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Buddhism and I

Buddhism and I

I grew up in a Buddhist Vietnamese family. As a child, I went to the closest Buddhist temple to my house every Sunday to sit and listen to the morning chants and teachings alongside my family before attending Vietnamese school for a few hours. I grew up wearing necklaces with little Buddha carvings and prayer beads around my wrist. I was raised with Buddhist traditions, and I was told that whenever I felt unsafe, unsettled, or just not right, I should pray to the Buddha. Doing so would calm my rapid heartbeats and my noisy mind. So it was natural for Buddhism to become the belief that I would call my religion for a good part of my childhood.

But, as I grew older, I questioned what Buddhism meant to me and if it had a place in my life that was more than something I grew up with. I didn’t know if belief in the Buddha would help me achieve my goals — I came to strongly believe that my accomplishments were because of my efforts and my efforts alone. I also didn’t think that praying to the Buddha would do anything for me. I unfortunately found that whenever I did pray to Buddha, when my head would spin and my emotions would reel out of control, I found no calm, no real peace within those prayers. And so, I put Buddhism on the back burner and saw it as just part of my Vietnamese heritage. It was nothing more, nothing less.

Moving forward in my life, I labeled myself as “agnostic,” although I would often clarify to others, “But if I had to identify with a religion, it would be Buddhism. My family’s Buddhist.” I knew that I was spiritual. I knew that there were forces and miracles out there that just couldn’t be chalked up to pure coincidence. I also knew that Buddhism held a piece of my life that I could not just give up. It was huge part of my culture, after all. But I didn’t know if Buddhism itself, let alone any other religion, was right for me, and so for years, I considered myself to be agnostic.

Flash forward to my time here in Beijing, China.

Coming to China, I never expected that something like my spirituality and my relationship with Buddhism, naked and confused, would be brought out into the open. I knew that I would see Buddhism more in my surroundings, more than I saw it back in the United States, but nothing could prepare me for what I would spiritually experience here. The prevalence of Buddhist temples and motifs all over China forced me to confront what I had been neglecting to address for years.

It all started on the Silk Road in the Buddhist monastery town of Xia’he. If you’ve read my blog about our time in Xia’he, you already know that story of my hike around the Labrang Monastery early in the morning. I want to reiterate the significance of that morning to me yet again. What I felt is still something, even after a few months after that morning happened, that I cannot explain. It was a sensation that I just could not begin to understand. For awhile, it only made me really giddy to know that something that significant had happened to me that morning. It was something that I told people close to me because all I thought of it at the time was that it was important to me. After some time, though, I finally was able to bring myself to analyze and reflect on why exactly that feeling was important to me. It was too remarkable for me to just ignore. However, I wasn’t able to come up with an explanation for what it could have been on my own, so I decided to bring this conundrum before a Buddhist monk.

Sunset in the beautiful Buddhist temple.

This monk I met during a field trip my Introduction to Buddhism class took to a famous Buddhist temple in Beijing. After a tour of the temple grounds and a delicious vegetarian dinner, we all sat down inside of a prayer room that looked very similar to the prayer room that I sat in for so many Sundays of my childhood. We then had a Q&A session with one of the monks of the temple, with my professor acting as a translator. I timidly raised my hand to ask the first question of the night. I remember my voice shook as I tried to explain my family background and what had happened to me in Xia’he. I asked him what he thought of my story. I remember my friend, who sat next to me, pat my back in quiet support, hearing the emotion in my voice and knowing that the moment had meant something personal. The monk listened intently as I told my story, shifting his weight on the cushion he sat upon as my professor translated what I said into Chinese. Then, he gave me his explanation.

The Buddhist monk told me that what I had felt could have been a reaction of my soul to the circumstances of that moment. In the Buddhist tradition, the soul is reborn a number of times in a never-ending cycle. He proposed that I could have been a Buddhist in my past life, and my soul, in that moment, could have remembered that it was Buddhist in the past life. I was brought to tears because I unconsciously remembered that. He also said that if that particular explanation was a little far-fetched to me, I could have reacted the way that I did because what I had prayed for was very deep and personal, and because my prayers had come from the bottom of my heart, I was moved to tears as those prayers meant a lot to me.

After the field trip, the first thing I did was tell my parents about the monk’s words to me. My mom smiled with excitement on my phone screen as I told her and my father about the Q&A session. “Maybe it was meant to be for you to go to China and learn more about Buddha,” she said as a passing comment. But I took note of her words, and I held them in the back of my mind as I continued about my days in China.

