiet drink (I thought at this point this is not a place for a burn-down-the-house flat party).  Apparently once every couple of weeks maximum would be acceptable, any more would be intrusive.  This launched him into an impenetrable soliloquy as he voiced off (I don’t think it was meant for any audience in particular, he seemed to have stopped noticing that I was there) about his idea of a relaxing home environment.

At this point I tried to make an escape with excuses of meeting friends.  This didn’t seem to work as he roused from his little tirade to wave me back to being sat down.  Leaving was impossible.  I began at this point to scan the room for any weapons…what if he was some kind of psychopath and was about to slit my throat and put me in a chest freezer?  I had to get out.  In the end it was only by forcibly saying that I had to go and heading for the door that I could leave, only to find myself on a dark corridor with no sign of the lift or the stairs.

After some scrambling and this man asking why I had to leave so suddenly I found the lift call, willing it to arrive.  The doors parted open, I dived in and hit the buttons; at this point I didn’t care which floor, just any but this one.

Eventually, and with the help of my student mentor who had a friend that had a free room, I came across a good enough place.  It’s super-cheap but comfortable, in an excellent location and with a set of very agreeable flatmates.  The three guys are all from the Valencia region, and so speak Valencian as their first language.  When I’m around they switch to Castillian.  Still, it’s an excellent way to learn the language through total immersion, particularly when attempting the change the orientation of the door of a new fridge-freezer.  It’s times like those that you pick up a heap of new and useful words (like drill, screwdriver, and when the instructions aren’t exactly clear, “useless piece of crap”).

Incidentally, alongside “bufanda” (“scarf”) I now have a new favourite Spanish word.  I say favourite, the word is actually pretty horrible, but it’s the fact that it exists that I like it.  “Desnucarse” means to kill oneself instantly by breaking the bit where the neck joins the head.  How specific.

Hopefully noone "se ha desnucado" here...
Hopefully noone “se ha desnucado” here…

A bit of a change of subject, but I said I would discuss food.  Food is important here, very important.  Life is fitted around meals, which should comprise a coffee and maybe a little snack for breakfast; a pre-lunch snack; lunch itself (a main meal); a late afternoon snack (if needed), and finally an evening meal.  Lunch in one of the multitude of university cafeterias consists of salad, a first course (rice/pasta/paella), a second course (something meaty with fries), a dessert, bread, and beer/wine/water to drink.  And how much?  Just 4€.  It’s not bad food either, and in a quantity that leaves you full for several hours.

Other excitements that have happened here include the state of pre-emergency (yellow level) when some seriously torrential rain had been sweeping the country.  In one town in the region some 40-odd centimetres of rain fell in an hour.  (It seems impossible, but that was what was quoted.)  Valencia was to be on standby; in the end it was only a few light showers.

Another curious observation has been the parking habits.  The system in the city, with it’s overcrowded streets and sparse parking, gives a new flavour to the process.  Double-parking is perfectly acceptable here, but with the proviso that you leave the handbrake off.  You park up alongside the kerbside-parked cars, get out, lock up and go.  Then if someone parked next to the kerb needs to get out, they push your car forwards or backwards out of the way and drive off.  If they need to move more than one double-parked car, so be it.  So curious to witness the first few times.
I also found out that as a result of the sheer volume of new foreign students arriving in Valencia they ran out of mobile phone numbers, and a delay occurred while new ones were allocated by the authorities.  This prompted me to do a bit of digging to find out just how many students there are here.  On the language course in Gandía there were 300, and it turns out in UPV there are 3000.  Add to that the other universities in Valencia and that’s a lot of Erasmus students.  A heck of a lot.

Apparently I have written some 1000 words, so I think this is a good place to leave off.  Hopefully what I’ve noted down so far gives some flavour to the life here, and now I’ve caught up more or less to the present the entries from now on will be a bit more directed.  Obviously I haven’t regaled everything that has happened, but if I remember anything of note, it’ll be added later.  Actually, already I need to write about the Spanish phenomenon of botellón, but that will arrive soon enough.

Valencia.  City of the future.  Or something.
Valencia. City of the future. Or something.

¡Hasta luego!

Written by Benjamin

October 4th, 2008 at 8:18 pm

Posted in Erasmus, Valencia

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