refuge in barcelona

On our first full day in Barcelona, I resorted to my usual travel strategy- see the big sights first, and don’t miss out on anything! So, I started off the morning by ordering room service to my room (gotta take advantage of the all-expenses-paid trip) before calling EuropeAssist, the company that had been hired by the UC’s to coordinate flights and accommodations during our evacuation. It is hands-down the best organization that I have ever worked with. After answering a couple of questions, I was told that they would have a possible itinerary for my flight back to California within a couple of hours, which would be e-mailed to me so that I could focus on sightseeing. I was soon free to go meet up with a few of the other UC kids in the lobby. After a few minutes of bathroom breaks, map examinations, and trips back to our rooms to get jackets (it was cold!),  our group was ready to explore Barcelona.

The first stop was a money exchange place, which we found after walking from the hotel to La Ramla street. Adapting to life in Barcelona was pretty strange- I took four years of Spanish in high school, but whenever I tried to speak it, only Arabic vocabulary would pop into my head. It took a good deal of concentration to remember my Spanish and keep the two languages straight, not to mention that most Barcelona-ians actually speak Catalan. It was nice to be able to understand those speaking around me, though- looks like all of that Spanish class didn’t go to waste after all! We also had to keep reminding ourselves that we were not in Cairo anymore, so certain customs were different: there were crosswalks (!) that people actually obeyed (!!!), trash goes in trash cans, and asking random people on the street for directions in broken Spanish just gets you funny looks. It was kind of strange to see the streets so clean- they seemed almost empty without the usual trash and stray animals of Egypt.

We eventually were able to exchange our money, although our Egyptian Pounds didn’t get us too far. The cashier wouldn’t even accept our 5 LE notes! Nonetheless, the area that we were in was absolutely beautiful. I quickly realized why people love Barcelona so much. It’s a big city, but without the drawbacks of that title. It’s pretty quiet, uncrowded, and clean. Sidewalks are spacious, trees are plentiful, people are interesting, and the architecture is to die for. I could easily see myself living there for a few good years. We walked up and down La Ramla, admiring the city and discussing our plans for the day. Elise had a friend who was studying in Barcelona, who had offered to take us out to lunch that day. So, we walked past the Catedral (which was closed until later that afternoon), and ventured through town to find the Arc de Triomf, where we had arranged to meet her. We wandered through skinny side streets, with vines growing out of plants over balconies, graffiti freckling the walls, and small cafes offering tapas and sangria. Naked trees lined the streets, and we enjoyed the crisp, cold air on our faces. The Arch emerged in front of us, along with Elise’s friend Ali, who she hadn’t seen in years. After the usual mandatory hugs and photo-taking, we set off to find somewhere to eat lunch. We feasted on pizza, patatas bravas, calamari, tomato bread, and drinks before sending Ali on her way and setting off to check out some Gaudi architecture.

First on our list was La Pedrera, which was (obviously) pretty easy to find- it doesn’t exactly blend in with any of the surrounding buildings. We walked up La Rambla until we came upon a bone-white building with curving walls, threaded balcony fences, and mosaic-covered mounds growing out of the roof. It must be Gaudi. We purchased our tickets (with a student discount- woohoo!) and wandered around the complex for an hour or two. Apparently, you can actually rent an apartment in the building. Flats formed a circle around an inner courtyard, and an apartment on display showed huge windows, wide doors, extravagant chandeliers, and great views of the city. The rooftop was like being on the moon- pillars and columns emerged out of the ground, some carved to appear as though they had gaunt faces from certain angles. It was beautiful.

We eventually dragged ourselves away from La Pedrera and made our way back down the street to another Gaudi building, Casa Batllo. At this one, we were happy to just admire from the outside. Balconies curved up and outwards, the exterior was covered in swirling color, and mounds of tiles emerged from the roof. It was wonderful, and simply built right amongst the other everyday buildings of the city. On our way back to the hotel, we realized the the Catedral would be opening up to visitors by that time, and decided to swing by it. After visiting so many mosques in Egypt, it was a little strange to be inside a cathedral. Images and sculptures of religious figures decorated the interior, looking down at us from the ceiling and out from various scenes that had been set up along the inner walls. The entire inside of the Catedral was covered in gold and deep wood tones, and an organ played in the background. The choir chamber was located in the dead center of the room, and priests sat waiting in confessional booths.