Since I received that explanation, my heart felt a little lighter. My mom was certainly right that China was becoming a classroom for me to learn about Buddhism in a surprisingly subtle way. I felt like I could look at Buddhism in the eye, sit down, and have a proper dialogue with it instead of ignoring it like I had done for all of those years. I could see it in action in the lives of the people here. I knew, knew, that deep down it held a very dear place in my heart. It was undoubtedly part of my cultural heritage, after all. I believed in many of its morals, and I had extensive knowledge about the religion. Yet I still had this weird complicated relationship with it, unable to call it my own because I still questioned it. Now that I had gotten to this point with it where I could comfortably reflect, I felt that I could search for an answer to the question I had been asking Buddhism for quite some time: “What role do you play in my life?”

One of the things that puzzled me about the religion was that it seemed contradictory as a result of its material culture. Buddhism is a religion that attacks the material world with such a vigor no other religion can compare. Yet material culture still exists within it. I didn’t understand why it is necessary for us to pray with prayer beads, to burn incense, and to read sutras as we chant. It disturbed me to see so many tourist sites along the Silk Road sell prayer beads and other Buddhist ritual items as souvenirs. So, what did I do to try and understand this phenomenon?

I wrote an extensive 13-page research paper about material culture within Buddhism for a class.

While researching information for that paper, my Buddhism class took another field trip to another different Buddhist temple, sitting down in a monk’s living quarters and having a very casual talk with him. The monk was named Yuan Liu. He spoke extremely good English and was very hospitable, constantly offering us more tea and more snacks to eat. As we enjoyed each other’s company, we were allowed to ask him any questions that we had about Buddhism. Obviously, I had to ask him about the role of material culture within Buddhism, both for my paper and for my own sake.

The answer that he gave me became an answer that I had been looking for.

He said that the items, like prayer beads, are a way to guide the mind, which by its nature is uncontrollable and easily distracted. Whenever anyone starts practicing the Buddhist belief, their minds start out as wild and uncontrollable. The rituals, the chanting, everything, serves as a reminder to practitioners of their belief and the path that they walk on. Perhaps most importantly, he reminded me that what really matters in Buddhism is the tempering of the mind and the discovery of inner peace and happiness through a simple life.

Again, the first person I called to tell this experience was my mom. She basically reiterated what the monk had told me. Perhaps the most significant thing she told me was that wearing prayer beads meant that one was always praying to Buddha, reflecting the dedication to the Buddhist way, even if one didn’t go to temple every Sunday or prayed all the time.

I contemplated on Yuan Liu’s and my mom’s words long after I turned in that essay. I slowly came to understand that all that stupid questioning I did was a result of me blatantly veering off of the path that my parents put me on during my times of turmoil. They had put me on that path because they believe that the teachings of the Buddha would allow for me to grow up into a responsible, strong, polite woman. They believe that the teachings could help me redirect myself when in times of difficulty. I’ve come to better understand that Buddhism isn’t a religion in which I have to do all these rituals to call myself a true Buddhist, but it is a guidance. Buddhism, at its core, is the nurturing of the heart and the spirit, and by passing down its traditions to me, my parents were nurturing my heart and my spirit, long before I’ve realized it. It’s taken me a trip to China to finally, truly, understand that. And that’s a powerful realization that brings me to tears.

My prayer beads.

The prayer beads that I bought in Xia’he as a reminder of that morning now serve as a reminder for the Buddhist teachings embedded in me as part of my Vietnamese identity. I don’t claim that I’ve had a sudden spiritual awakening during this study abroad experience in China. But I think the critical self reflection that I’ve done while I’ve been here is more than enough to say that my perspective on what Buddhism means to me has changed. I wouldn’t have been able to do this self-reflection if I didn’t hop on that plane to come here. I wouldn’t have come to terms with a part of me that I’ve ignored. Buddhism and I still have a lot to work on, together. It isn’t collecting dust behind me anymore as I walk forward in my life; it’s back to walking besides me, acting as a nurturing guide whose presence I am still getting used to.

Maybe my mom was right. Maybe fate meant for it to be this way for me after all.

Thanks for reading~ 🙂


Under Blue Skies on the Great Wall of China

Under Blue Skies on the Great Wall of China

Alright, alright, I know I said last time that my next blog post would be about our second stop on the Silk Road excursion, but today, we went to the majestic Great Wall of China, and you know that I just have to tell you all about it.

The weather had looked like it was going to be overcast all day. There was some worried chatters about the chance of rain later in the day, but regardless of what the weather was going to be like, I was ridiculously excited to be going to the Great Wall. Up until today, it was only something that I’ve heard about in textbooks and seen in pictures, and now, quite proudly, I can say that I’ve seen it, touched it, walked around on it, and boy, oh boy, did I take a load of pictures on it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We left campus around 8am on a bus, which was graciously arranged by TBC. I had some fruit for breakfast before passing out on the 1.5 hour ride to the site (most of us did), waking up to some clean, fresh air and pleasantly cool weather. The skies were still a little overcast, but it felt like the sky was perking up a little bit as the afternoon approached. I remember Ryan, the director of student development at TBC, who went with us on this little excursion, commented that we seemed lucky in terms of weather. Later, after our time was up at the Great Wall, he would say that we were extremely lucky, since he remembered there being a thick fog that covered the mountains the year before, blocking much of the views.

