My experience with IVHQ Spain

As part of my sabbatical year, I decided I didn‚Äôt want to just sit around and eat bocadillos and drink great 2‚ā¨ bottles of wine (one of the best things about Spain – not sure how I‚Äôll ever pay for wine in the US again), but actually do something useful, like volunteering. So for 2 weeks this past August, I did just that, with a company called International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ).

Earlier this summer, I began to do some research and came across IVHQ. The organization is based in New Zealand but partners with local non-profit volunteer organizations around the world to help coordinate and provide volunteer placement. I wanted to stay in Spain for my first volunteering experience, so I was happy to see that they had opportunities through a local non-profit called Serve The City, in Madrid.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

IVHQ is a great organization for global volunteering opportunities. They are very responsive to e-mails, and provide the support and peace of mind that you need when you are about to get on a plane and travel halfway around the world. There are dozens of different types of projects that local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) need help with. The projects range from teaching English to children or adults, working on an environmental or agriculture conservation project, working with special needs individuals, helping with renovation or construction, and more.

I had quickly realized while doing research that I would probably be the oldest one in the program, but I signed up anyway. Besides, IVHQ has a page on their website dedicated to those with a little more life experience,¬†so at least from that standpoint I felt welcome. Still, I was nervous at first because I had never stayed in a hostel, lived in a dorm, been to jail… or done anything similar where I had to share a room with multiple people, not since summer camp as a teenager. What was I thinking? I’m in my late 30’s, I’m supposed to be at a certain stage in life, not running around like a college kid living in a shared dorm room, carrying my toiletries to the shared bathroom every day, hoping no one is using it. But it turned out to be a really great experience.

I arrived in Madrid on a Sunday evening and one of the coordinators picked me up from the Madrid-Barajas airport and drove me to the house which was located in a residential neighborhood in the Valdezarza area of Madrid. He gave me a tour of the house and showed me the room I’d be sharing (there were a total of 5 bedrooms for all of the volunteers, plus 2 bedrooms for each of the two coordinators). There was one girl there already, who I guessed was about half my age. She was a student at San Diego State. Of course she was. She had been there two weeks already and had one week left.¬†Another girl arrived, having just been picked up from the airport by the other coordinator. She was slightly older but not by much. She was from Australia and was backpacking and traveling around Europe and was used to staying in hostels.

The house

The first full day there (Monday), we had a 1.5 hour orientation session mid-morning and were free the rest of the day. I was feeling a bit out of my element, which was exacerbated by the anxiety I was still feeling after the terrorist attacks in Barcelona a few days prior. But by the next day, when my volunteer placement started, the anxiety started to melt away and I began to feel more comfortable. The next two weeks flew by after that.

Dorm Life

The house had 22 people more or less and most everyone was very friendly and laid-back. No one believed how old I was and they also didn’t care. I made friends with 18 year olds and got to know even the quietest people. It was an absolutely amazing experience and I highly recommend it regardless of your age. They’ve had volunteers in their 30’s all the way to 60+. Everyone had a different life story and they were all open to new experiences and meeting new people.

Some of my awesome housemates

Everyone was assigned to different placements in Madrid, with one or more people volunteering on each one. The volunteer placement I did was Agriculture, which in this case was working alongside immigrant farmers/gardeners in an organic huerto (vegetable farm/orchard). I chose agriculture because I wanted my first volunteer experience to have something to do with the environment and to be somewhat physical. I loved it. Every morning I took the bus to El Pardo which is in the northwestern part of Madrid, about 13 miles from the city center, near a river and hiking trails. I would grab a cortado (small coffee with milk) at a local cafeteria in the small town and enjoy a peaceful walk up a hill to where the garden was located, behind an orphanage and a beautiful church.

Cristo de el Pardo
The garden behind the church

The church owns the land that the garden is on, and with the help of agricultural educators, social workers, and the community, the church developed a program called Huerto Hermana Tierra which is dedicated to providing work and community resources to immigrants. In the two weeks I was there, I learned a lot about organic farming and it inspired me to eventually have a house with a big backyard where I can grow my own vegetables. I met new people from different cultures. I practiced my Spanish with the farmers, and learned new Spanish words for less common vegetables (remolacha = beet, puerro = leek, etc). I picked crops (watermelons, squash, zucchini, onions etc), ran away from bees, pulled weeds, and planted crops such as lettuce and cabbage. It really made me realize how much work goes into where we get our food. It’s easy to take for granted being able to walk into any grocery store and easily purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, without thinking about the work it took to get to that point.

Really excited about onions
Enjoying a watermelon break with the other volunteers and workers

Another option that is available in many IVHQ locations is the opportunity to take language lessons. I opted to do the Spanish lessons that were offered and had 3 private lessons. Normally they offer group classes but since I did not want to start at the very beginning, the local coordinator suggested I do private lessons which ended up being the same price. If you’re interested in learning the local language, I highly recommend going this route as they often are offered at a discounted rate than what you would normally find in a language school. The only drawback was that it was hard to do private lessons in a house where people are always coming and going. We ended up going down the street to a small restaurant for the second and third lessons.

I am already dreaming of my next IVHQ trip!

