Thursday, August 29, 2013

Day trip to Venice

One of the best things about Italy is how connected the entire country is by train. Its really easy and cheap to take day trips. We were able to take 3 day trips during our time in Milan.

My boyfriend had never been to Venice so that was his choice for our first day trip. I had visited Venice in December 2011 the day after Christmas with my friend Shani. Here is the post. Let me tell you, visiting in August and visiting in December are COMPLETELY different. Shani and I were basically alone in the city which was really cool. Mo and I were there were 9 million of our closest friends.

On the Accademia Bridge
Some of our friends in the Piazza San Marco

Venice is only about a 2 and a half train ride from Milan and there are tons of trains between the two cities each day.

To me, Venice is like a different world. The streets are so small, there are no cars and bridges everywhere.  The water is a beautiful color too, its like a weird green/blue color that I swear you can only see in Venice.



I love taking pictures of the doors in Venice. I love the stripped wood and the algae growing at the bottom.


We, being the poor and cheap people we are, decided not to go on an 80-150 euro gondola ride. But, instead parked ourselves by a bridge to watch all the people enjoying their rides. Almost as fun, right?


I think one of the biggest misconception about gondolas that American’s have is that the gondoliers sing. Not true. But! I did manage to snag a video of this guy singing on his gondola.

I love window shopping in Venice. The Murano glass sculptures are just beautiful. I of course, had to buy myself a new necklace and a present for my roommate. Shani and I didn’t make it to Murano Island and the Glass Museum so I was really hoping we could go this time. But after walking around all day we realized the museum was already closed! boo. So, I guess another trip to Venice is in my future.


Charles Schwab Bank: Easiest way to use USD abroad

One of the main worries about becoming a first time expat is how to use/transfer your dollars to use in Europe.

One of the ways many people have talked about is having a account with your American bank and a account with your Spanish account. To have this work you need to have a separate email address with both accounts. Personally, I think this is too much work. Maybe it’s best to save this option for when you are going home for good and need an easy way to send euros to the US.

For me, my preferred method for using my USDs abroad is with the Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking account. Long name, I know.  Schwab is actually a stock broker service so when you call to set up your account you need to make sure you ask to talk to the bank part and not the brokers. When you do set up your account they will make a brokerage account, because it’s required, but you don’t have to use it unless you want to get into the stock market.

(I think here is a good place to put that I don’t work for Schwab and didn't get paid to write this, I’m just a very happy customer)

Lets go over the reasons why Charles Schwab is awesome:
  • No international fees!
  • They refund all ATM fees at the end of each month, national and international.
  • You can link accounts to other US banks. This makes transferring money back and forth really easy!
  • No minimum balance requirements
  • No fees to open or maintain your account, and even better. No hidden fees!
  • AMAZING customer service. Seriously. Amazing. 24 hours a day, basically no waiting to talk to a live person and you don’t get transferred around a lot. The people are always very knowledgeable, helpful and most importantly nice! **
  • Easy set up of the account and not a lot of wait time to receive your card. Also, for a $15 fee that can expedite the card.
  • International calling number! I had to call from Spain and they emailed me a Spanish number to use which connected to someone in the US. Also, you can call them collect from outside the US.
There are probably many more reasons, but that’s about the basics of it. If anyone else has had experiences with Schwab (good and bad) please leave a comment!
Here is what you will need to set up your account:
  1. Application
  2. Social security number
  3. Drivers license number
That’s it!

Here is the number to call to set up your account or for questions: 800-540-6718

Other numbers for future reference:
24 hour help line: 1-800-435-4000
International collect number: 1-317-596-4501
International direct dial number (Spain): 900-96-1285 (call from a land line phone)

**During the 2012 Olympics I ended up buying a fake ticket that cost me over $700. Schwab was able to get all my money back in just a few weeks! Super helpful! They gave me updates every few days on the progress

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Musical Milan: Teatro alla Scala and Giuseppe Verdi’s Tomb

It takes a special person to enjoy opera. I, luckily, am one of those people. Smile I think my love of opera started when I was very young. My parents used to play classical music for me when I was going to sleep, so I have always enjoyed classical music. Throughout my life I went through various instruments and orchestras. I took voice lessons for a few years which was really fun!

Anyway, back on track. I don’t think it is mentioned in this blog but I majored in theater at Kansas State University with an emphasis in costume design. It has really hit me hard my 3 years in Spain that there isn’t much theater around for me to get involved in. All theater people know that its kind of like a drug that’s really hard to give up.

My father used to work in Milan when I was really young, so before planning our trip I sent him an email asking what I should make sure to see. He smartly mentioned Milan’s most famous theater, which is famous for opera, Teatro alla Scala.


