Entry 11: Another Lesson Learned

As you probably know, I havent been updating my blog with the rapidity and thoroughness that typified my earlier posts, however there is a good reason for this that requires some explanation. Traveling around a foreign country on almost a weekly basis makes you forget about why you’ve come here in the first place. At the outset of the trip I made it clear I was here for school and anything that happened afterwords was an extra bonus. But when you’re in the moment and living the dorm experience; when people will invite you to events on a random basis and you’re faced with the daily business of food shopping, house chores and cooking, its easy to lose the original goal you came here for. This past week was a rude wake up call.

Dundee has an interesting way of assigning and handing in assignments. For the first month and a half, I had absolutely no papers, no tests, nothing but reading assignments and note taking, and with only 5 hours a class a week! My flatmates on the other hand were handing in assignments on almost a weekly basis and fuller schedules; making me the laziest person on earth. By mid October this had changed: suddenly I was faced with a 1,000 word assignment and a 3500 word essay. For anyone reading this who thinks “why is he complaining”, you have to realize that since I was only doing readings for the past month, the last essay I did for a class was back in May for finals. Being in another country, with different professors who have different standards makes “getting in the groove” of writing a full blown report overwhelming. Add to that the traveling (in fact as we were in London, I was in the process of writing a paper).

Despite my initial difficulties in starting my essays, both were completed on time and handed in a week from each other; and for another two weeks I eagerly awaited my grades. The first paper I got back recieved an A3 (A-) and how happy was I that I was sure the next paper would do just as well! This sadly was not to be. We filed into class that day with high hopes of getting a decent grade on this assignment. However, as our professor handed back our papers it was like a bomb of melancholy had dropped. We all did poorly and I especially was shocked with my grade; I had never been so confused, angry and frustrated in the history of my academic career. Why had my one paper done so well while this one so poorly? After looking inwardly for a day or so I realized that the type of paper that was asked was something I had never really done before. It was supposed to be a critique of what I had learned in class for the past five weeks written in my own words with supporting evidence from the text. I have always hated writing about myself and as a result had a hard time contextualizing my thoughts. Compounding this was the traveling and going out with my friends. The dorm life experience was new to me as for the past 3 years, I lived at home and would commute to campus. Now in my senior year I had to catch up and as a result, my grades suffered.

As of now, I’m working on my final two essays of the semester before finals and just booked a flight to Dublin. Although my previous paper was a disaster, I’ve recognized what went wrong and am determined not to make the same mistake again. I’ve set daily page quota goals for myself in order to stay on task without overwhelming myself and have kept in contact with both of my professors. I remember in my introduction letter to the program I said I wanted to come to the UK so as to prove to myself that I can accomodate a social life into my academic life successfully and thus I feel that even though last week was a rude awawkening, it was another lesson learned.

Entry 10: London Part III

This is the final entry of our trip to London. Seeing as so much has happened in the interim, I can only afford to do a brief synopsis and let the pictures do the rest. We spent our day walking Carnaby and Oxford Streets; the main fashion districts of the city. Carnaby Street is known as the “Birthplace of MOD fashion”, a style popularized by The Beatles and especially The Who in the early to mid 1960’s. The street is charming and has plenty of places to shop but be prepared to pay a steep price! Oxford Street offers a wider variety of stores and styles but the prices are no different, and being there on a Saturday was a harrowing experience in and of itself! If you are a music geek like me, I recommend going to HMV on Oxford Street. Nothing I write can describe the amount and variety of music they carry. I even did a little experiment and went in search of several relatively obscure bands; the Field Mice, The Pastels and The Wedding Present and found all three with a variety of albums! What was strange was they carried music by “The Feelies”; an indie band from Hoboken, New Jersey who arent even carried in the United States!

We then ate lunch at Chinatown in London and it had to be some of the freshest Chinese food i’ve ever eaten; and this is speaking from someone whose been raised on it! After Lunch, we proceeded down Covent Garden where there were plenty of small shops and street performers to see. It reminded me very much like Greenwich Village in New York.

Our night in London concluded with a pint of Lager at a local pub with a couple of our English friends. A perfect way to end a perfect trip!

Carnaby Street Entrance

Carnaby Street Entrance

another view

MOD store

MOD store

Chinatown

Chinatown

IMG_2024IMG_2025

Entry 9: Guiding Star-London Part II

Our first full day in London ended on a very successful note. We enjoyed some of London’s top attractions without incident and were able to navigate the streets of London without getting lost; and when we did miss a street or lose sense of direction, we the map we were given at the tourist office pointed us in the right direction. But we still had a lot to learn, about our environment as well as each other.

We were dead tired by the time we returned to our tiny room on Guilford Street. Our feet sore and aching and exhausted from a day of exploration and discovery, we took time out to refresh ourselves and settle in for a long night of playing cards before it came time for one of us to fall asleep; signaling the end of the evening. Suddenly we heard a knock at the door; not knowing who the person was (all of us being in the room), we curiously opened the door thinking it was housekeeping. However much to our surprise it was UK student who was roaming the halls looking for people to go on a pub crawl. For his sincerity and eagerness, the majority of the group (myself included) decided to hang back and call it an early night (hoping to get up around 8:30 the next day) while Andy went ahead and joined in the pub crawl. Over a half hour later Andy returned, with a dejected look on his face. We were perplexed because he was back so soon; but when he explained to us why it all made sense. Apparently they spent some time unsuccessfully trying to get others to join in this impromptu pub crawl; after which they took the tube to Leicester Square; at which time the organizer asked for five pounds for wrist bands before Andy decided to head back to the hostel. Note to all travelers, you’re not the only person who likes your money; people will take any advantage to scam you out of some cash, no matter how small. If the person organizing the event was able to get at least 4 people to go; he would have made almost the equivalent of $50.00 just by giving away cheap wristbands.

You should be wary of people who offer you deals that are too good to be true, they could be after your money. However there are some deals that are worth taking advantage of. The way we found out about the all day rail passes was from Andy who was given one for free shortly after he arrived in London. Since the rail passes are good until 1 am, when tube travel is at a minimum, people who no longer need them willingly give them out to others who do. Not only are the rail passes good to take, extending the offer is also a common courtesy. Other good deals revolve around attractions. Lucky for us, we had our London Passes which let us into everything we wanted to see, but if you don’t have one or go to a sight that doesn’t accept a London Pass, you could still get money off if you ask if the Concession price includes students. A Concession is anyone who does not fit in the price range of Adult, Child or Group, and can include senior citizens, the disabled and students. The concession policy may vary depending on site and in some cases you may need to pay the adult price; but this is only slightly more than concession. A good rule of thumb when travelling in general is to be a shrewd tourist. Make sure you research the prices of each site beforehand and see if the money is worth the attraction, at the same time ask if there are special rates that could benefit you in the short term and save you money.