Summer so far and upcoming plans…

The last couple of months have been a whirlwind. After Tel Aviv in late May, I continued Spanish classes for another couple of weeks. Then, for 2 months (up until last week) I was traveling almost the entire time. It was a busy (and fun) summer, with my friends visiting from the US for 2 weeks, as well as my aunt a separate 2 weeks almost immediately after I returned from Stockholm in late July. I’m realizing it’s really hard to work on a blog when you are on the road…

Here’s a quick summary of the places I visited:

  • Amsterdam, Netherlands (3 times – once for my birthday in June, once for a music festival planned months in advance, and once with my aunt who really wanted to see the Anne Frank house (and I‚Äôm so glad she wanted to, it was worth the 2 hour wait))
  • Italy – Lake Como, Florence, Amalfi Coast (where I drove a boat for the first time and drove the precarious roads of the Amalfi Coast in a rental car with Sarah)
  • Rome, Italy (solo trip where I went at my own pace, saw amazing ancient ruins, ate delicious food and saw how terrible the city bus system is)
  • Spain – Ibiza, Marbella, Pamplona (where I saw how terrible bullfighting is)
  • London, England (where I ate a proper English breakfast, jogged through Kensington Gardens and saw some questionable outfits at Wireless Festival)
  • Copenhagen, Denmark (where I rode bikes in the rain with my friends, ate delicious food at Copenhagen Street Food, and saw the beautiful Louisiana museum)
  • Stockholm, Sweden (where we took the free bus to IKEA and drank Swedish beer)
  • Berlin, Germany (where I learned a ton of WW2 history and ate a lot of German food with my aunt)
  • Vienna, Austria (where I saw the beautiful Schonbrunn Palace and visited Salzburg)
  • Z√ľrich, Switzerland (where I enjoyed fondue again and had some mediocre raclette – I guess I will have to go back a 3rd time!)
  • Vaduz, Liechenstein (on a day trip from Z√ľrich, mainly just to have gone to another country ;))

Hopefully soon I will have time to elaborate more on some of these amazing places.

Next week I am going to Madrid for two weeks to volunteer with International Volunteer HQ on an Agriculture project, on a sustainable organic farm just outside of Madrid. I’m not quite sure what to expect, except that I will probably be the oldest person there, but I am looking forward to it!

After that, I will have a few days until I leave for Astorga, Spain where I will start hiking a portion of the Camino de Santiago. It‚Äôs only about 1/3 of the Camino but I‚Äôm still a little nervous about it. I‚Äôve done long day hikes before but when it‚Äôs over I usually eat a burrito, drink a beer, take a nap and thank God I don‚Äôt have to do it again the next day. So we‚Äôll see how 10-12 days in a row goes…

Everything will be documented on the ‚Äėgram (I am much better at posting there than here). More to come…

Tel Aviv Mini Travel Guide

Tel Aviv was my first experience traveling in the Middle East and I wasn‚Äôt sure what to expect. What I found was warm weather, great food, and a ton of history. I visited in late May 2017 for 4 days and I’ve documented some of my experiences and favorite places to eat as a mini travel guide of sorts. It’s no Lonely Planet, but we all have to start somewhere.

Getting to & from the airport

The Ben Gurion Airport (named for the founder and first Prime Minister of Israel) is beautiful, modern and comfortable. A taxi ride from the airport to the city center isn’t cheap, about $40-50 USD. ¬†If you can figure out where you need to go and you’re not in a rush, you can also take the train and a bus which costs about $6.¬†I did this on the way back using my best friend, Google Maps. You basically need to make your way to the HaHagana Railway Station and then from there, there are trains that go directly to the airport, or buses to the city center, depending on which way you are going.

Departure area at Ben Gurion

At the airport, you will not receive a stamp in your passport and this is because of the issues that may arise if you try to visit certain Middle Eastern countries in the future (some countries have denied entry to those that have an Israeli stamp in their passport). Instead of a passport stamp you will receive a slip of paper that you must keep with your passport for the duration of your trip. This is standard practice at the airport as of early 2013.

The agents at passport control will ask you a ton of questions both coming and going, but are generally pleasant.

Your passport “stamp”

 Tipping etiquette

In restaurants and cafes the minimum is 10% and that is what they expect regardless of how crappy the service is (which was sometimes the case). They will ask you how much you want to leave before they swipe your card which was definitely a bit awkward. Taxi drivers do not expect tips.

Exchanging Money

Bring your ATM or Euros to exchange. This probably goes without saying, but at first, for some reason we decided to try and get by just using our credit cards. However, this is difficult because most taxis do not take cards. You will also want cash for the smaller stores/souvenir shops. Uber exists here, but we found that there weren’t many drivers and it can be difficult to find one especially later at night. And when you do find one, he might just leave you in the middle of nowhere because the restaurant that TripAdvisor said was open on Fridays was actually closed.

The Israeli currency is the shekel and at the time of this trip (late May 2017) the exchange rate was roughly 3.5 shekels per USD (35 shekels is approximately $10 USD, or 9 euros).

Things to Do

1. Tour of Jerusalem

Whether you are religious or not, Jerusalem is a must see. This city is considered holy for Christians, Muslims and Jews. It is broken up into different quarters – the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Muslim Quarter. Jersualem is home to the Western Wall which is the holiest site where Jews can pray. However, the holiest site in Judaism is actually behind it, at the Temple Mount, which is also the third holiest site for Sunni Muslims (the first being in Mecca, and the second being in Medina), but where Jews are not allowed to pray. In the Christian Quarter, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains the two holiest sites in Christianity: where Jesus was crucified and where his empty tomb is.

Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The streets of the Old City are packed with tourists, tour groups, and shops selling everything from raw chicken to t-shirts with your favorite sports teams printed on them in both English and Hebrew.

The easiest way to visit Jerusalem is to join a tour – there are several to choose from and some of them bundle visiting Dead Sea or other sights within the same tour.

2. Float in the Dead Sea

I had to experience floating in it for myself. It’s almost hard to believe you can float in it until you actually do it. I was mostly curious to see how the water felt, if it felt “thicker” than other water due to the salt content. But it really just felt like regular water. You definitely don’t want to get it in your eyes though, they have signs warning against it. There are several beaches where you can access the Dead Sea, our tour group took us to Kalia Beach which is home to the lowest bar in the world at 420 meters (1378 feet) below sea level.