After getting off of the bus, we walked over to the ticket area, about a 5 minute walk. All of us were really lively, goofing around with each other and discussing our upcoming time on the wall. The weather was getting brighter and brighter, and the clouds were clearing overhead, seeming to reflect our happy moods. It seemed that we were really lucky after all.

Our tickets to the Great Wall! (…plus my good friend Francesca in the back haha)

As pictured, we got two tickets: one ticket for gaining entrance onto the wall and one for the shuttle bus. The shuttle bus drove us closer to the wall before dropping us off. From there, we had two options. We could have either hiked the stairs all the way up onto the wall, or, for a price, we could take a ski-lift type contraption (they called it a cable car) that lifted tourists up to the wall. My friends and I decided to do the hike, just so we all could triumphantly say that we climbed up to the Great Wall of China.

After all, when in China, hike up to the Great Wall, right?

I kid you not, there has not been another time where my legs have burned hotter. There must have been at least 20 flights of stairs, majority of them being pretty steep. It took us maybe around 30-45 minutes to drag ourselves up all of those stairs. Like, that hike was beautiful, sure, and now I can definitively say that I hiked up to the Great Wall of China, but if you asked me to do it again, I would politely and aggressively say “nah fam.” If the day had been hotter, I’m certain I would not have made it up those stairs. We were extremely lucky in terms of weather, indeed.

Me, tomato-faced, clearly not amused with that hike. The Great Wall is just behind me.

Anyway, once I actually got to the wall, my exhausted-ness pretty much melted away (well… eventually). The view was absolutely breathless, with the impressive green mountains and the blue skies in the background. In the distance, we could see the rest of the wall snaking in and out of the mountains and forestry like an ancient gray dragon. It’s indescribable to witness, let alone walk along, such a majestic structure, hundreds and hundreds of years old. To touch the bricks and to walk along the path that soldiers of ancient dynasties walked along was unbelievable. The sun came out and the skies completely cleared up, revealing that deep beautiful blue color. It became an amazing day for us to take pictures and to explore that small part of the Great Wall (the actual length of the wall is around 5,000 miles!).

Me on the Great Wall!

Because the wall was built in a mountainous area, the path along the top of the wall had stairs going up and down, depending on the terrain. So you could be walking down a really steep decline for one section and then you could be hiking up some stairs again in another section.

The Great Wall snaking into the mountains.

All of us were not afraid to be tourists and took LOTS, and I mean LOTS, of really adorable and heart-warming photos. I was all smiles today. I felt so comfortable, and I felt like I was a true part of this amazing experience with everyone in the TBC program. The feeling of togetherness, feeling like I belonged to this group of study abroad students, was… quite fulfilling and comforting. We all were experiencing this ancient piece of history of a country whose culture is richer than any one of us had thought together. I think our many photos captured that pretty well.

Disclaimer: there are many, many, other photos that we took other than those pictured below (in case you guys didn’t get that, yet). These are just some of my favorites.

Happy smiles! 🙂
Showing some LUC Rambler pride!
More Rambler pride!
TBC at the Great Wall!

We spent about an hour and a half on the Great Wall, taking copious amounts of pictures and enjoying the weather and each other’s company as we walked along the path. Before we knew it, it was time for us to return to our bus.

But how in the world did we get back all the way down, you ask?

A toboggan, that’s how.

For those of you who aren’t familiar (as I was when I first heard about it), a toboggan is literally a giant slide, where you sit on like this little black sled with a lever that you can use to control your speed and you slide down however far the slide goes. If you pushed forward on the lever, you went faster, and if you pulled the lever towards you, you slowed down. The exhilarating feeling is similar to riding a roller coaster, only it’s a really smooth ride and you get to control how fast you’re going. I was whooping and laughing the entire way down, since my friends and I basically pushed that lever down as far as it could go for most of the ride down.

At some point in the ride, you were instructed to slow down and smile for a photo shot. Once we finally got off of the slide, we were able to look at our photos. Below is my picture; I was really fond of it, so I bought it for memories’ sake. I think it really nicely sums up my positive feelings about the day, with the blue sky, the Great Wall in the background, and my smile as bright as the sun shining down on me.

That’s about it for now! I promise that next time, we’ll get back to our Silk Road excursion! I can’t wait to share what else we were up to for those two weeks!


你好北京! (Hello, Beijing!)

你好北京! (Hello, Beijing!)

Hello, everyone! Welcome to my blog! For the fall semester of 2018, I am participating as a student in the Beijing Center (TBC), a study abroad program based in Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, or UIBE for short. I’m so excited to bring all of you along with me through this amazing experience studying abroad in Beijing, China.