Our second day in London started at 10; after grabbing a coffee and breakfast from Costa and heading to the tube station at Russell Square. Today’s trip would be to Big Ben and Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Benjamin Franklin’s House and The Globe Theatre. Although the itinerary appears daunting, in fact many of the sites we only wished to take pictures of (The Franklin House and The Globe being the only two we wanted to tour). The tube for Russell Square dropped us off at Westminster Station; in the heart of the capital. As we walked out we were greeted by the imposing structure of the clock tower of Big Ben, with the Houses of Parliament behind and Whitehall to the right of us. Although “Big Ben” has been used in reference to the tower, it is actually the name given to the bell, shortly after the completion of the clock tower in 1859. The tower was designed by Augustus Pugin; who fell into a bout of madness shortly after completion of what would be his final masterpiece. The clock turned 150 years old on May 31st 2009 and today stands as a testamate to Pugin and Victorian engineering and Neo-Gothic style. The clock was meant to be an addition to the new Parliament; that had just been completed, in the same style. There is a wonderful exhibit inside the clock tower that talks of the history of Big Ben from conception until today, however we had a full day ahead and had a lot to do. Across the road from Parliament is Westminster Abbey; where the crowned heads of England have been crowned and St. Mary’s Cathedral; where the members of Parliament would go to church as well as the resting place of Sir Walter Raleigh after his death in the Tower of London. Unfortunately for us, Westminster Abbey did not accept the London Pass and with a concession rate of £12.00 (three pounds under the regular adult price), we decided to just visit the gift shop, St. Margret’s and took as many pictures of the outside as possible. Moving from Westminster Abbey, our group split up; Andy to explore on his own, while the remaining four of us walked through St. James’ Park to Buckingham Palace. St. James Park is a quaint outdoor park located just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. Although we didn’t go into explore further, we noted the beautifully manicured gardens bedecked with colorful flowers and beautiful sculptures. Across the road is the Guard’s Museum which has many exhibits pertaining to the history of this famed regiment whose guards patrol Buckingham Palace and have become a symbol of British national identity. Several yards beyond St. James’ was the gilded gates of Buckingham Palace; the residence of the Royal Family. This palatial home was first built in 1703 by the Duke of Buckingham and later acquired in 1761 by George III.

Although King George had bought the home, he did not live in it (leaving it for his wife Charlotte instead). It was not until 150 years later that Queen Victoria became the first monarch to permanently reside in the home. The day we went the palace was also closed for some unknown reason; however the flag was at full mast showing that the Queen was in residence. To see this beautiful home and the surrounding gardens made me feel awestruck as it is a true symbol of the power of the English Monarchy; although its power has been limited over the past several centuries. It’s unbelievable that within a few hours we saw some of London’s most famous landmarks and our day had just begun!
Moving from British politics to American, our next stop took us to the Benjamin Franklin House on Craven Street. Between 1757 and 1775, Franklin lived in this modest three story brick home on London’s south east end where he developed some of his most famous inventions such as the Glass Armonica and Bifocals as well as harnessed electricity with his kite experiment. Ironically it was also here where Franklin fought for equal representation of the colonies during the turbulent years of the Stamp and Tea Acts and stands as the only home of Franklin’s that still survives.

Our tour started with a brief introduction by a docent and then a short film on the role of the home as a boarding house during the time Franklin resided there. Next we were introduced to a costumed guide in the role of the daughter of the housekeeper who knew Franklin who then led us through various rooms of the house which had films with sound affects showcasing each part of Franklin’s life in the home. The guide was excellent and played her role very well; it was all the more impressive in that she was in perfect sync with the audio so that it was almost as if she was interacting with the real Benjamin Franklin. If you are expecting a home with an interior decorated during the time Franklin stayed, you’re out of luck. Seeing as the home had been lived in by Franklin for an extended period of time and until recently has been turned into a museum, it is impossible to interpret the home at any one period of Franklin’s life, therefore the decorations are kept at a minimal, but the experience and tour are certainly worth it! My favorite part was seeing some of Franklin’s personal items; such as his bifocals, wallet and several letters written from the home. This house is a shining testament to the impact Franklin made on America and indeed the world.

After our visit to the Franklin House, we decided to head over to the Globe Theatre in Southwarke; but before doing so needed lunch. A few yards from The Globe Theatre is The Real Greek, a fantastic little Greek restaurant that serves authentic Greek food and delicacies for affordable prices. The souvlackie was great and proves that England is not just “Steak and Kidney Pies” and pub food. After a satisfying lunch we headed further back in time to Shakespearean England and the flowering of English literature.
Although the original theatre burned down in the mid 17th century, the reconstructed Globe was lovingly crafted using period construction techniques over the course of 27 years. This mammoth task was directed by exiled American actor Sam Wannamaker and would not be possible without a large amount of money from investors of high re-known to ordinary people. The visitors center shows how the building was constructed from the planning phases, to the completion of the thatched roof; as well as the many costumes, props and musical instruments used to bring the spectator back over 400 years to the time of Shakespeare. The tour then took us to the interior of the theatre itself and our guide was very knowledgeable and friendly. Walking inside the Globe was like taking a trip back in time with hand hewn floorboards, thatched roof and sturdy roof beams. The hand painted stage was the definite centerpiece; two columns made from single logs dating over 400 years old were turned into columns and marbleized using period painting techniques to add a splash of color to the stage. Figures and designs were also painted on and around the stage area (with trap doors to raise and lower actors where need be). One can only sit back and imagine being there in the early 1600’s and being astounded by the violence of Romeo and Juliet or the comedy of Much Ado About Nothing after paying an amount equal to a week’s salary to see it.

It was getting late by the time we returned once again to 21st century London, but we still had plenty to do. Next to the Globe and literally in front of the Millennium Bridge is the Tate Modern Art Gallery. This museum houses a large collection of modern, post-modern and impressionist art and has ongoing travelling exhibits throughout the year. The museum is free to enter and is open until 9pm; so if you see many sites closing after 6 but are still thirsty for more sightseeing than this is the place for you! Although there were plenty of van Gogh’s, Picasso’s and Dali’s, there was not enough to keep me interested; sorry I am not one who believes hanging silver with dental floss from the ceiling is a “juxtaposition of life and fantasy”, and the special exhibits did not accept London Passes so we decided to catch up with Andy and go out to dinner.

We met Andy in Trafalgar Square; he had apparently come across a free concert series at St. Margaret’s Church nearby and checking out the National Gallery on Trafalgar. We immediately began to scope out places to eat; all for naught as it was 7pm on a Friday night and most of the pubs were packed. In such occasions we relied on MacDonald’s; which serves food past 8 and gives a place to sit. There we deliberated over what we would see before the night drew to a close. Andy suggested that we visit the National Gallery; not only was it free, but also offered a wide range of art from the medieval to modern era with some of the most famous paintings in history on display. With that we quickly woofed down our “small Macs” and headed off for the museum.