I was super excited to finally be able to see a performance! But, unfortunately, like most things in Milan it was closed in August. Boo.


Old posters leading up to the theater lobby

Luckily, the museum was still open, and since no performances were going on we were able to peak our heads into the beautiful theater. (Pictures weren't allowed, but I was trying to be sneaky, so please excuse the weird angles!)


This is the lobby! Beautiful!
In the museum you can see old props, pictures, and costumes from Aida. For me, it was just what I needed. But, it also made me really miss working at Central City Opera and the other theaters I have been lucky enough to be a part of.

Franz Liszt's piano. Still played for very special occasions.
Portrait of Maria Callas. One of if not the most famous opera singers.
Giuseppe Verdi’s Tomb was something I stumbled upon while looking at free things to do in Milan. It’s not mentioned in any tour books and is pretty far down on the list on Trip Advisor. But, for me it was a must see.
The tomb is just west of the city center in Piazza Buonarroti which you will notice right away because there is a HUGE statue of Verdi in the middle of the piazza.


Casa di Riposo per Musicisti Giuseppe Verdi
The tomb itself is in Casa di Riposo per Musicisti Giuseppe Verdi. Which I thought was a museum, but it turns out its not actually open to the public? or needs an advanced booking or something. We weren’t really sure what was going on there. But after my failed attempt at asking the receptionist in English how much it costs, she explained to us (in Italian) that we could go in to see the tomb for free no problem. So, if you are ever bored in Milan or a big music nerd like me then pop in for a free visit.

Leading up to the tomb


Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Detailed guide to Mobile Phones in Spain

One of the first things you should do when arriving in Spain is to get a cell phone set up. You will need this to look for an apartment, set up private classes and call your school if you get lost on the first day.

Spanish cell phone plans are set up a little differently than they are in the United States. Most people here don’t use contracts for their phone. Pay as you go is a lot more popular and pretty much all cellphone companies have this option. Contracts are available, but are for one year or more, so it depends on how long you are staying, but pay as you go will most likely be easier for you.

There are many online phone companies that advertise to people who are studying abroad. I don’t recommend these, because you can only recharge through that company online and you wont know how good the coverage is until you get here.

Cell phone numbers in Spain start with 6 (7 is starting to appear, but is very unusual) and land line phones start with a 9. It costs a lot of money to call a land line phone from a cell phone, and depending on what internet service provider you have, it might cost a lot to call a cell phone from a land line. Many people here will give with is called a “Toque” which is when they call and let the phone ring once or twice and hang up so you can call them back.

I’m going to try to give a simple overview of the major cell companies in Spain and what their plans are. Keep in mind as you read, that things might change price wise once you get here, so this is just a guide. If you notice something that needs to be updated please leave me a comment so I can try to keep this as useful as possible.

This is the company I have, so I will start with this one. Note: even in Spain it is pronounced in English. Orange offers a variety of pay as you go plans for smart phones and regular phones.

Ballena: This is the most expensive plan for those smart phone addicts. With this you get 1GB a month for 12 euros (14.52 with tax). Calls will cost you 1 cent a minute plus 18 cents to establish the call and you get 1,000 SMS messages.

Delfin: This is the plan I have. It recently changed to not include any text messages for free. 100MB a week. Calls cost 1cent a minute and 18 cents to establish the call and tests are 1 cent each. This plan costs 2 euros a week (2.42 with tax).

Ardilla: This is the plan for those of you without a smart phone. Calls are 1 cent a minute and 18 cents to establish the call and SMS messages are 1 cent each. This plan will only cost you 1 euro a week (1.21 with tax)

Vodafone is broken down into groups and prices within the groups.

Hablar y navegar: For 8 euros a month you get 500MB, 20 minutes for calls and 20 SMS. For 12 euros a month you get 1GB, 60 minutes and 60 messages

Tarifa XS8: This is a true pay as you go plan. Calls are 8 cents a minute, SMS 8 cents a minute and 15 cents to establish the call. You don’t have to pay a monthly or weekly fee for this plan, unlike Orange’s Ardilla.

Tarifa Internacional: This is the plan for people who use their cell phone to call home. As long as you have money on your sim card your national calls will only cost you 15 cents to establish the call and 15 cents for each SMS. For international calls it depends on where you are calling check here for the full list. USA and Canada: 4.8 cents with tax and 30.3 cents to establish the call. All international SMS cost 60 cents each. With the plan you can also add 150MB of internet for 4 euros.

I have many friends who use Yoigo for their smart phones with no problems.