That being said, it has already been a solid three weeks since my arrival in China.

I know. It’s already been three weeks.

In that time, I’ve already taken over 1,000 photos, stumbled through (and I mean, really stumbled through) some survival Chinese, eaten twice my weight in a bunch of different foods, and seen some pretty darn cool things.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s just recap my first week in Beijing.


In the week leading up to my departure date to Beijing, I felt a huge variety of emotions. Anyone who asked me how I was feeling about leaving to study abroad got the same general answer. I felt excited, eager, anxious, nervous, and, honestly, a little bit scared. This would be the first time I was going to be away from home for more than a few weeks. Granted, I had participated in an exchange program to Japan in the past, but that was only for two weeks. This time, I would be gone from home for four months.

That’s quite a long time, and as the departure day crept closer and closer, the realization that I would be on the other side of the world for an entire semester hit me pretty hard.

Especially when I was standing in the middle of Chicago O’Hare International Airport on departure day.

Me all ready to go to board my flight to Beijing!

Let me tell you, the picture shown above is a little misleading, as it was taken before the tear fest happened. When I say tear fest, I mean tears streaming down my cheeks as I said my goodbyes to my family. I mean I made my brother’s t-shirt damp with my tears when I hugged him as he wished me an amazing study abroad experience. I mean my mother telling me to stop crying even though she was clearly crying herself. I continued to cry well after I said goodbye; I had to go through airport security and then find my departure gate with my vision blurred by tears. I’m pretty sure the cash register at McDonald’s was wondering if my eyes could get any redder when she was taking my order for some chicken nuggets. The chicken nuggets soothed me for a little bit before I got onto the plane and the crying started all over again.

But, as much as I did cry, I boarded my plane and somehow managed to lift my 40 pound carry-on luggage into the overhead compartment by myself. I hope whoever witnessed that struggle had a good laugh (I’m 4’11”, by the way).

13 hours after taking off, I landed in Beijing, China, on August 12th.

Week One (Orientation Week)

The very first night in Beijing was, admittedly, pretty rough. I had barely slept on the plane, maybe about 2 hours near the end of the flight. I had spent most of my time anxiously thinking about the upcoming semester while playing my 3DS, doodling in my bullet journal, or just blankly staring out the airplane window. But finally getting off of the plane gave me some energy to perk up. Not long after getting off of the plane, I quickly befriended two other students who were on the same plane and were also participating in TBC’s program. The relief that no doubt all of us felt was liberating; most of my anxiety about the flight to Beijing stemmed from the fear of getting lost after getting off of the plane. At least with my newfound friends, if we got lost, we would be lost together. And so, we made our way through Beijing Capital International Airport.

After getting through customs, we were greeted by a group of Chinese UIBE students who worked for TBC as Chinese roommates and were taken to a cafe to rest as we waited for the rest of the students who were arriving the same day. At this point, my energy was fueled by nothing else but the excitement of finally being in China and the enthusiasm of meeting people involved in TBC. I remember having a lot of lively conversations with both the other TBC students and the Chinese roommates present, even though we students were all exhausted from the plane ride.

On the way to UIBE’s campus from the airport!

Once we finally got on the bus to go to UIBE’s campus, however, I think we all crashed. I know I did. Most of the rest of that night was spent in an exhausted haze. I remember everyone being extremely kind and patient with all of us who had just arrived, and I remember being really overwhelmed with so much new sights and information. TBC had graciously fed us dinner, and I recall being completely out of it, unable to bring myself to eat much because I was so exhausted. I remember finally going to bed feeling completely unsure of what I had gotten myself into.

But, the next morning, I quickly figured out that all of my emotions from the night before were a result of travel exhaustion. We had breakfast in a cute cafe and were able to socialize with each other more. I felt much better, and everyone was so open and kind to each other. It was obvious that morning that the excitement for the upcoming semester was contagious, all of us feeding off of each other’s energy.

The first of many group photos. Can you find where I am?

Then, Beijing Center’s orientation week finally kicked off. Throughout the week, most, if not all, of our burning questions were answered. We went over everything from living in Beijing as a UIBE student, navigating the campus, talking about the logistics of academics, and more. We also met all of the amazing TBC staff as well as the Chinese roommates and got to know one another better through group activities. We even were grouped together with Chinese roommates to go out to lunch and to dinner so that we would know food places around campus. It was such a clear, scheduled, organized way to get us orientated in Beijing.

One of many orientation sessions during orientation week.

In addition to the orientation sessions, there were a handful of excursions that we went on. We went sight-seeing at Tiananmen Square, we saw an amazing acrobatics show, and we went shopping at Aegean mall in preparation for our upcoming Silk Road trip. Every day, I had so much fun, laughing and smiling with my newfound friends, and the stress of the first night in Beijing seemed to just melt away.