Like the Tate Modern, the National Gallery was open till 9 and free. It also had a wider selection of art from all around the world and from all major periods of art history. By walking its halls one can view the major changes in artistic thought and creativity. My favorite gallery was the English masters of the 18th century. Seeing William Hogarth’s “Marriage Ala Mode” up close really hit home for me. As fan of 18th century culture, I’ve seen his engravings and paintings in books many times. His attention to detail and the way he designed his paintings as a series that told a story can be considered the earliest form of “Pop Art”. What’s more, my Julie; who had never seen his work, really got into the images and was curious with how the story progressed in each. It’s heartwarming to see someone who has never heard of an artist you like automatically get sucked into an image, it made his work seem new to me and I took each painting in.

Before visiting the National Gallery, I never thought one could fall in love with a painting; I thought art was something to be admired, to be studied and observed. I thought art was to be placed on a historic plane and compared; who influenced who, what image was groundbreaking enough to be engraved into national memory, but after viewing “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat” by Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842), my views changed dramatically. It was just after seeing a grouping of Gainsborough’s in the English Masters wing that I decided to go on my own; while Jen, Julie and Laura took a break. As I walked into the French school wing I saw to my right I saw her. Her hazel eyes staring into me, her face with that welcoming expression of youthful curiosity and her right hand almost beckoning me, she seemed more real than just a painting, as if she was just standing there frozen in time. Le Brun had made a career of painting in the salons of Paris throughout the late 18th and early 19th century; even marrying a wealthy art dealer. By the time she painted her self portrait, she was 27 years old, but looked not a day over 20. It might have been the result of artistic bias on her part, but it nonetheless kept me entranced enough to stare at the painting for 15 minutes. I knew now why people find the Mona Lisa so entrancing, but to me she was nothing compared to the 1780’s painter in a straw hat.

By 9pm the museum had cleared out and we looked out over the lights of Trafalgar Square turning its fountains into a purple hazed light show and the column of Lord Nelson (who won the battle which the square is named after) silhouetted against the lights of Big Ben and mini-cabs. We took the tube to Russell Square and glanced at the postcard of the painting that had entranced me at the gallery until we arrived back at the hostel and awaited our final day in London.

Author’s Note: As I was writing this I drew a parallel between my admiration of the painting and love of living in Europe. I came here at first as a student who came for a specific goal of learning, only to return home in December to graduate. But with each passing day I’m falling more in love with the idea of eventually going to graduate school with the possibility of living here permanently. I dont know whether this is possible in the near future or not, but what is for certain is that night walking out of the museum i made a wish for myself; tossing a pense into the fountain. I know anything and everything that has happened to me up until now has been another checkpoint in moving towards my dreams. Anything I can imagine myself doing I know I can make it possible and that evening at the gallery changed me, it changed how i view the world and myself. With each passing day I am not only discovering a new part of my physical world, but also my inner spiritual world, and that has been the theme of my study abroad experience from day 1.

Too Busy For My Own Good

The Eddies open for The UK SUBS

The Eddies open for The UK SUBS

Hey Space Cadets! Well I have some good news and some bad news; the good news is I have just gotten back from an amazing trip to Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye and will be going on another trip to Edinburgh this coming weekend! The bad news is I haven’t finished my London posts nor have had the time to write anything new (on account of school catching up with me). I promise to have the final entry of my trip to London this week and to have Loch Ness and Skye by the beginning of next. In the meantime here’s some video of a couple of punk concerts I went to while over here! the first is from a UK SUBS gig I saw the second week I was in Dundee. One of the opening acts was a local band P.P.C. who played a phenomenal set! the sound doesnt do them justice! the second and third are from “From the Jam”; made up of original Jam mambers Bruce Foxton (bass) and Rick Buckler (Drums) with Russell Hastings on guitar and vocals. The night I saw them, the original drummer was ill so the drummer from Big Country joined in to back them up. The Jam were not your typical punk band and blended elements of R&B and old school ’60s rock and roll to ignite a movement known as “Mod Revival”. I’ll be seeing their ex-lead singer Paul Weller later on this month and will do a full concert review!

I hope this satisfies the hungry masses for now! Again sorry about the delay; but I promise to be squared away by the end of the week!

P.P.C.

From the Jam

From The Jam (Better version courtesy of daisydundee)

Entry 7: London Part I- written 10/27/09

When one thinks of London, they think of red, double-decker busses, Big Ben and friendly Bobbies going “pip pip” and “cheerio”. But these caricatures pale in comparison to actually experiencing this vibrant city first hand. To arrive at King’s Cross station at 9 pm after a 6 hour train ride, navigating the streets at night to find a hostel with only a cell phone for a map, climbing the top of St. Pauls Cathedral and having an order of rice with chicken and fish at a Chinese restaurant is to truly understand London in all of her complexity, spectacle and diversity. My adventure in London will stay with me not just for the rest of this trip, but for the rest of my life.

A large amount of time and planning went into scheduling our trip to London; starting with our “travel meeting” our first week in Scotland. A proper date had to be picked, a hostel booked and train tickets bought. The fall semester at University of Dundee does not have a designated vacation break like the spring term; but it does have a “Reading Week” that allows students a chance to catch up on readings and assignments. This break is not the same for everyone and falls on separate dates depending on what school you belong to (for instance School of Humanities Reading Week falls on the week of 19th October). We decided during our travel meeting that this would be the best date for those who wished to go for the trip and to ensure that the trip would not interfere with our studies, we decided to leave Wednesday the 21st, October and return Sunday the 25th; giving us enough time to hand in assignments at the start of the week and returning before class on Monday. We were going to be travelling in a small group which made planning and travel easy to coordinate. Julie, Jen, Laura and bought our train tickets together as well as a four bed hostel; ensuring safety and security.

When looking up hostels (especially in London), you want to ensure that the one you plan on booking is: safe, close to transportation and attractions. We used hostelworld.com to aid us in our search for the right hostel. This database provides a listing of hostels around the world with customer reviews, prices and booking schedules. First off, do not pick a hostel based on their website photos; which can be misleading and inaccurate. Instead give yourself the time to read the customer reviews with an objective eye. I stress objectivity because many of the negative reviews were written by people who had clearly never lived in a hostel before; complaining the beds were too hard and the showers were too small. Do not expect a hostel to be a hotel, a hostel is meant purely as a place to come back to at the end of a day’s travelling and nothing more. Concern yourself with questions such as “how clean is it?”, “Does it have indoor plumbing and heating?”, “is there a safe place to put my belongings?”, “how far to the nearest bus, train and underground depot?” and “is the price worth it?”. The hostel we booked was “Smart Russell Square” at 71 Guilford Street near Kings Cross Train Station and the Russell Square Underground. Our four night stay would cost about £100.00 which included a room for four with two bunk beds and a sink, showers with separate stalls, laundry facilities (paid for separately) and lockers (for an extra £1.50 a night). The hostel had everything we needed: Bed, plumbing, heating and location. In fact we were not too far away from the Charles Dickens House and British Museum; we now felt comfortable with our choice in hostel, but now that accommodations had been settled, the question of what attractions to see came up.