La del Ocho: National calls are 8 cents a minute and 15 cents a minute to establish the call. National and International SMS are 8 cents a message. This will cost you 6 euros a month. Also, you can add internet to this plan. 8 euros a month for 500MB, they also have an offer now which is half price the first month.

La del Cinco: National calls are 5 cents a minute, 15 cents to establish the call. SMS costs 10 cents national and international. Internet with this plan costs 35 cents a day with a max of 35MB a day equaling 1GB per month.

Habla Movistar: This is a good option if you find that your friends and coworkers all have movistar. 0 cents a minute calls to Movistar landlines and cell phones with a 15 cent charge to establish the call. Calls to other operators cost 25 cents a minute.

Habla Ocio: This is the “nights and weekends” option. 3 cents a minute and 15 cents to establish between 4pm-8am Monday through Friday and 24 hours Saturday and Sunday. Other calls cost 25 cents a minute.

Habla 24h: 8 cents a minute to all cell phone companies with 15 cents to establish the call.

Tarifa Internet 3: 100MB a week for 3 euros.

Habla Internacional: 1 euro a month. 30 cents to establish the call. Here is the list to see the prices by country. For USA it’s 5 cents a minute for Canada it's 85 cents a minute.

Hopefully that can help you try to decide which plan will work for you! Of course, this isn’t the complete list of phone companies, there are a lot of smaller companies as well. But, these are the main ones that you will encounter the most.

Shopping in the World’s Oldest Mall

Just to the left of Milan's Cathedral is a beautiful archway which leads to the worlds oldest shopping mall. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is named after the first king of Italy and was built by Giuseppe Mengoni starting in 1865.


The structure is set up in a cross with a beautiful glass ceiling. Where the two sides meet is a glass dome and lots of stonework on the floor. What is represented is the Coat of Arms of the three capitals from the Kingdom of Italy (Florence, Torino and Rome) and also Milan’s.




You might notice people hovered around one of the mosaics turning in a circle. This tradition states that if you put your foot on the bull’s testicles in the mosaic of Torino and turn in a circle 3 times it will bring good luck! So many people have done this that there is a dent from the feet.



Outside one of the exits is the Piazza della Scala which houses the beautiful Teatro alla Scala.


Now, for us poor folk the mall is a beautiful place to walk through and window shop. It houses some very high end stores like Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Gucci even has its own café where an espresso will cost you 8 euros!

Milan’s Duomo Cathedral

This might sound terrible. But, I am not easily impressed with European cathedrals anymore. I usually look at them and think: “Ok, another giant church”. I think this is because I have been lucky enough to travel around Europe and have become jaded. Few cathedrals stick out in my mind.

That being said, I really enjoyed Milan’s Duomo cathedral. It is towering over the main square in Milan and is a beautiful multicolored building. The square itself is a beautiful place to sit and enjoy people watching or giving some food to the many many pigeons.


The cathedral is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and the third-largest church in Europe. It has a capacity of 40,000! It has no bell tower, but has 135 spires, 3,400 statues and 155 gargoyles.


I respected the rules and took no pictures inside the cathedral. But, trust me when I tell you it was beautiful. One of my favorite parts of any cathedral is the stained glass. I love seeing the sun shine through the colors. The glass in this cathedral was probably my second favorite in Europe (Sagrada Familia) being the first. The colors were so vivid. It was beautiful.

From the outside of the cathedral tourists can go up to the tower (for a fee) and get a nice view of Milan and the square below. We opted not to do this, because just before we went to the cathedral we went to the Museo del Novecento and got a similar view of the square.


Note: There is a strict dress code for this cathedral. There were soldiers outside checking purses and making sure people were dressed properly.  Unlike other churches in Europe, this cathedral does not provide anything for tourists to put on. Women must have their shoulders covered and wear clothes that go below the knee. For the men, it is similar, but a little less strict.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Third Time’s a charm in Italy!

 Like I mentioned in my Walnut Pesto post. I just got back from my third, and favorite, trip to Italy. I would still love to go back and visit Southern Italy, but this time I was based in Milan. I traveled there for 7 relaxing days with my boyfriend and we were able to visit many of the most famous monuments in Milan which you can find individual posts about below. (When I write them) Unfortunately, Da Vinci’s The Last Supper was sold out all the days we were.

Milan is Italy’s second biggest city (Rome is the first) and is the capital of Lombardy. Many people know it as the fashion capital of the world, but it also has many other important things such as the Italian Stock Exchange and many headquarters of national and international companies.