Dead Sea Tips

  • Tip #1: Don’t forget to bring cheap flip flops/sandals and sunscreen

I made this mistake and had to purchase both once we arrived at the Dead Sea. I didn’t want to ruin my good sandals with the Dead Sea salt water. Surprisingly, the sunscreen was more expensive than the Homer Simpson flip flops I bought. Originally I bought the flip flops with the intention of wearing them in the water, but found it was easier without them, although you do need to be careful because the rocks are slippery. They were definitely needed on the hot sand though.

  • Tip #2: Don’t shave the day of

I made this mistake too and my legs were stinging.

  • Tip #3: Bring a friend, or make a friend from your tour and ask them to take pictures of you

This goes without saying. You will definitely want to document this experience!

Pics or it didn’t happen. Also, not sure why that kid needed a floatie

3. Go To The Beach

Spend a few hours at one of the beaches in Tel Aviv, you can either rent a chair and umbrella for cheap or find a spot at one of the restaurants on the beach, where you can sit in low chairs in the sand under an umbrella and enjoy a glass (or bottle) of wine.

Beach Day

4. Go out to a Club

To be honest I’m not sure what the name of the club we went to was called, but it was in the Tel Aviv Port and it was outdoors which was awesome. There was a small cover charge to get in, but the music was good and it wasn’t overly crowded, just crowded enough. The dress code for Tel Aviv clubbing is overall super casual which I love because heels make my feet hurt and I’d rather dance in my Chucks any day.

5. Eat!

Saved the best for last, eating! Here are some of my favorite restaurants from the trip.

Cafe Shneor –¬†Pinsker St 20, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel

Had an amazing breakfast here one morning. Scrambled eggs with various small side dishes. The small salads are one of my favorite things about eating in Israel.

I could eat this for breakfast daily

The Old Man and the Sea –¬†Retsif ha-Aliya ha-Shniya St 101, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel

This was our second choice for dinner after Itzik Hagadol turned out to be closed. After being abandoned by our Uber driver, we used our offline Google Maps to make our way here. We had to wait a few minutes for a table and then once we sat down they immediately served us a variety of fresh salads and bread. For dinner I ordered chicken and it was just alright. Given that it is a seafood restaurant I should have probably gone with the fish. The salads and the free lemonade were delicious.

Almost a meal in itself

Yavne – Yavne St 31, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel

The menu at this bar/restaurant was a little cryptic with items such as “a very red meat, grilled on a citrus wood” or “thin steak floating on hard headed greens” without further explanations. However, the servers were more than happy to explain, and the food was very good, great flavors.

I think this one was the “thin steak floating on hard headed greens”. But I could be wrong. Either way it was delicious.

Falafel Gabai –¬†Bograshov 25,¬†Tel Aviv-Yafo,¬†Israel

Great falafel, especially with everything you can add to it (onions, carrots, pickles, hot sauce, etc.) Delicious after a night of drinking.
Hangover cure


Misc Thoughts on Z√ľrich

The first weekend of May,¬†I met my travel partner in crime Sarah in Z√ľrich, Switzerland for a 3 day weekend. Z√ľrich is the largest city in Switzerland. Z√ľrich is primarily German-speaking. Z√ľrich has two dots over the U and as you will¬†see I tried really hard to make sure I used it¬†every time I typed¬†“Z√ľrich” in this post.

Switzerland has four official languages (and none of them are “Swiss”). The languages are German, French, Italian and Romansh. In Z√ľrich and other parts of Switzerland, they¬†actually speak a dialect of¬†German called Swiss German¬†but write in Standard German (High German). Since all I know is “Guten Tag”, thankfully English is widely spoken as well.

They use the Swiss Franc (CHF) and not the Euro, which I managed to avoid until my last few hours¬†in Z√ľrich when I rented a bike and needed to put down a 20CHF cash deposit. And the smallest denomination the ATM would give me was 50CHF.¬†I tried to spend the cash with what little time I had left but still went home with some¬†of it.

Enough money for a cup of coffee. Just kidding, it’s not THAT expensive here. You can probably get¬†two.

Our first day in Z√ľrich was a clear, mild day. We arrived early Friday morning and signed up for a city tour with the front desk of our hotel when we checked in. Normally I like to take the hop on hop off buses in new cities, but this is one of the few cities I’ve been to that doesn’t have this type of bus. But this 4 hour city tour and guide via Best of Switzerland is well worth the money. The tour takes you through the Old Town, and then down through the affluent Gold Coast¬†of Lake Z√ľrich, across Lake Z√ľrich, and up to Felsenegg, which is a vantage point that overlooks the¬†valley below, the lake, and in the distance, the Alps.

Limmit River

Along the way we stopped for photos and learned fun facts such as¬†why Swiss cheese has holes¬†and that Tina Turner currently lives on the Gold Coast and is a Swiss citizen. The bus then drove onto a ferry which traveled across Lake Z√ľrich to the town of Horgen. The ferry trip was only about 10 minutes long but we all got off the bus during the short trip to take pictures.

Arriving in Horgen

On the other side of the lake, the bus drove us to a cable car lift, where we took the gondola up to Felsenegg and took in the beautiful views of the Alps and the city below. Thankfully, it was a clear day so we could see the Alps clearly. There was also a small cafe to enjoy a beverage or food outside on the patio, unfortunately we did not have enough time to sit for very long so I had to smuggle my small bottle of wine back to the bus, although it wasn’t really necessary to smuggle it, as our¬†tour guide was supportive of this decision. Then the bus took us back and the tour was over. All in all well worth the time and money.

View from Felsenegg

In general, Swiss people seem to be very polite and patient. Most cars immediately stop for you as soon as you look like you’re about to cross the street. People wait patiently for you to take a photo before walking past. On my way back to Barcelona, the security agent at the airport was very nice when my suitcase had to be inspected, and offered me some paper towels to clean my suitcase after I had wheeled it down the street in the drizzly weather. I have never met a more pleasant airport security agent. TSA should take notes!