London has a wide variety of museums, landmarks and attractions, but with only 4 days to spend and limited funds we had to choose wisely. After doing some research, Julie came across a website advertising a “London Pass”; a card that lets you into over 55 attractions free and discounts at up to 64 stores and restaurants. The pass can be pre-ordered to be used for a day to up to a week for a nominal fee. As we were arriving Wednesday night and leaving Sunday afternoon, we chose the 3 day London Pass; which cost £56.00. For those who also wish to not pay full price on travel in and around the city, there is an upgraded pass that includes discounts for busses and tube trains; albeit at a steeper price. After ordering the passes, we set about creating an itinerary for places we wished to see. We decided on 10-12 destinations (which included the Tower of London, The Globe Theatre, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Benjamin Franklin’s House; all free with the London Pass). After creating the list, I looked up opening/closing times, special events and seasonal hours of the main places we wished to see; giving us the chance to plan out our days when before our arrival. With the Hostel booked, the train tickets in our pockets and London Passes only needing to be picked up at the nearest London tourist office, we were ready to head south of the border into England!

It was a cold and drizzly day Wednesday 21st October; certainly not perfect travelling weather. I had spent most of the morning putting my room in order, getting the last of my packing done and even getting a haircut. Several weeks prior I had bought a backpack from Mountain Warehouse near Wellgate in Dundee. The volume measured 50 liters and only cost £45.00; a good price considering it was marked down from £70. Mountain Warehouse also gives discounts after the first purchase of up to 10% so not only is there a wide variety of camping and backpacking equipment, but they come at a price cheaper than some of the other stores in Dundee. I figured 50 liters would be enough to get me through 4 days travelling; but to make sure, I only packed the bare minimum of essentials so as to make room for any souvenirs I was to pick up on our trip. These essentials included 4 t-shirts, 4 pairs of socks and boxers, a bath towel, a washcloth, 1 pair of pajamas, and a cosmetics bag that included a travel bottle of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant and comb. I also brought band-aids, ant-acid and cold medicine just in case of myself or someone taking ill. As an extra security measure; because as the cliché goes it is better to be safe than sorry, I placed luggage padlocks on the zippers that could only be opened by key. I would be wearing the same jeans and sweatshirt for the next several days and was willing to put up with it so much as it saved space in my backpack and thus be less cumbersome moving to and from the train.

Our tickets said we would be leaving on the 2:17 out of Dundee for Edinburgh; switching to another train bound for London. The trip would take about 6 hours, with us arriving at our destination by 8 or 9pm. ScotRail is very reliable and our transport arrived on time and with our seats reserved, calmly sat down and awaited the slight jerk of the train moving underway. The ride to Edinburgh was pretty fast; we arrived in an hour and a half and had 10-15 minutes to have a quick break before getting on the next train; which arrived on time at 4-4:15. Again we sat down and waited for the next long leg of our journey.

After almost two hours on the rails, we were getting pretty hungry; luckily the train came equipped with a café-bar that served sandwiches, coffee, tea and alcohol (paid separately). The food was decent; I had a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, water and a muffin (costing a little over £6.00) and was enough to fill me up for the rest of the night. It was at this point I really felt like the rail cards and train tickets had paid off. It was a real improvement from the bus rides we took in the past; not only was the journey smooth and fast, we also got luxuries that a bus could not accommodate for (aside from the odd restroom).Our friend Andy (who decided to join us last minute) was at that very moment in the middle of an epic 14 hour bus ride from Dundee to London (seeing it as a cheaper option), and the trip soon became an ad-hoc “Consumer’s Report” experiment in transportation. As we let our food settle I took a last glimpse at Scotland as we crossed the border into England.

Suddenly a voice on the intercom “Attention, café-bah now open in cah K”. The strange accent amused all of us; in the time we’ve spent in Dundee we had come across few English people, and those we met sounded nothing like the nasally “posh”; snobbish, accent talking to us at that moment. It was clear to us now that we had to deal with another culture; completely different from the one we’ve been living with for the past month and a half and welcomed the challenge with enthusiasm as we comically joked about walking up to someone and saying “ ‘Ello Guvna!”. We had officially made it across into England at Berwick-Upon-Tweed in northernmost England/southernmost Scotland and soon made it through Newcastle, Doncaster, York and made it into King’s Cross shortly after 9 pm; shortly after Andy’s bus pulled into the terminal. We jumped off the train, backpacks in hand and no clue where to go next. It was nighttime, we were in a crowded train station and no map whatsoever, it was time to collect our thoughts and strategize where to go next.

My first thoughts went to money. Although Scotland accepts English pounds, England (with the exception of certain stores) does not accept Scottish money; ergo the necessity to find a cash point (or “hole in the wall”) was vital; especially if we were to pay for the hostel that night with enough left over for travel expenses. After grabbing cash, we next needed to figure out how to get to the hostel. Jen and Julie both had the street addresses written down and; luckily for me, my phone had Google Maps.

After typing in the start and end points, we began our journey out into the streets of London.
We wandered around confused and frustrated for a good half hour. The map clearly showed an almost straight line from the station to the hostel; with the exception of one curve. But this turn was unknown to us because Google only bothers to mention major street names. I decided it be best to ask for directions to our destination. People in London are very friendly and if you have a problem with directions, they will be more than willing to help. We found a couple whilst walking around Russell Square (which was near the hostel to begin with). They took us from there and walked with us all the way to Guilford Street, talking to us all the while about America. We finally made it to our hostel; which was in a converted flat of apartments, and subsequently checked in shortly after we met Andy in the downstairs lounge. Our room was decent size and the matched the description and pictures on the website. The mattresses felt like rocks and the pillows I likened to plastic bags stuffed with newspaper; but what do you expect, it is a hostel and you won’t be spending your entire day indoors. I then took a shower in one of the public stalls. To save water and heating bills, the owners decided to use push buttons that you have to press and hold for the duration of time you needed to shower; at first I found this frustrating, but by the last day I had become accustomed to the awkward set-up. After getting our things in order, we tucked ourselves in for what would be a trial of our mental stamina.

The next morning we woke up at 8am; groggy, tired but excited to get our first daylight glimpse of London. After a quick breakfast we made our way to the Russell Square Tube Station that would take us to the nearest tourist office at Piccadilly Circus. Unlike New York City, the subway (or Tube) in London is very easy to navigate and after a day of travelling on it even someone as directionless as me was able to figure out how to navigate the London Underground. It is also extremely cheap to use; in fact if you arrive at the station around 9:30 am, you can purchase an “All Day Pass” for £5.60 which allows unlimited access to the Tube without paying for tickets! One of the strange things about the London Underground is that compared to New York City, it is very clean and doesn’t have the litter and graffiti you would find else ware. Instead you see beautifully tiled walls; and in some stations, flat screen projections. The one thing we universally disliked about the tube was that there was A LOT of stairs; most of them spiral, which gave us quite a workout jumping from one train to another. By the end of our trip we all assumed that we had burned off all of the calories we’ve consumed since arriving in the UK! When we exited Piccadilly station and entered London in a bask of light! All around us we saw the famed double-decker red buses, the small black livery cabs and grand Victorian buildings that look just as magnificent as they did when first built. We all looked at each other and just said “I can’t believe we’re here!”