TBC invades Tiananmen Square
Cute giant koala at the Aegean Mall!

All in all, the first week might have started out a little rough, but after getting over the initial feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted, I became much more comfortable. I was so relieved to realize that so many other fellow students were in my shoes. I was glad that we all shared the feeling of being in this wonderful experience together, and this feeling brought us even closer together when we all packed our bags and left for a once-in-a-lifetime journey along the Silk Road, a journey that would take us over 2,000 miles away from Beijing.

But more on that trip next time!

Bye bye for now~


Madrid to Mallorca

Madrid to Mallorca

Time is running out, and finals are fast approaching. Earlier in the semester a couple of friends and I decided to book a trip for the long weekend before finals week to the island of Palma, Mallorca.

I’m not sure if it was because I know my days are numbered now, but this trip was by far my favorite. I arrived with only two expectations: laying on the beach every day for the whole trip, and leaving with a heavy tan.

Not only were my expectations met, but they were surpassed. I made friends with other guests at my hostel and we tanned on the beach and went on adventures for the three days there. I went cliff diving for the first time, visited a palace, took a picturesque train ride to the other side of the island, and partied with people I just met! It seems like a dream, how perfect the trip was. It made me realize that talking to people who didn’t come on the trip can add to your plans, not take away from them.

Of course, I was afraid to do a lot of what I’ve done, but I’ve also conquered a lot of those fears now. I’m terrified of heights, so cliff diving seemed ridiculous to me, but I went anyways. I still have no idea how I mustered up the courage to jump, but I did, and even though I landed wrong I’d do it again any day. You don’t have to do anything as extreme as cliff diving, but you should do things that push you out of your comfort zone.

The last night I was there I got to see the sun set over the mountains and the ocean, while thinking about my study abroad experience. As often as it is repeated, I really do believe you have to go into all of it with zero expectations, ready to change plans again and again, and be open to new experiences. My time studying abroad wouldn’t be as amazing as it is without trying new things.


Pretty in Paris

Pretty in Paris

Make sure to visit this at night for a stunning light show every hour on the hour
If you can afford it, the views from the tower are breath-taking

I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Europe before. I saw some cities in Spain, France, and Italy, and loved them all enough to come back. Recently, I returned from a trip to Paris, which I saw last time I was in Europe.

I thought I wouldn’t have much to do, since I’d been to the Eiffel Tower, seen inside the Louvre, and entered the Notre Dame, but I didn’t have enough time to visit half of what I wanted to.

As preparation for this semester abroad, I hunted down works of fiction that took place in Europe as inspiration on where to visit during my stay, and I had a few new ideas on what to see in Paris. This trip was so fun because it was like a scavenger hunt, I was either viewing the touristic attractions in a new light or visiting places a tourist would normally walk by.

Be sure to look for the cat if you don’t have the time to read part of a book in there
A complicated, beautiful work of art. If you think it’s pretty on the outside, wait until you walk in

I highly recommend reading a couple books that take place in the countries you’d like to visit, because that way you’ll learn about new places to visit, or gain more knowledge on places you already know of.

Thanks to the books I have read, I was able to visit the church of St. Etienne du Mont, Shakespeare & Company, and learn more about Point Zero.

I learned Point Zero is where all distances in France are measured. Apparently if you make a wish on it, it’ll come true, and if you don’t make a wish, you’re bound to return to Paris again one day.

Don’t worry, I made sure to stop at Point Zero before I left Paris, but I can’t tell you what I wished for, or it won’t come true!

It’s worn away from the tourists walking past, to Notre Dame
Winter Break in the Winter

Winter Break in the Winter

At Loyola we get Spring Break and Winter Break, but at SLU Madrid we get Winter Break and Spring Break. Our Winter Break was after our midterms, so it just ended, and I chose to spend mine in the cold snowy countries instead of on a beach (and I only slightly regret it).

Bike riding through Copenhagen

I travelled to Scandinavia, visiting Stockholm, Sweden, Oslo, Norway, and Copenhagen, Denmark and even in below freezing temperatures I loved them. I definitely recommend bringing a Chicago winter coat for the Spring semester, because I incorrectly assumed it’d be sunny and beachy weather, so I had to buy a winter coat in Spain.

Walking the streets of Stockholm

Despite my mistake coming into the trip, I wound up having a lot of fun touring the cities! Since it was so cold my friends and I took every opportunity to go into the little shops along the streets and saw things we wouldn’t have if we had just walked by, and I ended up with some pretty cool souvenirs. We also booked tours so that we were doing more than just walking around in the cold. There are free walking tours in every city we visited, but we paid for ours in order to be a bit warmer travelling inside a bus. I learned a lot about the local history and current opinions on the city I visited and I stand by the belief that guided tours are worth the money.