The food is delicious and for the most part healthy. Over the course of our trip we ate fondue at Walliser Kanne, ate at two different cafeteria style buffets (Manora Restaurant and Hiltl), and¬†had an amazing fine dining experience at Ecco Z√ľrich. It’s a 2 Michelin star restaurant and is delicious.¬†We also got to meet the chef¬†and see the kitchen.

One of the delicious courses at Ecco
Photo op with the young chef at Ecco

Buffets/salad bars seem to be a thing here, but unlike many American buffets, they are healthy and delicious, are not all-you-can-eat and, like most everything else in Z√ľrich, expensive. Manora Restaurant is at the top floor of the Manor department store, on Banhhofstrasse, the main shopping street. The items you put on your tray each have a price, and there is a wide selection including salad, a juice and coffee bar, hot food, desserts, etc.

Not your run of the mill food court

Hiltl (which is actually a chain, they have several locations in Z√ľrich) is a restaurant in a converted post office, near the far end of the train station. It’s a cool little building with old fixtures from the post office still present. This buffet is all vegetarian with a lot interesting options (for example the Sellerie Salat, a salad of celery root, pineapple, walnut and yogurt). Hiltl doesn’t charge per item but rather you put everything onto a plate (or two) and then they weigh everything. But one piece of¬†bread is free! It’s the little things in life.

Do you need any stamps with your lunch today?
This plate came in at around $20 USD. But free bread, yay!

Travel Tips:

 The tap water is delicious, drink it!

–¬†If you are staying in Old Town take the train from the airport. You can get on a train to the main Z√ľrich train station for about $7 USD and in about 15 minutes. The train is clean and efficient much like the rest of Z√ľrich. The train station is huge and has a ton of shops and restaurants.

Z√ľrich HB train station

¬†You can rent a bike for free at the train station, just outside the station near track 3. This is what I did my last few hours in Z√ľrich, after Sarah had already left. You just need an ID (my California driver’s license worked fine) and 20CHF cash deposit, which you get back when you return the bike. I only kept the bike for a couple of hours but you can keep it all day. There are a ton of bike lanes in the city and the drivers seem to be generally relaxed so it is an enjoyable experience to ride a bike here.

Z√ľri Rollit station near track 3
One of the¬†only things that isn’t expensive in Z√ľrich
Exploring the streets

All in all Z√ľrich made for a fun weekend trip!

4 Days in Malta

For the past 6 weeks, a lot of my time in Barcelona has been spent studying Spanish and simultaneously neglecting this blog. I attend class 5 days a week, 4 hours a day and have been supplementing with Duolingo, podcasts, reading basic Spanish books on my Kindle, watching TV in Spanish and attending language exchanges I find on Meetup. After 6 weeks, my vocabulary has improved and I can read and write a little better and say basic sentences but once someone talks to me too fast I’m lost. It’s been fun though and I’m really enjoying it.

For my first break (for Easter weekend we had Friday and Monday off) I went to Malta. My friend Sarah from the US, who currently lives in Amsterdam, and I had planned a long weekend trip to Malta a couple of months before I had left the US.

To be honest, like many other North Americans, I hadn’t heard of Malta before. Malta is a fascinating island. It is actually a group of islands, the primary one being Malta itself. They speak two official languages, Maltese and English. Many signs are in English. And in case you were wondering, yes this is where the Maltese dog is believed to have originated from.

Other Malta Facts
  • It is about 200 miles south of Sicily
  • They use the Euro
  • They are an independent country, having gained independence from Britain in 1964. They drive on the left and you can still find red phone booths around
    the island
  • They have some of the oldest buildings in the world

There is a direct flight to Malta from Barcelona on Vueling, offered a few times a week in the evening. I left at 9:45pm Thursday evening and arrived in Malta close to midnight. The hotel we reserved was on The Strand which is a street facing the harbor. The hotel itself was directly above a crowded bar and there was a separate entrance for guests.

FullSizeRender 16
The Strand
Day 1 – Exploring Sliema

The first morning I had a few hours on my own before Sarah would arrive. After finding a delicious sandwich and juice at and organic juice bar, I made my way to Independence Gardens which was listed as one of the top 10 “Things To Do” for Sliema on TripAdvisor. It mentioned a cat sanctuary and statue. My inner crazy cat lady¬†was sold. In total it was about a mile walk through Sliema, and every so often I stopped to take pictures of the old buildings, painted windows and the traces of British influence. Once at the gardens, I admired the giant cat statue and the views of the bay with a latte and a couple of cats.

Street in Sliema
Independence Garden Cat Statue
Latte with a view

Back at the hotel, Sarah arrived and we walked down the Strand intending to take the ferry to Valletta, which is 1.50‚ā¨ and about a 10 minute trip. On our way, one of the tour guide operators asked us if we were interested in a tour of Gozo and Comino for the following day. We skeptically listened to his spiel until he mentioned that the ferry had an open bar, and then we immediately handed over our credit cards.

Day 2 – Gozo and Comino Island Tour

After an evening exploring Valletta and taking a packed bus back to Sliema, we went to sleep and the next morning at 9:30am we boarded the ferry for a 10am departure. 1.5 hours and a few plastic cups of wine later, we were in Gozo and were instructed to get on a bus, which would be the next part of the tour. Neither of us watch Game of Thrones but we were still little disappointed we wouldn’t get to see the Azure Window. We took pictures of where people seemed to think it used to be, I’m still not entirely sure we were looking in the right direction.


Back on the bus and to the next destination, Victoria, which is the capital of Gozo. In typical “organized tour” fashion, we were ushered to a particular place to eat lunch and encouraged to grab something to go so we would have enough time to check out the city. We ordered sandwiches and ate them at a small table in the middle of the street.