After we grabbed our passes we decided to make The Tower of London our first stop of the day. We used the Tube for our transportation for the entire trip not only because it was cheap, but also because the stations were located near the sites we wanted to see; Tower Hill for example is located directly across from the Tower of London. We got in with ease using our London Passes and were happy to find out that we also gained access to a new exibet on the arms and armor of King Henry VIII. As we came closer to this imposing fortress, we were entering the hub of London’s history; this being one of the oldest structures in this historic city. It is unclear when the first structure was first built; excavations suggest the earliest was around the time of Roman Occupation. The River Thames offered the perfect location to transport goods from east to west and the fish that thrived there a ready source of food. The White Tower was the first permanent fortification; built shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066. The structure was intended to keep the populace of London at bay as William the Conqueror ascended the throne previously occupied by the Saxon King Harold. As time passed, additional towers, walls and buildings were added around the perimeter of the White Tower; turning the area into a fortified city within a city. Throughout the centuries, the tower has been used to fulfill many vital roles; such as mint, armory, barracks, royal palace and even a zoo, but none has been so celebrated as its role as prison and place of torture.

The first prisoner at the tower was Ranulf Flambard; Bishop of Durham, who was held captive in the tower in 1100 for extortion, however he later escaped and lived out the rest of his life in France. Other more famous prisoners included Sir Walter Raleigh (who established the failed English colony of Roanoke in present day North Carolina), Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn and Guy Fawkes among others. We were able to tour one of the buildings used to house prisoners and one does not need to look far inside to come up close with history. Many of the prisoners spent months, years; and in some cases their life, locked away in cells such as the one near the Beauchamp Tower. To pass the time away as well as leave a lasting memorial to themselves, prisoners carved their names, messages, coats of arms and decorative designs on the interior wall. These carvings still survive today and it is amazing that after centuries many of the carvings are still legible and clear as they were written. The tower has also been a place of execution for a select few; the majority occurring at Tower Hill just outside the walls. Private executions were reserved for nobility and those who were close to the King or Queen. For example, the execution of Anne Boleyn was ordered by Henry VIII to be carried out within the walls of the castle; showing her respect as well as preventing her from becoming a martyr via public execution. There is a memorial outside the chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincular dedicated to those who died within the walls of the tower that is near the spot where private executions were held. However the tower served as more than a prison and the Royal Jewel House is proof of this.

I cannot begin to describe to you how awe inspiring it was to see the crowned jewels of England. With each reigning monarch, a new crown or scepter has been designed and crafted by skilled artisans. Many of the crowns, scepters and orbs featured one-of-a kind objects such as the Culinan Diamond that adorns St. Edwards Scepter. The diamond is a hefty 503 carats and weighs 106 grams and until 1985 was considered the largest cut diamond. That year the golden jubilee diamond was discovered and weighed in at 545 carats and 109 grams. Both are housed in the jewel house today. Other items include a gold coronation spoon dating back to the 12th century (making it one of the earliest pieces on display) and the crown and coronation robes (woven with gold thread) of Queen Elizabeth II. The golden light of the room left all of us speechless; I still could not imagine how much time and effort went into the creation of each piece of jewelry, they were true works of art. But the before being a prison or a jewel house, the tower was first and foremost, a fortress.

This year marks a significant event in the history of Britain; for 500 years ago, King Henry VIII ascended the throne to become one of the most powerful and forward thinking monarchs England ever produced. To celebrate this historic event, the Tower housed a collection of arms and armor belonging to this larger than life king. Not only does the exhibit show every piece of armor owned by Henry VIII, but also sets it up in chronological order; whereby one can see the evolution of arms and armor as Henry’s physical health changed. One of the most impressive pieces of armor was not even complete! Towards the end of his life, Henry commissioned a German armorer to create a fanciful suit that demonstrated his status and money. However the only piece that survived was a magnificent helmet shaped like a grotesque head, with horns, glasses and grinning smile. It was so lifelike, I felt as though it was human. The arms and weapons on display at the Tower of London are true works of art. Even if you don’t find military history fascinating, a stroll through the White Tower is a must!

After spending three hours at the Tower, we strolled to the nearby Tower Bridge with its trademark drawbridge as well as the battleship HMS Belfast. The area surrounding the Tower is filled with history and one does not necessarily need to pay an admittance fee to visit all of the sites. Across the river in Southwark we found the ruins of a 12-16th century manor house as well as Saint Mary’s church (dating to the 13th century). We also saw a replica of the Golden Hinde (the flagship of Sir Francis Drake; who in the late 1500’s was the first man to successfully circumnavigate the globe as well as help defeat the Spanish Armada which threatened England in 1588). However for all of our travels it was getting late and we wanted to visit one more site before calling it a night. That’s when we saw the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the south end of the Millennium Bridge.

The year 1666 was not a particularly good year for London; as the previous year plague had killed off a large amount of the population and one year later a fire started in a bakery swept many of London’s old timber built buildings away. One structure that was hit particularly bad was St. Paul’s Cathedral; which burned to the ground. With the once tallest steeple in England turned to dust, a new church was to be built that would overshadow anything that existed their previous. Sir Christopher Wren was a scientist, architect and Renaissance man. His forward thinking concept for the new St. Paul’s was radical in that where as previous churches were constructed in the form of the cross with the steeple either fore or aft of the structure, Wren’s design would be rectangular with a dome at its center and the steeple to the western wing of the church. What Wren had hoped was to use the dome to transmit natural white light and transmit it throughout the structure; his inspiration taken from the workings of a microscope. Although his idea was controversial, the end result was magnificent!

The cathedral can be seen from quite a ways away and walking up to it inspires you with the ingenuity of those who built such a grand structure. This was the building that had survived four centuries and two world wars (the second war resulting in a famous picture of the cathedral surviving the flames of the Blitz). When you walk in, you are surrounded by sculptures and memorials of some of England’s greatest heroes and figures; including Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon in the early 19th century. The dome is intricately painted and decorated with gold leaf and naturally we were tempted to climb all the way to the top.

This feat was daunting in and of itself because not only were there a lot of stairs but (like the tube stations), they were circular staircases. We first climbed to the Stone Gallery; which gives you a better view of the ceiling decoration. Note, this is not for the faint of heart or those fearful of heights. I was getting dizzy just by looking across the gallery to the other side, but on a personal note, although I was scared, I never felt so close to God. We continued up to the top of the cathedral which required more steps and this time they were narrow and appeared rickety in places. I (with my heavy backpack) had the scenario of me falling to my death every five seconds, but by the time we reached the top and went outside, I knew it was worth it. From the top of St. Pauls you get the most magnificent view of London in all of its glory. It boggles the mind that people living in an age without the high-powered cranes ; that now rise out of the streets of London to build ultra modern skyscrapers and knowledge of high strength steel could build such a structure that so modern and sophisticated. However after 10 minutes of wind beating our faces and with the sky getting darker, we decided it was time to ascend from heaven back down to earth and the subterranean world of the crypt.