We headed back to the hotel to check our email and finalize plans for the next day. I had received a message from EuropeAssist, who told me that I was booked on a flight to San Francisco that departed at 9:35 the next morning. I would have to get on a shuttle to the airport at 6:30 AM, fly to Zurich, and then to SF. I would arrive in San Francisco at around 4:30 PM. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that I had a flight scheduled, and would be back in California in just a few hours. I packed for the third time in two days, and passed on the details to my parents. That night, Elise and I went to a place called Dune for dinner. We enjoyed a tablefull of tapas- mushrooms cooked in garlic, meatballs, patatas bravas, cheese and jam, and tomato bread. The waiter also brought us an entire jug of sangria, which was way too much for the two of us- we quickly passed it on to a tableful of Italians sitting next to us. After a dessert of apple pie, ice cream, and chocolate cake (again, thanks UC insurance!), we made our way back to the Hotel Ayres and went to bed, trying to get some sleep before our 6:30 shuttle the next morning.

…and then things went absolutely insane.

I was woken up at 5 AM by a call from my Mom. I honestly don’t even remember answering the phone, or most of the beginning of the conversation, but I sat fully upright when she started reading an e-mail to me. I had internet service and was fully capable of checking my own mail at this point, but I obviously hadn’t seen this message yet. My mom started the conversation saying that she knew exactly what I was going to do. I was confused, thinking yes, she knows that I’m getting on a flight to San Francisco in a couple of hours. And then she started reading: the UC program had decided to offer us four more options at this point in time. Instead of just flying back to California, we could now apply to study abroad in Israel, South Korea, or Germany. Or, you could travel within Europe for awhile- the UC program would cover your costs up to $800. This was INSANE. About half of our group was planning on getting on a shuttle to the airport at 6:30, in only an hour or so. UCs sent out this email at 5 AM. I basically had to immediately decide whether or not I wanted to board my plane back to California, or stay in Barcelona and apply to live in a completely different country for the next five months. My mind was swimming. I was still half asleep, and had to keep asking myself if I was dreaming. My obvious study abroad choice would be Israel- my mom said that as soon as she read the email herself, she knew that would be my choice. After some jumbled conversation, I hung up the phone and sat in bed, completely bewildered.

The next couple of hours were complete chaos. I called Elise, making sure that she had read the email. She said that she was exhausted and not willing to change her plans so last-minute, so she was boarding the shuttle to fly back to the States. I contemplated my options, and tried to go through a pro-con list for each choice. When it came to imagining myself returning to California, knowing that I could have stayed in Barcelona for a few more days, applied to Israel, and continued my year abroad, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I turned down this opportunity. I felt terrible about having told my entire family and friends that I would soon be back with them in the States, but I honestly had no idea that I had these other options. I would be able to see them in a few short months either way. Israel would provide me with the opportunity to continue Arabic classes and my studies in the Middle East, both of which are required for my major. I would no longer have to sacrifice a quarter of school. Financially, it was comparable to going back to Santa Barbara for spring quarter. Also, it would provide an extremely interesting perspective on the current situation in the region- having seen it from both Egypt and Israel would be priceless. I couldn’t imagine turning it down.

So, I made some phone calls. I canceled my flight to San Francisco and tried to contact my dad to make sure that he would be okay with this decision, but he was asleep in New York. I emailed about a million people to get started on the application process, and filled out way too much paperwork. I talked to some friends who had visited Israel, and was told that they absolutely loved their time there, and that they would kill me if I didn’t go. At various points throughout this whole process, I kept having to stand up and walk around my hotel room to ensure myself that I wasn’t dreaming, that this really did happen, and that doing a little happy dance was completely necessary. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Also, many of the other students who were scheduled to take the 6:30 bus did not even see the email before getting on the shuttle- they got to the airport and either saw it there, or did not even see it until they had landed in other countries. You can imagine how much of an uproar this caused. Some of those students are now trying to petition to be flown back to Israel, or to other study abroad programs that they are doing their best to be accepted to late.

By 10 AM, I had done everything I could to get this process under way. Flight canceled, directors contacted, application begun. All I needed to do was touch base with my dad. I went downstairs to grab some breakfast, and sat with some of the other UC students- it seemed that there were only five or six of us left. We all excitedly discussed the events of that morning. I knew that I wanted to apply to Israel, and so did a girl from UC San Diego, Shannon. There were four UC Berkeley kids left, all of which were also considering it. We decided to keep working on the applications for a couple of hours before meeting up to do some sightseeing. I returned to my room and was finally able to get in touch with my dad, who I woke up at around 5 AM New York time- oops. He agreed that it was an amazing opportunity, and encouraged me to go for it! I was all set.