Victoria, Gozo

The next part of the tour was Comino Island so back on the boat we went. The Blue Lagoon has amazingly clear and beautiful water. The water was a little chilly and the small beach was pretty crowded with tourists but it was so beautiful.

Comino Island

That night we had dinner at Zeri’s, in the St. Julian’s/Paceville area. I liked this area of Sliema, to me it felt less “Miami touristy” than the Strand. We didn’t make reservations but they were able to seat us at the bar. The whole experience was great, the food was good and the service was excellent.

Appetizers at Zeri’s
Day 3 – Sicily Tour

The following day, Easter Sunday, we took a tour of Sicily that we had booked through¬†Malta Travel Net. This required waking up in the middle of the night at the insane¬†hour of 4:00am to be on the ferry at 5:30am per the instructions. However, the ferry didn’t actually leave until 6:30am. The ferry had a small selection of food and drinks, and a small gift shop.

On the ferry at 5:30am… Good thing those chairs were pretty comfortable

Once arriving in Pollazzo, Sicily we boarded a coach bus and the first part of the trip was an approximately 90 minute drive up through the province of Catania. I tried to stay awake but after miles and miles of the same view I fell asleep.

First views of Sicily

Finally, we stopped in a little town called Nicolosi and sampled delicious pastries and drank coffee.


From there we headed up to Mt. Etna which is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. We were given a little over an hour at Mt. Etna, with the option to purchase a gondola ride to the peak of Mt. Etna.

Mt. Etna

Sarah and I opted to sit in one of the restaurants and drink wine instead. Since we were in Sicily I decided I should order spaghetti which was decent, considering we were at a tourist trap.


While we were at lunch it had started raining and had gotten windy. As we walked back to the coach we were both regretting our outfits of sundresses and sandals and given that neither of us had read the description of the tour (or the weather report apparently), we were not sure what to expect next, and were not particularly hopeful. But it didn’t really matter, I mean, we were in Sicily and there was wine, what else could we ask for?


That question had an answer, and the answer was Modico. We boarded the coach and it headed back down towards Pollazzo to our last and final stop, the small city of Modico. Miraculously the sun came out. Modico was a pleasant surprise with its beautiful churches and narrow streets and staircases to explore.

View of Modico
One of the many staircases
Day 4 –¬†Marsaxlokk¬†

Sarah had a friend we had met up with that had recommended visiting Marsaxlokk, so our last day we took the bus to this quaint fishing village for lunch. We first had to take the bus to Valletta and then transfer to another bus for Marsaxlokk, the whole trip took about an hour. We had lunch at a delicious seafood restaurant near the water, and then walked around and admired the colorful boats.


All in all, it was a great trip to a beautiful and interesting place. Grazzi Malta!

¬°Estoy en Espa√Īa!

It’s been so long since I’ve posted that I almost forgot how to update my blog. Thank goodness for Google. ūüėā

So 4 weeks after I had applied for my visa, the consulate e-mailed me and told me it was ready and that I would have to bring my passport along with my travel itinerary for them to issue the visa. I scheduled to pick up the visa February 6th and back to San Francisco I went with my passport and a print out of my flight details. It took just a few minutes and I walked out with a visa affixed to my passport with the date I was entering Spain.

Now that I’m actually in Spain, I’m discovering that the next part of the process, obtaining my NIE card (an ID card for foreigners, which also permits my residency for up to a year), is also no easy task. The visa in my passport is actually only good for 3 months, you have to obtain the NIE card as well as part of the process. But that’s a blog post for another day.

I’ve been here for 9 days now and am staying in a small 1 bedroom flat I booked on Airbnb. My mom flew out with me and stayed for 6 days. We had a great time exploring the city, doing the touristy things, visiting the sights, shopping, eating tapas, and visiting family. Unfortunately the last day she was here, when we were supposed to go shopping and to Sagrada Familia, we were both sick from some bad seafood we had eaten at my aunt’s house the night before. Aunt was also sick, so we knew it was something we all ate. After sleeping until 3pm, I woke up¬†feeling a little better, but then homesickness kicked in and I half-thought about flying home with my mom¬†(there’s no way I would have done that, but the thought did cross my mind). Luckily, after a good night’s sleep I felt much better¬†in all respects.

After my mom left on Wednesday, I spent the next couple of days recovering, fighting a cold, organizing my apartment, doing some shopping for necessities and food, and watching Big Bang Theory (dubbed in Spanish for practice) on Netflix. I also spent some time with my family who live outside of the city. Today is Saturday, and it was pouring down rain most of the day, but I had some more errands to run. My big task of the day was to find a notebook to bring to Spanish classes that start on Monday. They had a small selection at Servei Estaci√≥¬†(which is a decent-sized, 7-level hardware/electronics/home goods store, that sells many things, although a bit pricey), but I wanted to see if I could find an actual office supply store, somewhere that sold notebooks that were not only more reasonably priced but had lined paper instead of grid paper, which is apparently a thing here. So I used my trusty Google Maps and searched for some places, and decided to go check out Folder Papeler√≠as which is about 2 km away. If it hadn’t been¬†raining I probably would have walked there, but instead I grabbed my umbrella and took the metro. It was about 4pm when I got there and the streets were empty (probably due to siesta time, or the rain, or both) and it was quite peaceful. My route took me up Carrer de Corint, which is not actually a street but a pleasant pedestrian¬†pathway.