The Crypt at St. Pauls contains many of England’s greatest figures of note; however the highlight of this trip was seeing the tombs of Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington; who rose from humble backgrounds to become two of the greatest military heroes of their time. Nelson had defeated the larger navies of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France; once in 1798 in Egypt (known as the Battle of the Nile) and again at Trafalgar in 1805; where Nelson lost his life. Nelson is best remembered for his undaunted bravery in the face of combat and patriotic zeal for his country. Having lost an eye and an arm in battle, Nelson had proven himself to be an able and intrepid young officer that raised the Royal Navy from the ignamony of the American Revolution to success and glory in the Napoleonic Wars.
Whereas Nelson was a victor on the seas, Wellington weakened Napoleon’s forces on land. After successfully leading the allied forces of Britain, Portugal and Spain in the Penninsula of Spain from 1807-1813, Wellington earned the title of “the Spanish Ulcer” by Napoleon himself; as Wellington’s successes drew more troops away from Napoleon fighting in eastern Europe. When Napoleon returned from exile in 1815, the leaders of Europe turned to Wellington (Tzar Alexander of Russia stating “it is now up to you to save the world”). With that Wellington fought and won one final battle against Napoleon at Waterloo (a battle which has been known as one of the most important battles ever fought as it changed the map of Europe for over 100 years). After the Napoleonic Wars, Wellington became a governor of the Tower of London and made significant improvements to its defences and established military men in the position of Yeoman Wardens (the famous “Beefeaters”). Later in life he became an advisor to Queen Victoria and held various posts until his death in the mid 19th century. I have studied as much as I could on these two men and their remarkable lives fascinated me when I was in middle and high school. To be so close to them, to see their tombs, brought everything full circle for me as a scholar and historian.

We ended our day by going to “Ye Olde London” a pub down the road from St. Pauls. I had a Welsh Rarebit on Toast with bacon and a Pint of Fuller’s London’s Pride; as London as pub food can get. It was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever had, mainly because of the amount of activity we packed into one day and; in a way, was a celebration of us making it this far. The next day would certainly not disappoint!

useful links:

http://www.hostelworld.com/

http://www.londonpass.com/

London Slideshow

Entry 6: The Train Kept A’ Rollin’ Part III- written 10/27/09

This is the final entry for transport until we plan our flight to Dublin. London would take up too much room and requires a second entry which I will get around to after I get some extra time this week. nothing exciting here but very informative if you plan on traveling here!

Buses are inexpensive, efficient and easily accesable, but for a slightly higher fee, trains can deliver a faster, more comfortable and enjoyable experience. Before my trip, I was determined to cut costs wherever possible; choosing the cheaper Megabus route over the train when we planned short day trips. However after several uncomfortable and nerve-wracking bus trips and a personal revelation ignited by one of my flatmates soon changed my mind.

Since our arrival in Dundee, my friends and I had used the bus as a cheap way to travel for short trips in and around Angus and Fife. For the most part, one does not need to switch buses to get to their destination, and if you are making a trip last minute, you can easily hop on a bus at the nearest stop. More importantly, if registered far enough in advance, two bus tickets can cost between £10-20 in total; whereas a train can double that price to £30-40. This aside, personal experience with the UK bus system gained over the course of a month radically changed my perception.

First and foremost, riding a bus in the UK is not the same as riding one in the US. Although the buses might be the same double wide, 50-80 seater gas-guzzlers one finds with Megabus and Greyhound, you get two different travel experiences. American roads and highways (paved and built in the 1950’s; the golden age of the automobile) can easily handle buses of this size; whereas roads in the United Kingdom (as advanced as they were in the 18th and 19th century) are unable to cope with vehicles of this size. With every ride I took, the same scenario: big bus needs to make a turn from a main highway to a side road. Doing this requires a lot of coordination from the driver who has to make a turn so tight it can be considered a danger to pedestrians. I’ve seen many bystanders on a street corner come inches away from impact as the bus would; inadvertently, clip the sidewalk. There is also the stops (of which there are many). Picture yourself on a highway at cruising speed and then turning off at every exit down a winding road and stopping to pick up another passenger, then getting back onto the main road and repeating the process again. This occurs anywhere between 10-25 minutes and can be exceedingly annoying and nerve-wracking. Finally there are the traffic issues which are always an inconvenience. By the end of my first month overseas; and reaching the moment when we needed to book transport for London, I had reached an Impasse: dare I book an expensive, yet comfortable and fast trip on a train, or risk taking a cheap 14 hour bus ride from Dundee to London?

My knowledge of the UK rail system was limited to website ticket estimates and the seemingly naïve view that “if it’s a train it will get there faster but for a more expensive price”. My flatmate Sydney on the other hand had travelled throughout the UK prior to the start of the semester and suggested that a “Rail Card” was the best way to get cheap train tickets. Essentially a rail card is like a membership card for train travel. For £26.00, you can get a card that takes off 30% of the regular ticket price for a year. Best of all they have one specifically for students which gives additional discounts to students.
That week, Jen, Julie, Laura and I walked to the train station; passport sized photos for our rail cards in hand to fill out applications for the cards. The station freely hands out forms which we completed before making our way to the front desk where we held up a line of 20 or more impatient people as the attendant filed our cards and booked our tickets for London. In the end our tickets cost £37.00; which was only £10.00 over the price of the card. Booking the rail pass had already paid for itself and we could benefit from it for the rest of our stay! Excited about our new passes, we decided to try them out before the big trip and decided to go to a local destination.

We had passed Perth on our previous bus trip to Stirling. Although it did not appear to have much, the architecture of the buildings, the Blackwatch Museum, Scone Castle and the possibility to visit a local whisky distillery were enough to make the small town a destination worth seeing. The trip was going to be for one day and would give us enough experience with the train to get an idea of the service and comfort we would be expecting in our later travels. We had a group of 11 as well; making the journey all the more interesting. Unlike the London tickets, we bought ours for Perth on the day we were leaving. With the passes our tickets cost £4.50; without a little over £6. The train arrived on time and we took our seats in coach. The seats were comfortable and there were even booths with tables available for people who were lucky to get those assigned seats. For the rest of us there were drop down snack trays. There was also a snack cart that travelled back and forth that sold everything from sweets to red wine. Our train pulled into Perth 20 minutes after we left Dundee. It was almost identical to the experience of flying on a plane, except you get to see the countryside, it earned my seal of approval and I remember saying to myself “Wow, I love trains!”

The rest of our trip was uneventful. Since we had planned the trip last minute, we didn’t take into account that the museum would be closed on Saturday and that by the time our bus arrived at Scone, the last tour of the day was nearly over. However seeing the palace where the kings and queens of Scotland were crowned and wandering around the beautiful town of Perth made the journey worthwhile. Most importantly we now considered ourselves prepared for the trip we had been waiting for; 4 days and 4 nights in London, and what a trip it was going to be!