Out of all the cities, Oslo was my favorite just because I loved how the city looked and felt covered in snow, and how beautiful the parks were even in the winter. I do think Copenhagen was the most fun city I visited though, because we booked a bike tour, so we were biking to all the sights! It was freezing so I was completely bundled up, but the tour was absolutely worth the cold weather.

My friends and I kept joking how it was warmer in Chicago than where we were, regretting not choosing the warmer climate, but enjoying the experience we were having. I definitely don’t regret the trip, but next time I book one I’ll be planning according to weather first.

Spring in Spain

Spring in Spain

I’ve only been in Spain for one month, but sometimes it feels like a week and other times a year.

I started off the first two weeks getting to know Madrid, the city I’m living in. At first, Madrid seemed huge, like a bigger version of Chicago, when I was looking at the maps. Thankfully, the family I have here walked me around all day (seriously, I had to wear comfortable shoes) and I got to know it pretty well. Madrid’s public transportation is just as good as Chicago’s, but you definitely walk around a lot more here; just keep in mind even the sneakers here are stylish.

Now that I’ve gotten to know the city better, I’ve become accustomed to wandering around streets in between classes or going to El Retiro, a big public park that used to belong to the Royal Family. I think I got a little too confident with how easily I adjusted to Madrid because I let my guard down and got my phone stolen while shoe shopping! It was pretty inconvenient, but I survived and got a really cheap one here, and it just became a lesson to keep tabs on my belongings at all times and listen when people tell me Madrid is known for pickpocketing.

As for traveling, I’ve stayed in Spain so far, but I’ve gone to other cities like Segovia, Salamanca, Granada, and Toledo. I highly recommend getting a guided tour because the things you learn are worth the money. I got lucky going to SLU Madrid because they offered day trips with a tour guide

to some of the cities, and it helped me get to know other students who are now my friends. Even if you aren’t interested in the trips, it’s an easy way to meet other students you’re in class with.

Coming from Chicago, I thought it’d be a bit warmer. But yesterday we had our first snowfall since I’ve been here. It was beautiful, but I was unprepared for the weather, so I highly recommend a good coat. Even if the weather is nice when you go, packing a couple of sweaters never hurts.

The hardest part about living here is trying to balance study with travel. I’ve taken to doing homework all day, in between my classes as well as after, so that I have my weekends free to travel. I also use the time on buses to catch up on my reading for class.

Of course, I still have some adjustments to make, like getting used to how late they have lunch and dinner here, but it’s totally worth it!


Amsterdam, aka cutest city ever!

Amsterdam, aka cutest city ever!


So, after the week that my sister and cousins visited me, I went to Amsterdam! My friends went there sooner, but I couldn’t go on Friday because my family was still in Madrid, so I met up with them on Saturday.

When I arrived, I took the airport shuttle to the hotel we were staying in for the weekend to meet up with my friends. Then, we went back to the airport and got on the train that took us to the central station in the city. When we got there, I was so happy to see how cute Amsterdam was and all the Christmas lights everywhere. It was the first city that I’ve gone to where they had some Christmas decorations and I loved seeing them! It made me really homesick though, but I tried not to think about that because I was in the cutest city ever!

Jackie and I in Amsterdam

We were starving so after walking around a little, we found a place that had gluten free pasta and it was really good. After that, we made our way to the I Amsterdam sign and went ice skating! It was so fun! I can’t ice skate very well, but I didn’t fall at all so I call that a win! However, my friends and I saw a girl fall and she definitely broke her wrist. It was so crazy. My friends and I (also nursing majors) tried to help her and make sure she was going to get help. We were all careful after that. Anyway, it was so fun and it was also hailing at one point and for some reason that made it even better haha! When we were done, we were literally freezing so we decided to go buy some hot chocolate. It was amazing because my hands were literally frozen. Then, we were pretty hungry so we stopped at a place that was selling fries and literally whatever sauce you want. I tried it with spicy mayo and it was so good! We continued walking around while eating our fries and just enjoyed seeing the city! It was a really good day! We were pretty tired though, so we made our way to the hotel.

The next day, we woke up early and made our way to the Anne Frank house! We had a little history lesson before and then got to go inside the Secret Annex. I read her diary as a kid, so I was really looking forward to actually seeing it! It was really cool and an amazing experience, and I’m so happy I had the opportunity to see it. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for her and her family to live there for 2 years. She wrote in her diary that they couldn’t run water or speak too loudly out of fear that the people below the Secret Annex would hear them. It’s amazing how much of an inspiration she is, and that there are millions of unknown stories just like hers. The Anne Frank house was definitely my favorite part of the trip!

The I Amsterdam sign!