Carrer de Corint
I found regular lined notebooks at Folder¬†for about 1‚ā¨, then took the metro back, and when I came out of the station it was raining even harder. But as¬†soon as I got back inside¬†my flat, the rain stopped. Go figure. I made a snack of crackers, jam√≥n, cheese and an apple, then went back out to check out the second organic grocery store of my trip, Woki Organic Market, which is on the cutest little street called¬†Carrer d’Ast√ļries. (The first organic store I went to the other day was called Obbio, which had a small but decent selection also) Woki is a small store like Obbio, and also pricey, I spent about 8‚ā¨ on 0.31kg of organic chicken (25.90‚ā¨ per kilo, which or almost $12 a pound!) I miss Whole Foods. For staples like crackers, rice, eggs, coffee etc I’ve been shopping at Mercadona or Consum which are both fairly close to me and have reasonable prices.
Carrer d’Ast√ļries

On my way back to the flat, I found another little store called Wolala that reminded me of a combination of two aisles of Target and a RadioShack, it had some of the things you could find at Servei Estaci√≥ but at cheaper prices, I bought a small bamboo cutting board for 2‚ā¨.

Tomorrow should be a clear day and I’m thinking of renting a bike to explore the city some more. Pics to come! Follow my insta @wineandpassports!

Visa Appointment Day

Wow, I just re-read my last blog post and it was super boring. I almost fell asleep reading it. Sorry about that. Luckily, I did everything correct for the Apostille crap because about 2 weeks later (mid-December) I received my self addressed stamped envelope back from Sacramento in the mail with the Apostille on my document. So with that, I had pretty much everything I needed except for the passport photos and the 3 forms filled out (Visa application, EX-01 and Authorization Form M790 C052), and the notarized document explaining why I wanted to go to Spain, which I had kind of forgotten about. Luckily that was something that could be whipped up in a matter of minutes, no need to wait on a government office. I wrote in the letter how I wanted to immerse myself in the Spanish culture and spend time with family, and summarized some of the requirements and what I had provided to meet those requirements.

Once I had that document done, I had to find a certified translator. I went back into my e-mail and re-read some of the e-mails I exchanged with Auston from TwoBadTourists¬†and he had mentioned a company called Debor Services¬†in Los Altos. Since I was running out of time, I immediately sent them an e-mail. My questions were answered quickly and I sent over scanned copies of the required documents and they were turned around within a few days. 2 days before Christmas I drove over to Los Altos and picked them up in person. The woman who did the translation was also a notary so two birds one stone. She had all the paperwork organized nicely and took the time to explain everything. I highly recommend her services especially if you’re local, but she will also mail documents to you if needed.
With that done, all I needed now was to fill out the forms and get my passport photos. Two days before my appointment, I took passport photos and with some guidance from blogs and the instructions provided with all the forms I managed to fill them out correctly. They took them at my appointment with no problem.That same day also went to FedEx Office and made copies of everything plus an extra copy for myself and got some cash out at the bank.

So… much… paperwork

The appointment itself was the next day on Monday, January 9th. I got to San Francisco 45 minutes early and found a parking spot close by. I went by Starbucks and used the restroom and ordered a chestnut praline latte (I’m gonna miss the holiday flavors) and walked around a bit. Then 10 minutes before my appointment I went inside. When I first envisioned the consulate I envisioned something like the passport office in downtown SF, but looking it up on Google street view a few weeks prior showed me otherwise, it’s actually a smallish building on a fairly quiet street. The door was locked but I was buzzed in.

My picture… not Google’s
The waiting room was full, I checked in at the front desk and sat down and waited. And waited and waited. Luckily I had nowhere to be for awhile. I think there was just one person processing visa applications. An entire family of four went in for their appointment ahead of me. I chatted with a guy who was also applying for a non-lucrative visa, although he had already been living in Europe for awhile. I sent some e-mails on my phone and looked at Instagram. I went out to my car to get my phone charger and make sure I didn’t have a parking ticket. Finally 2 hours after I had arrived, they called my name. I later overheard that Mondays and Fridays are the busiest times to go to the consulate.
I went through the door and to the back of the building and walked up to a window, like a ticket window. The appointment itself took about 15 minutes and went well. All my documents appeared to be in order. The woman processing my papers asked me why I wanted to go to Spain and I explained my reasoning to her, how I was taking a break from work, and wanted to live in Spain and spend time with family. She stamped a few things and scanned my passport, then asked me for the visa fee plus the authorization fee, which came out to a total of $151. She also asked what dates I was planning on being in Spain, and gave me an confirmation number and a website I could check the status on, and told me when the visa was ready I should come back with my passport and my airline itinerary. The most surprising thing for me was that she didn’t keep my passport. Everything I’ve ever read, and even the consulate themselves had e-mailed me and confirmed they’d keep my passport during the process. But I went home with it.

Now it definitely feels real, this is actually happening…

Checking the visa status… Again


I spent a few hours this morning figuring out how I’m suppose to get my criminal history report Apostille-ized… I received the report a few weeks ago but it was just a printout and I wasn’t sure what to do with it.¬† So I e-mailed¬†¬†asking what the next steps were. I received a response saying a new letter would be issued with a state seal and then I would have to contact the California Secretary of State.

I got the new letter (not sure if it would have just been sent automatically if I hadn’t asked) and then put it off for a couple weeks then went back and tried to figure out what to do. I printed out the DS-4194 from the¬†U.S. state department website¬†and started filling it out this morning when I read this:

Note:  The U.S. Department of State will not issue an Apostille for state-issued documents.

Above this it stated:

State issued documents destined for use in Hague Apostille countries may be authenticated by the Competent Authority in the state where the document was executed. A list of these authorities can be found on the Hague website.

I clicked the link for the Hague website and found my way to this page

It included a list of required items to submit, one of which was “A cover letter stating the country in which the document will be used”. No forms or anything to print out. What exactly is this cover letter supposed to say is unclear. Do I just write SPAIN in big bold letters and sign it? All joking aside I ended up using a trusty Microsoft Word Cover Letter Template and writing the following (in between To whom it may concern and my signature, obviously):

“Please find attached a document from the State of California Department of Justice that requires an Apostille certificate for the country of Spain, for visa/immigration purposes.”