Useful Links:
http://www.scotrail.co.uk/
http://www.railcard.co.uk/

Home of the Blackwatch Museum, Perth, UK

Home of the Blackwatch Museum, Perth, UK

Royal Palace where Scotland's monarchs were crowned

Royal Palace where Scotland's monarchs were crowned

Entry 5: The Train Kept A Rollin’ Part II- written: 10/20/09

In my last post, I had mentioned planning trips on your own in Scotland; which gives you a lot of freedom as to what you can do; but there are other alternatives that take the hassle out of coordinating busses and trains and will even save you money! International Programs, International Café and different clubs (or “Societies”) also sponsor sightseeing trips in and around Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Like New Paltz, Dundee has an International Programs center located on campus that helps cater to the needs of foreign students who either have a hard time adjusting or wish to find out more about things to do and see during their academic stay at the university. After attending an international student mixer at The Union, we were told by the program heads that there was a sponsored trip to Arbroath Abbey and Glamis Castle; followed by an afternoon tea at the home of one of the university professors. The trip cost only £10.00 for the bus and admission into both attractions; which saved plenty of money for grabbing lunch and a couple of souvenirs! The only setback with the system is it was done on a “First Come, First Serve” basis; meaning that if you didn’t get your tickets early, you would have to be put on the waiting list if someone happened to cancel. Luckily for us we got our tickets in time and had a wonderful time out!

Our first stop was Arbroath Abbey; where in 1320, 100 Scottish nobles signed “The Declaration of Arbroath”, which established Scotland as a nation independent from England. This was the culmination of William Wallace’s and Robert the Bruce’s battles against the English at Stirling Bridge and Falkirk. The Abbey was first founded in 1178 by a religious order known as the “Tironesians”. The striking red color of the abbey and its outbuildings is a result of the use of red sandstone; fairly common in the Northeast of Scotland. The Abbey was used until the Reformation when the last abbot of the church; Cardinal Beaton, succeeded to the rank of Archbishop of St. Andrews in 1522 where in 1546 he was murdered by local nobles after burning a popular reformer at near the castle grounds. What remains is the shell of the cathedral, an enclosed area where the monks put on their ceremonial robes, the cloisters and Abbot’s House. The tour was excellent and despite years ofweathering, many of the original carvings and details can still be seen in the ancient walls of this hallowed site in Scottish history. What I found most amazing was the fact that the feet to the large support columns that held the large roof of the Cathedral were still visible and; by climbing up the bell tower above the entrance gate, can imagine what this spectacular church would have looked like in its heyday.

From St. Andrews we travelled to Glamis Castle; a 11th century estate that was the home to many of the great Lairds of Scotland as well as the birthplace of Queen Elizabeth II. Sitting in the picturesque countryside of Forfar, Glamis looks like a fairytale castle with tall rounded towers and Italian gardens. Inside a series of secret passages leading to dank armories, opulent dining rooms and gilded bedrooms guides the visitor and does not cease to disappoint. My favorite part about Glamis was the fact that I got to see and hear about people I was learning about in my Scottish History course! It was helpful in that I now had an image of who these people were and the lifestyles they led. I highly recommend going here!

Before leaving for our next stop, we sat down to have a quick bite to eat; and this is when I met my good friend Haggis. First off, I wasn’t intending on trying haggis at Glamis; as I had already packed a bag lunch and wanted to have it at a traditional pub. However, because Jen had ordered it, tried it, decided it wasn’t for her (I can’t understand why) and I decided to try it. Haggis is essentially a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced with onions and various spices and cooked in sheep’s stomach for 3 hours. When done properly it resembles meatloaf and has a nice flavor to it; but again it isn’t for everyone. In retrospect, I don’t see what all the fuss is over this dish and made me wonder about some of the foods we consider “delicious” in the United States. Hot Dogs for example are nothing but “Meat Slurry” stuffed in a pig’s intestine; which doesn’t sound appetizing in the least bit. If you ever find yourself in Scotland and are offered Haggis, ask for a small piece and see if you like it; it’s at least worth a try!

Our final stop took us to the home of one of the professor’s at Dundee several minutes from Glamis where we were given homemade cookies and tea. It was somewhat strange to visit a stranger’s home; especially with 50 other students! But our hosts informed us that if we wished to visit with a local family for dinner or a day out, we could do so through the International Programs office. The idea intrigued me and I am currently thinking of signing up for the host family program in the near future. It is a good way to learn about the local culture, family life and where the best places to eat, shop and visit are. From tea, we went directly to Dundee and arrived at 6 pm. Considering the bus left the University at 10 am, we had a pretty busy day, but for my travelling companions and I, it was far from over!

The university is not the only place that offers group trips at cheap rates. International Café; located at St. John’s Church Hall off Blackness Road, not only gives international students a chance to interact and make connections with locals, it also hosts a variety of events and trips geared towards making foreign students feel at home and welcome. After we got back to our flat, my friends and I went to the St. Johns where we heard of a trip to Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye from November 6-8 for internationals was being planned by the church and café. Although the trip would cost us £50.00, it would include transportation, a weekend stay at Ratagan Hostel near Loch Ness, and meals at the Hostel. Overall it was a good deal and we’re looking forward to visiting two areas of Scotland known for their beauty and folklore. However if you wish to visit sites that cater to your special interests, there is another option available.

As I mentioned in another post, the campus is host to a variety of clubs and associations that range from rucksaking (backpacking) to Forensic Anthropology to History etc. Many sponsor trips to areas throughout Scotland and the UK for members to participate in. For example, if you are the type that is into hiking and seeing the beauty of natural Scotland, the Rucksack Club is for you; but if you prefer seeing castles and historic sites, History Society would be better suited. I joined History Society after hearing my professor mention it in class and saying how several trips to Edinburgh, St. Andrews and possibly Fort George or Culloden Battlefield had been done by the society in the past. Intrigued I signed up for the society and within days got my first invitation to a trip to Falkland Palace and St. Andrew’s Castle. It would be a great opportunity to meet other people with similar academic and career goals, as well as visit some wonderful historic sites.