After, we bought some souvenirs and had a little snack. I tried a stroopwafel (which has gluten in it lol oops) and it was sooo good! It’s made of two thin layers of dough with caramel in the middle and is a popular snack in the Netherlands. Definitely worth eating gluten for. After that, we went to the Van Gogh museum and got to see a lot of his amazing artwork and see how it developed throughout his life. It was a really cool museum! After the museum, we got dinner at a pancake place. Since they didn’t have any gluten free pancakes, I ordered an omelette which was actually really good. We continued walking around Amsterdam after that, and got even more fries. They were so good I had to get more! Eventually, we made our way back to the hotel for our early flight the next morning. It was a pretty short trip, but I definitely enjoyed my time in Amsterdam! I wish I could have seen the bench from the fault in our stars, but we actually forgot. It was okay though because the original one was stolen lol. There’s one next to it that everyone uses for pictures, but it’s not actually the same one from the movie. If it was, I definitely wouldn’t have forgotten. Anyway, I loved Amsterdam and it was an amazing trip!

best week ever!!

best week ever!!

Hey everyone!

So this is a little late because I’ve been super busy lately, but Thanksgiving week was my favorite week here! My sister, Rachel, and my two cousins, Shannon and Corrin visited me in Madrid! We wanted to go to Barcelona, so we planned a short little trip there. We were only there for 25 short hours, but it was definitely a trip worth taking.

When we arrived, we first went to the Sagrada familia, which was amazing! It was funny because when we were walking there, some buildings were blocking it. Google maps told me that it was like right in front of us and I told my family, “There it is!”. They were confused because we still couldn’t see it and then all of a sudden, it was right in front of us. That moment was so breathtaking and mind blowing. It is so beautiful. Gaudi, the creator of the Sagrada familia, did an amazing job designing it. It is also interesting because it isn’t like a typical Spanish cathedral. It looks very modern and something like I’ve never seen. The painted glass all over the inside is stunning. We all really enjoyed it! Since we were super hungry, we then decided to get some dinner. We found the perfect place right by the Sagrada familia. We sat outside where they had giant heaters, and ate some paella and pasta. It was the perfect dinner right after such an exhausting day. Since my family was super tired from their long flight, we went back to our airbnb and hit the hay.

Park Guell

In the morning, we woke up early to go to Park Guell. If you get there before 8 am, they let you in for free, so we forsure wanted to take advantage of that. We left at around 7:45 am, which should have been enough time because our airbnb is a 5 minute walk from the park. We ended up going the wrong way though, so we made it at 7:59am!! It was a close one, but super funny because we were literally running up a hill so we wouldn’t have to pay. Anyway, Park Guell is the public park designed by Gaudi. His house was even in the park too, and it was funny because we walked right by it and said it was a cute pink house and later we realized it was Gaudi’s house lol. Anyway, the paying section of the park has an amazing view of the city and a really cute area for pictures. Since we were there early, we got to see the sun rise too. It was definitely worth running up the hill lol.

After Park Guell, we decided to be spontaneous and go to the beach! We only had a couple hours till our flight, so we needed to be fast. It took an hour metro ride, a little walk, and then we were there. We were hungry, so we decided to eat lunch at a restaurant on the beach. It was really cool and the ocean was so pretty. It was nice catching up and eating by the water. After lunch, we spent some time on the beach. Corrin and Shannon were looking for sea glass the entire time, and Rachel and I were just hung out and took some pictures. It was really fun and a good last thing to do before leaving. Since Corrin, Shan, and Rach aren’t used to flying in Spain, they were really worried they were going to miss their flight. I wasn’t worried at all because getting through security doesn’t take that long, but they were totally freaking out. Don’t worry though, we made our flight with plenty of time to spare! After arriving in Madrid, we went to burger king for dinner lol. Why burger king in Spain? I don’t know haha. They were hungry and wanted it, so I chose not to argue with them. After that, I checked them into their airbnb and then went home and ate dinner with my host mom.

Retiro park!
Selfie on the boat!

The next day, I skipped class so I could show my family around. Don’t worry, it was only my dance class. First, we went to Retiro park and went in the little row boats in the pond. It was super fun! At the beginning, Rachel and Corrin were both rowing and it wasn’t really working. We all wanted to try rowing, so we kept rocking the boat while switching seats. Haha I thought we were gonna tip the boat over. Thankfully, we didn’t! After Retiro park, we went to Cherry pecas, a mexican restaurant by my school, for lunch. Our food and drinks were so good! After, we walked around Puerta de Sol, which is the popular shopping and touristy area in Madrid. We went into a million souvenir shops, listened to a mariachi band in the square, and also tried chocolate with churros. (I even had some too because how could I have studied in Madrid without at least trying a bite?) It was sooo good! My cousins didn’t really like it, and I couldn’t believe it! After churros, we made our way back to the airbnb. Rachel, Shannon, and Corrin needed to get up early Tuesday for their day trip to Toledo and El Escorial. Since I have class all day, they planned day trips for Tuesday and Thursday.