The website also stated:

“The California Secretary of State authenticates signatures¬†only¬†on documents issued in the State of California signed by a notary public or the following public officials and their deputies”¬†

with a list of these public officials and their deputies including “State Official”, but “Criminal Identification Specialist I, Application Processing Program, Bureau of Criminal Information and Analysis” wasn’t explicitly listed, which is who signed my letter, but that sounded pretty official and it was also signed on behalf of the state attorney general and had the official state raised stamp/seal on it, so I assumed my document was legit.

The Secretary of State website also says that the paperwork can be mailed to the Sacramento office then links the words “Sacramento office” to a Contact Us page which shows the address of the Sacramento office and also another different mailing address. “So do I mail it directly to the Sacramento office or the mailing address?” I wondered. I decided to mail it to the mailing address which was also in Sacramento.

I made copies of everything and printed out my cover letter at my local FedEx Office then took everything to the post office. I wanted to track both the outgoing paperwork as well as the self-addressed stamp envelope so the postal worker suggested I use priority mail for both. I put my name and address on a priority mail flat rate small envelope with the pre-paid postage and then put that envelope inside a larger flat rate envelope along with the paperwork and a check for $20 and off it goes. So that’s done. Hopefully I did everything correctly. At least I didn’t mail the DS-4194!

Another update, I have my appointment scheduled for January 9th. There had originally been a link on the¬†consulate webpage¬†to make a Visa appointment through the VFS global website. When I was finally ready to make an appointment, I went to this link and all it would tell me was “There are no appointments available for the current month”. Ok, well what about next month or the month after that? I e-mailed the consulate and they basically just told me to keep checking back. I kept checking the VFS global website directly to no avail. Finally, I was poking around on the main consulate page again and saw a NEW link for making an appointment, not through the VFS global site, but another website called¬† This let me make an appointment for January 9th which is coming up fast! So let’s hope my Apostille-ized document comes back quickly, because I still need to get it translated. I’m cutting it close. What else is new…

Apostille of the What?

I started making some decent progress on the visa stuff about 2 weeks ago. I had printed out the live scan request form ( several weeks ago for obtaining my criminal history but that was it, the next step was to get fingerprints. I looked at the website to find the locations. One of them happened to be conveniently less than a block away from my office, and where I applied for TSA Precheck several months ago. There was no info on hours or anything, but I sent them an email and they emailed me back a couple days later, and told me the best walk-in times. So Thursday the 13th I walked in around 4pm and got that done. I had to bring my ID and the live scan form. It cost $57 and for some reason I wasn’t thinking and didn’t bring my entire wallet so I had to run back to the office to grab it.
I got something in the mail that said there was some sort of delay but then I got my criminal history print out the following week so it was a pretty quick turnaround. The next step is to get the “Apostille of the Hague Convention” which I still need to figure out. Plus it needs to be translated into Spanish by a certified translator. The criminal history report also can’t be older than 3 months from the visa application date, and in turn when I get approved for a visa it will only be valid for 90 days until I go to Spain and register for a Spanish ID card which will allow me to stay for the remainder of the time (up to 1 year), so I need to actually start making some solid plans…
I had requested the medical certificate from my doctor the same week. I actually need to update the documents required for the non-lucrative visa from my first post. Once I am done I will do a final post of everything that I needed in detail and how much the entire process cost. I failed to mention that for the medical certificate it needs to contain specific verbiage. I had a routine doctor appointment and while I was there I just asked if she could write up something saying I was in good health, which she provided, but then looking over the visa application I realized it needed to specifically say “the patient has been examined and found free of any contagious diseases according to the International Health Regulation 2005” so I emailed my doctor and she said I had to come back and get a TB test. So I got that done today and once the results are back hopefully that’s all she will need to provide the letter. Then I have to get THAT translated into Spanish.
Also, the SF consulate doesn’t seem to require proof of accommodation which is interesting. I confirmed that it wasn’t mandatory via e-mail but they also said “if you want to present any additional document that you believe might be of benefit to your application, you are free to do it.”
Also, another plug for, I took them up on their offer of unlimited e-mail advice/Q&A for $25. Well worth the money so far, it’s nice to have people to bounce questions off of who have been through the process before. Thanks guys!¬†

Spain or Bust (aka The Spain Visa Process in San Francisco)

Hello! Welcome to my blog. I came up with the name of this blog when I started traveling a lot for work this past year and using the hashtag #wineandpassports on some of my Instagram posts. But the ultimate travel experience is yet to come.