Harry, Verenice, Analucia (all from UC Berkeley), Shannon (from UC San Diego), and I met up at around noon to go visit another Gaudi masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia. We walked for about fifteen minutes from our hotel to the site. I honestly didn’t know much about these eccentric works of art, so I didn’t really know what to expect, but I’ll just say that it’s easy to recognize a Gaudi piece when you see one. His stuff is completely ridiculous. We could see the Sagrada from a few blocks away- its tall towers emerged from the surrounding trees, topped with colorful crosses and bulging lumps of tile. Angular statues peered over rooftops, while Jesus hung from a sideways cross above the entrance. Some figures didn’t have faces, others had bodies shaped like Gumby, and jagged rooftops reached towards the sky. The building is difficult to explain- as we walked around the exterior, it seemed to ignore the boundaries of time and genre. It looked like something that should be in a Tim Burton movie.

After taking about a million pictures, Verenice and Analucia decided that they wanted to see the harbor, so we hopped on the metro and headed towards the water. We stopped at a place called “Pitta Hut” for lunch, and got doner kebab, which ended up being kind of like a shawerma burrito. Delicious! We wandered around the area for awhile, passing extravagant churches hidden within the narrow streets. In the sun, it was pleasantly cool outside and perfect for a long walk. We wandered for a good hour or two before heading towards the water and walking along the dock. Figures of people floated on the water- Barcelona seems to have an endless supply of cool art. A large palace topped a hill on the horizon. Another statue pointed towards the water with one finger. By late afternoon, we were a little hungry and decided to check out the local McDonalds. It was like a nice restaurant, with cushioned booths, art on the walls, and music playing. Harry was excited to find that they served beer. By the time we were finished, it was getting a little chilly out, so we agreed to check out the Chocolate Museum, and then settle in for the night at the hotel.

The Chocolate Museum is just as wonderful as it sounds. In Barcelona, it was spelled “Xocolate”- apparently they use an “X” for a “CH” sound, because we also noticed a sign selling “xips”, instead of chips. We paid 3 Euro at the entrance, and were handed our “entrance tickets”- a bar of chocolate! We were then free to roam around the building, which told the story of the discovery and evolution of the sweet. Chefs had created sculptures and figurines out of chocolate, videos played in Spanish and English, and one large windowed room showed a team of chefs preparing something delicious. At the exit, they had a small cafe and sweet shop, where you could order some hot chocolate or souvenirs. Harry ordered a hot drink, which literally just tasted like melted chocolate. Delicious!

Back at the hotel, we took a break to check up on the Israel application process. I had received about a billion emails since that morning instructing me on how to move forward from here. Every single person who helped me was really wonderful- I’m not sure if it was because I could pull the “I’m an Egypt evacuee” card and appear helpless, or because they are just amazing people. I’ll assume it was a bit of both. Basically, they waived almost all of the requirements for the application. All we had to do was fill out the paperwork (parents’ info, education info, addresses, etc.), send a couple of emails, and wait. We were able to avoid sending in letters of recommendation, passport photos, a personal essay, official transcripts, and a health certification. It was great! At that point, I only had two qualms about the process: there was a $105 application fee, and I would have to pay for my own flight from Israel to California in May. So, I sent a couple of emails contesting these two issues, and headed downstairs to grab some dinner.

The hotel had been providing us with three course dinners nightly. That night, I arrived a little late, but the waiter was extremely accommodating and allowed me to join dinner with the rest of the remaining 5 or 6 UC kids that had trickled in. We had bread, pasta, salmon, mashed potatoes, and cake for dessert. Not too shabby! One thing that I had noticed about Barcelona is that almost every meal offers eggs and ham of some sort- that night was a rare exception. We soon returned to our hotel rooms, and I continued with my usual routine- watch CNN and BBC World for Egypt updates while working on plans. By 11 AM the next morning, basically everything had been completed. All I had to do was wait to hear whether I had been accepted. Given that everybody would be asleep in the States for the next few hours, I decided to be semi-productive and finally go get a haircut. I had been too afraid to get it done in Egypt after hearing a few too many horror stories from friends. Verenice had found a nice small salon down the street and gotten her hair cut there the day before, so I walked on over and explained what I wanted in broken Spanish. The hairdresser looked in awe at my overgrown, dry, tattered hair, and got to work. Scissors went flying, hair fell to the ground, and an hour later, my hair was conditioned, blown dry, and looking a million times better.