On Wednesday,  we slept in a little bit and then walked around the park by my house. After that, we made our way to cien montaditos, a restaurant that many students go to by my school. Every Wednesday, they have mini sandwiches for 1 euro. They aren’t gluten free, but they have other things like nachos too. We hung out there for awhile and enjoyed the food and tinto de verano. After lunch, I brought Rach, Shan, and Corrin to my flamenco class to watch! They said they really enjoyed it and wanted to join in! My dance teacher, Yolanda, is super funny and speaks only Spanish, so Corrin and Rachel were very confused the whole time. Shannon could understand her though, so she was the translator lol. Anyway, I was really happy that they enjoyed my class! After that, we went to a rooftop bar called Circulo de las Bellas Artes. It had a beautiful view of the city at the top, and we got to watch the sunset! It was a great place to enjoy a glass of wine and talk. We stayed there awhile and then made our way to my house. My host mom had invited my family over for dinner that night for pasta, salad, and some tapas! It was so good (of course because my host mom is a wonderful cook), and my family really enjoyed it! It was cool introducing them to my host mom and showing them where I have been living for the past 3 months!

When we celebrated Shannon’s bday at Ojala!

Thursday was Thanksgiving and Shannons birthday!! Unfortunately, I had a spanish presentation and other classes, so I couldn’t go to Segovia and Avila with them. I already went to Segovia though, so it didn’t really matter. After my classes, I met up with them and we went to a restaurant that I made reservations for. The restaurant is called Ojala and it has a super cool beach bar in the basement. There is literally sand on the floor and you sit in cute little beach chairs. It was the perfect place to celebrate Shannon’s birthday! We had a great time at the restaurant and then explored Madrid’s night life a little more. It was kinda sad that I couldn’t spend Thanksgiving like I usually do every year, but I was happy I could celebrate it with some of my family. It made me miss my parents and my brother a lot, but it was okay because I knew I was going to be home before I knew it!


On Friday, we woke up and went on a nice walk to the Royal Palace of Madrid! We took a little detour to see the templo de Debod, the ancient Egyptian temple that was donated to Spain. We went at the wrong time though because it is best to see at sunset. It was still cool to see though. When we arrived at the Royal Palace, we decided we needed to go inside. It was super pretty and had so many different rooms. Shannon could not get over the fact that they have a room for just silverware lol. It was a fun last thing to do before they catch their flight back home. I went halfway with them to the airport to say goodbye. It was sad, but I was still excited for my last few trips here. Also, I was going to Amsterdam the next day, so I was super excited about that! Overall, I am beyond grateful that they visited me and enjoyed seeing what I now consider my second home. It was a really amazing week with them!

To bring or not to bring? That is the question.

To bring or not to bring? That is the question.

There is something satisfactory about finally finishing packing for a trip. The feeling that you can check something off your list and it’s done. For some, they try to put it off as long as they can because they truly hate packing (me) or their packing is done a week before their trip. The one thing I have learned while studying abroad is packing efficiently. My family and friends are shocked that I have learned to not over pack, but when European dimensions are very constricting and very expensive to check a bag, the college student in you decides it’s time to pack a carry-on. It’s all fun and games until you have to haul your bag over your shoulder through the airport at an unamusing time in the morning or night. That is why I opted for a backpacking backpack and have 10 tips to help you pack.

  1. If you are HESITATING to pack something, don’t do it. Hesitation is reason enough that you do not need to bring it.
  2. Keep your outfits as INTERCHANGEABLE as possible. When traveling to a colder place it’s harder to pack light because sweaters can take up so much room, but if you can mix one or two pieces of your outfit, you’re golden.
  3. ROLL, don’t fold. I cannot stress enough how much room this saves you, especially when it comes to jeans.
  4. Cut the FOOTWEAR. Try to wear your heaviest shoes to avoid putting them in your bag, giving your bag extra weight.
  5. LAY OUT all the clothes you want to take before packing. Seeing everything laid out before you will keep you from over packing.
  6. Leave SPACE in your bag for souvenirs. You’ll buy things, it’ll happen so leave space in your bag so you won’t overstuff it.
  7. Pack a few granola bars or SNACKS just in case. When you’re flying at odd times of the day it’s hard to get food right when you’re hungry, so pack some snacks just in case! They don’t take up much room and you’ll thank me later.
  8. Travel size EVERYTHING. You don’t need a week’s worth of shampoo for a 3-day trip so consolidate your toiletries to smaller sizes, thus giving more room in your bag.
  9. Convert your cash BEFORE traveling. The airport charges horrible rates for converting currency at the airport so to save the hassle do it before.
  10. When in doubt SHOP. Don’t worry if you forget something because chances are you’ll be able to find it where you are going.