What I really don’t like when traveling is when I can’t understand or speak the language, I feel like I have a real disadvantage. Which is why I love being able to speak Spanish. It is incredibly how much Spanish you can get away with speaking there! So before you head out to Italy, dust off your high school Spanish book and learn a few Italian words to throw in as well and you will be at a huge advantage.

Or you can just do this ;)

Here are my other posts about my trip to Milan:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Recipe: Walnut Pesto

I recently just returned from my third trip to Italy (Stay tuned for posts about that!) I love living in Spain, but if I had the chance to live it Italy I would take it in a heartbeat. I love everything about Italian culture. The people, the architecture, the art and of course the food!

When I was 16 I started working as a hostess at an Italian restaurant called Mama Roma. I was lucky enough to have a boss who was willing to let me start working back of house almost immediately. I wanted to be a chef for the longest time so I was incredibly happy for the opportunity. I learned so much there and was really sad when I had to quit to go to college.

Me checking a pizza at Mama Roma
The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college I started as a prep cook at the now defunct Grazio Italian Bar and Grill. I worked under an amazingly talented chef, that, unfortunately, the owners refused to use his talents. Never the less I learned a ton from him.

So as you can see, Italian food has been a part of my life for A LONG time. I love cooking it at home for friends and family.

My all time favorite herb is basil and whenever I have enough from one of my plants I jump at the opportunity to make some pesto.


Most pesto recipes use pine nuts. But, these are expensive, and lately are becoming increasingly hard to find nuts not grown in China in the US. So, using walnuts is a great alternative.


Here is my simple recipe for Walnut Pesto:

  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • salt and pepper to taste

  • Place the basil leaves, olive oil, walnuts, and garlic in a emersion blender or food processer and mix until well blended.
  • add parmesan cheese and continue blending until everything is well mixed.
  • At this point, you can add more olive oil to achieve the consistency you want. Also add salt and pepper to your liking.
That’s it! Super easy right? No need to buy a 4 dollar bottle anymore! Enjoy this pesto with pasta and chicken or just on a piece of toast with some fresh tomatoes.

finished pesto

Monday, August 12, 2013

Birthday Cheesecake

I love celebrating birthdays. Not so much mine, but other peoples. I like to make them feel special. One of my favorite things to do is bake and try out new recipes so birthdays where I can give people a cake as their present are perfect in my mind.

My boyfriend’s 29th birthday was on August 10th. I had been planning what I was going to do for months before. I bought him a NY Yankees hat that he had been eyeing and then had to use all my power to make sure he didn’t buy it himself. Of course, as soon as I bought one online, they showed up in ALL the stores here. So, I am proud of myself that I succeeded.


He has told me many times that he has never celebrated his birthday, even when he was a kid, since he was from such a big family. So, this was his first real birthday party! I couldn’t let him down.
His favorite candy is snickers and I have always wanted to try making a cheesecake. So, what’s better than a snickers cheesecake?



I used the recipe from My Baking Addiction, one of my favorite blogs with tons of delicious recipes. Let me tell you it turned out AMAZING. Like seriously perfect. No cracks, no crevasses and super creamy. Everyone loved it.


I also made the caramel sauce on top from Two Peas and their Pod which was a perfect complement to the not overly sweet cheesecake.



Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tourist in My Own City: Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

One of the things I regret most about my 2 years in Almeria is that I didn't take advantage of the cultural and tourist sites the city has to offer. Which is why I am on a mission to not make the same mistake in my new city. Which is why I have decided to write a series of blog posts about the most famous sites in Valencia.

My first stop was The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, which is one of, if not the most famous monument in Valencia. The arts and science city is a series of BEAUTIFUL modern buildings designed by Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela. It is a 2 kilometer piece of land on the former bed of the River Turia. It has five main parts: Hemisfèric: which houses an IMAX screen, Umbracle: which has great views of the rest of the park and also lots of trees and plants, Príncipe Felipe Science Museum: an interactive science museum, Oceanográfico: the largest aquarium in Europe and the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía: which has opera performances.

I unfortunately have not been able to go inside any of the places yet since I am trying to save some money for my trip to Italy, but I definitely want to visit all of them. However, just walking around the complex is enjoyable and something I do almost every weekend. It’s a beautiful place to take a walk, a bike ride or just bring a book and a picnic to enjoy under a tree.

View of Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía from the Turia Gardens
Some of the beautiful landscape

Hemisfèric or the eyeball building as I like to call it
Hemisfèric from the entrance. Looks like a bug doesn't it?

Príncipe Felipe Science Museum
See that arc? If two people stand on each side of it and speak to the wall they can hear each other!
Príncipe Felipe Science Museum and Ágora
Umbracle gardens
Umbracle Gardens