I returned to the hotel and made plans with Shannon to find someplace outside to sit and hang out for a bit. I had a lot of blogging to catch up on (and still do), but I didn’t want to sit inside all day to do it. So, we set out towards Las Gracias (another major street) and sat down at small tables along the street to write. As I recounted the details of the evacuation, I realized how ridiculous some of it sounds, and discussed this with Shannon. It almost seemed as though Egypt was all a dream. We were in such a completely different environment now in Barcelona, and it had all happened so quickly that all of us were probably still in a little bit of shock. UC Berkeley even emailed its students to inform them that the school would be providing therapists to talk to once they returned back to the States. While in Egypt, the events were completely unprecedented and awe-inspiring, but everyday life there still seemed to be natural. It was as if all of these chaotic events were playing through their necessary paths to recovery. Now, looking back on it and watching it on the news, it’s hard to make sense of it all from this outside perspective. Shannon and I sat, talked and wrote for a good few hours until finally returning to the hotel. I went through the usual process of responding to emails and asking more questions, to which I ended up receiving a series of wonderfully unbelievable updates.

First of all, I had asked if I actually had to pay the $105 application fee, and now received an email notifying me that the charge had been waived- score! I also heard that housing would be available to move into on the 7th, and that they would assist us with transportation to the university. And then I got a phone call from EuropeAssist. From all that I had been hearing about our options for travel, it basically seemed as though each student had an $800 credit to use for flights- that’s how much the ticket back to CA cost, and if we had chosen the alternative option to travel around Europe, that’s how much they would have covered. So, I had emailed one of the directors with a proposal: EuropeAssist would be paying for our tickets from Barcelona to Israel, which would NOT cost the full $800. They had told us, however, that we had to pay for our own tickets from Israel to California at the end of the study abroad program in May. I proposed that they help us pay for the Israel-California ticket with whatever funds were remaining after they paid for the Barcelona-Israel ticket, and threw in a little statement about how this entire evacuation process had completely disrupted my plans, had cost me an unexpectedly large amount of money, and had been emotionally stressful. EuropeAssist called me back, and let me know that the UC Study Abroad Directors had met with the UC Office of the President, discussed matters, and had decided that they were now covering the FULL cost of the Barcelona-Israel flight, AND the Israel-California flight in May. SCORE!

So, I headed down to meet the other UC students for dinner and spread the good news. At this point, there were only four of us left: me, Shannon, Analucia, and Jeremy. Harry and Verenice had flown back to California that morning- Verenice ultimately decided to just return home, and Harry was going to attempt to recuperate in CA for a week, and hopefully fly to Israel afterwards. The four of us chowed down on salad, cheeseburgers, and chocolate cake, discussing the details of our situation. I literally could not believe how fortunate we had been throughout this entire process. It almost made me nervous that I had such good luck- what would happen when my luck ran out? The evacuation, which had been the worst news I had received in quite a long time, had allowed me to visit Barcelona, grow closer to the other UC kids, and now presented me with the opportunity to study in Israel- and financially, the insurance had really been a lifesaver.

After dinner, I received a call from Shannon, who told me to check my e-mail- we had received our acceptance letters from the Israel Program! I quickly spread the good news to my parents, and began working on the next set of preparations: calling EuropeAssist to schedule flights, filling out paperwork for housing, and reading the orientation material. I don’t want to jinx it, but things had really come together perfectly up to this point. This morning, I woke up and watched the news and completed some more paperwork. I just received a call from EuropeAssist, and have flights scheduled to depart for Tel Aviv tomorrow morning along with the three other UC students who are still here. We’ll move into student housing on the 7th, if all goes according to plan. I still cannot wrap my mind around the fact that I’ve been evacuated from Egypt, camped out in Barcelona, and now hopefully enrolling in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem tomorrow. What a week. Early morning phone calls have drastically altered my location twice already, and only twelve days ago, I was living in my flat in Cairo, going to dance practice, and counting down the days to the start of classes at AUC, with absolutely no idea that protests would rock the nation and dramatically change my life. After all of this, I can’t wait to see what this next week brings me!

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