(If you just want to get to the Visa requirements, scroll down)
Last December, I talked to a guy at Crossfit who was dropping into one of our classes. It turned out he was originally from Madrid. Talking to him reignited a dream I’ve had since my early 20’s to live in Spain for awhile and learn Spanish. I’ve toyed with the idea on and off (mostly off). I remember talking to my sister about the Crossfit guy a few days later (never saw him again, unfortunately) and telling her how I wanted move to Madrid and learn Spanish. Her response was “do it already, you’ve been talking about it forever”. A couple of months later I was on vacation in Singapore and met an Australian expat who had just moved to Singapore 2 weeks earlier on a 3 year contract. A friend of mine had moved to Europe a few months prior. Both of these things helped to fuel my inspiration. I started to realize my sister had a point. I should just do it. Even though I was about to turn 37 years old, I realized it is never too late to follow your dreams. Also, being where I am in life actually had some advantages such as accumulating a decent amount of work experience and skills and more importantly a savings account. Not to mention social media accounts for communicating with my family and friends!
I started seriously researching what it would take to move to Spain for awhile. I even asked my cousin who lives in Spain, who works at a university, if she could recommend any schools to study Spanish. At that point, once I started telling other people about my goal, it started becoming real. She convinced me to look at schools in Barcelona instead of Madrid, which made sense because I had her and other family there. Besides, I love the beach and being close to the ocean.
Now you may be thinking, what about working and money? Being a single working woman with no kids has allowed me to put some money aside. Taking a few months or a year off wasn’t going to kill me, but I’d for sure burn through that savings without a steady paycheck. I’ve read a lot of blogs on the subject of taking a sabbatical and traveling. It provided much needed inspiration. I read a story about a girl who took a one year sabbatical on about half the money I had saved. So if she could do it, there’s no reason I couldn’t as well. There was also the option of keeping my job and working remotely… that is if they agreed to it.
There are just a few other logistical pieces to sort out, which are not trivial tasks.
My current job is amazing. I have been there for 5 years and I love it. It’s been a phenomenal experience and I wouldn’t change it for anything. Working for a fast growing tech startup is fun, unpredictable, always changing and extremely rewarding. So taking some time off or trying to work part time/remote would be a big change.
I own my condo, so some choices would have to be made. I could sell it, rent it out, or leave it as is and let my roommate stay there which would be the easiest option, but not a smart move financially. I did give her a heads up several months ago that I was considering this move and would rent the place out. If I rented it out, I might not have a place to stay when I came back, depending on when that was.
All My S%$t
I’d have to decide and figure out what to take with me and what to leave behind/get rid of. As a sentimental Cancer with ever changing hobbies and slight hoarding tendencies this might prove to be difficult. My snowboard, my mountain bike, my yoga mat, my Vitamix…. all things that would most likely have to be put in storage or sold. I also have a cat but my sister has offered to take her for the time I am gone.
Visa Process
A visa is required for staying longer than 3 months and requires a lot of paperwork and planning. I’m lucky enough to live an hour from San Francisco which is where the local Spanish consulate is which I would be required to visit. I’ve read other blogs where whole families had to take a 2 hour flight to their nearest consulate so I consider myself lucky. I’m applying for the non-lucrative visa option which basically says that I’m going to Spain on my own dime and won’t be working for a Spanish company while I’m there. I could also apply for a student visa, but it would only be good for the dates that I was actually enrolled in a language school, and I wanted to have more flexibility than that.
This is a list of the documentation I will have to gather to submit with my application. I will also have to make an in-person appointment with the local consulate in SF at least 3 months in advance.

Updates highlighted below 1/13/17. Please also refer to the instructions from the SF consulate or from your local consulate.
  1. Application Form РThe main application form for the Spanish residence visa, downloadable from consulate website.
  2. Notarized Document РI left this off the original post. I also needed a letter explaining why I am requesting this visa to go to Spain, the purpose, where I plan to stay, etc.
  3. Passport Photos¬†‚Äď Two passport photos will need to be sent in with the application.
  4. Passport¬†‚Äď I’ll need to provide my passport and I think they keep it during processing. Which means I won‚Äôt be able to travel internationally while my visa is getting approved.
  5. Residence Form¬†‚Äď Separate application (EX-01), for Spain residence permit which is separate from the residence visa. Also downloadable from the consulate website.
  6. Medical Certificate¬†‚Äď Medical certificate from a doctor stating I am in good health and don‚Äôt suffer any illnesses that would threaten public health. The certificate needs to be signed and on a doctor‚Äôs letterhead and needs to be issued in the current place of residence. It needs to specifically state “the patient has been examined and¬†been found free of any contagious diseases according to the International Health Regulation 2005″. My doctor had no problem doing this.
  7. Criminal Record History¬†‚Äď Criminal Record History from either my home state (California) or the FBI (if California didn’t issue background checks, but it¬†looks like they do). This can take 30-60 days to process. Then, I will have to get the document legalized by something called the “Apostille of the Hague‚ÄĚ stamp. This process can take another 1-2 weeks. And then, the final document has to be translated into Spanish. This was quicker than I thought, likely because I could go through the state and not the FBI. The next two blog posts cover this in more details.
  8. Health Insurance¬†‚ÄďTravel/health insurance which covers emergency medical expenses and repatriation services with minimum coverage of 30.000‚ā¨. The blog I read used World Nomads so I will check them out. I did end up going with World Nomads which was accepted.
  9. Proof of Sufficient Funds¬†‚Äď I will have to show my monthly income or savings account to prove I have enough money to live on in Spain. I showed the last 3 months of my savings account and my stock plan from work.
  10. Proof of Accommodation¬†‚Äď A rental, lease or ownership agreement to prove I have a place to stay in Spain. Or a letter from my family saying I can stay with them.¬†Oddly enough, this isn’t a requirement according to the San Francisco consulate, but is required at other consulates. However, I included it anyway just to be safe. Since I have family there, it was easy for me to ask for a letter from them inviting me to stay. My cousin also included a copy of her ID and a recent bill in her name. I have read on other blogs that an Airbnb or other type of reservation, even if not for the entire year, is acceptable as well.
  11. Visa Fee¬†‚Äď Visa fee is $140, payable by cash or a money order.
  12. Authorization for residence M790 C052 – I also missed this the first time. This is another form downloadable from the consulate website. There is also an authorization fee associated with this. In my case it was $11, on top of the $140 visa fee. I brought $200 cash to my appointment (for both the visa and this fee) because I wasn’t sure how much this would be.
There were two additional steps that don’t apply to me:
  1. US Residency¬†‚Äď If you‚Äôre a US resident but not a citizen, you have to prove your valid immigration into the US.
  2. Spouse/Family РIf you have a spouse or family you will have to repeat the above steps for each of them.
My goal is to be in Spain by March 2017, so as you can see I have a lot to think about and get done in the coming months….¬†