For the amount of things we were going to see, the trip was relatively cheap. For the bus and Falkland Palace, the total came to £15.00 and we gained free admission into St. Andrews Castle (normally costing around £5.00). Our bus left Dundee at 10am and by 10:30 we had arrived at Falkland Palace in Fife. First built in the 14th century, Falkland went from private home to royal hunting lodge over the course of a century. Here many of Scotland’s most notable monarchs stayed as they travelled throughout the realm (most notably Mary, Queen of Scots, James I (IV), Charles I and Charles II). The Royal apartments of the palace were sadly destroyed by fire in the 1650’s, however the Gatekeeper’s house (converted into royal living space), the Chapel Royal, kitchens and gardens have survived to give one an idea of the opulence and grandeur of the Scottish Royal court. Every room is a treasure and the staff help guide you through the long and interesting history of this residence which is still owned by the crown. My personal favorite of the palace was the library; containing wall to wall books in a room where you can imagine a rich laird curling up in front of the fire with a good read after walking through the secret bookshelf passageway. Also notice the ceilings which have been painted with the coats of arms of the previous gate keepers and the copy of Mary Queen of Scots death mask hanging above one of the bedrooms. There is so much to see at Falkland you will not be disappointed!
Shortly after leaving Falkland, we visited St. Andrews Castle. I didn’t see the inside the first time I visited, however this time I was in for a real surprise! The visitor’s center tells the story of the construction of the castle and abbey from the 12th century to the Reformation and mannequins hiding behind blind spots in the exhibit make the story of St. Andrews come to life and very entertaining. We then got to go in the castle ruins; which I likened to a “Playground for Historians”. You could climb up towers, go over draw bridges and visit dungeons. One of the more memorable experiences of St. Andrews Castle was crawling through the mine and counter-mine dug by the attackers and defenders of the castle during a siege in the middle ages. When attackers hoped to undermine the castle to weaken the structure of the walls; causing them to collapse, the defenders heard their picking and digging from within the castle and began to dig a counter-mine in order to attack them before their plan could be completed. Both groups eventually met; resulting in hand to hand fighting, the defenders emerging victorious. When you visit the mine, you cannot imagine what these soldiers went through. The floors being 3.5 feet wide and about 4 foot in height, it would be very awkward to do any sort of fighting in such cramped quarters. It gives you a true appreciation for what these men went through and it is a must if you plan to visit! After returning to campus around 4:30, we went to a pub for drinks and chatted about upcoming programs and trips. It was a very productive and enjoyable day!

Joining a club, visiting the International Office and International Café are three great ways to see Scotland without needing to worry about booking tickets and hostels. Most importantly they get you to socialize and meet different people; which are a vital part of the experience of being a study abroad student! All of these trips involved busses, but there are other means of seeing Scotland without the discomfort of travelling down a winding road in a small bus. In my next post I’ll be discussing visiting the UK by rail!

Falkland Palace and St. Andrew\’s Castle

Useful Links:
International Office (Dundee)
(http://www.dundee.ac.uk/international/)
International Café
(http://www.friendsinternational-dundee.org.uk/pages/dundint.htm)

Entry 4: The Train Kept A Rollin’ Part I-written 10/9/09

From the moment I got accepted to Scotland; there was no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be traveling. Being able to explore first hand many of the places I had read about in books and learned of in countless history lectures was a goal of mine and one of the main reasons for studying abroad. It’s quite one thing to look at a photograph of Stirling Castle where the kings and queens of Scotland dined and ruled or Arbroath Abbey when in 1320, Scotland’s equivalent of “The Declaration of Independence” was signed; but quite another to be there first hand, in the actual dining halls, palace rooms and cloisters-feeling the weathered stones and admiring the beauty of a room that has seen some of the most pivotal moments of a nation’s history played out within its walls.

Traveling through Scotland and the United Kingdom requires a great deal of planning and coordination; spontaneity is a liability but patience is an asset. At home we’re used to busses running regular hours 24 hours a day or have the luxury of owning a car or some knowledge of how to get from one place to another; so in the United States we can in essence-travel anywhere, anytime we want. However in the United Kingdom, this model is flipped on its head. For example, you don’t have a car or license, the busses may run at different hours depending on the schedule for that day and unless you’ve been to Scotland previously and studied plenty of road maps before arrival; you will have only the vaguest idea of where your destination is. However if you make a list of the places you want to visit and research local bus and train stations and airports, you can enjoy your travels in comfort and ease.

Being a city, Dundee has easy access to transportation; the local bus and train stations are close to campus (roughly a 20 minute walk) and run services to towns and cities throughout Scotland, Wales and England. The bus station runs services from Dundee to Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London; as well as smaller towns and villages such as St. Andrews. Scheduling a bus trip depends on the length of the journey. For example, one of the first trips we took was to St. Andrews; a town roughly 30 minutes from Dundee known for the University of Saint Andrews and it’s world renowned golf courses. Our Scottish friend Liam; a friend of Andy and Katie’s who had studied in the United States, was kind enough to show us around our first week in Scotland. The trip required little planning on our parts as it was done during orientation week and the bus from Dundee to St. Andrews was a regular “hop on/hop off” that ran at regular intervals. We bought the tickets on the bus; which only cost us 3.75 GBP (5-6 USD) but we needed exact change in order to purchase them. It took us a half hour to reach our destination; however it was a fairly easy ride with no bumps or problems to complain. With Liam as our tour guide we got to see some wonderful sites without spending a pound!

Our first stop was the legendary St. Andrew’s Castle. First constructed in the 12th Century C.E, it was home of the Bishops and Cardinals of nearby St. Andrew’s Cathedral until the 16th Century. Sitting on the eastern coast of Scotland, St. Andrews was a thriving port for trade with Scandinavia and continental Europe. The closeness of the castle and cathedral to the coast demonstrate their pre-eminence of the Catholic Church and their political and monetary power. During the Reformation, St. Andrews was embroiled in religious upheaval as Scottish Reformer George Wishart was imprisoned at the Castle of St. Andrews shortly before he was burned at the stake near the castle gates. For his part in the imprisonment and execution of Wishart, Cardinal Beaton (the current resident of the castle), was murdered by the local lairds who stormed the castle through guile. The Castle and Cathedral would eventually continue to be maintained but by the late 17th century had fallen into ruin and were abandoned. Today one can still visit the castle and cathedral (which has since been turned into a cemetery and a host to 18th and 19th century graves). The Castle does give regular tours between 5 and 6 GBP but we walked around it and took pictures. You can still admire the battlements and stonework from a distance and the interpretive signs give you a good idea of the importance of the Castle to the region and to history. The Cathedral is free but closes at dusk. Many of the columns and arches still survive and the hollowness rendered by the ruins give it and the Castle an eerie but magical look at dusk.

We spent the rest of the evening walking along the cobblestone streets and admiring the old walls and buildings. Before leaving we went to a local “Chip Shop” where I got an order of Fish and Chips with “IRN-BRU”; an orange soft drink that tastes like a cross between cream and orange soda. The fish was loaded with salt, vinegar and breadcrumbs. The shop was like visiting a small burger shop so the food was cheap and fast. We then got on the bus and headed back to Dundee; arriving shortly before 8pm. Our first trip was a success; we got a small taste of the bus service and travelled outside the borders of the city and campus, but we had bigger travel plans which required more than exact change and free time to spend.

Inspired by our first trip out; we decided to call a meeting the following week to discuss travel plans and arrange reservations for busses, planes, trains and hostels. Aside from several smaller trips in and around Dundee (including Stirling, Broughty Castle and Discovery Point), some of us were going to Italy, Denmark, Paris, London and Dublin. First we agreed that if there was a trip we all wished to take, we would do it together as travelling in a large group would be safe, fun and cheap if we all pitched in on expenses. We also had to look through our class schedules to ensure none of our travel dates interfered with assignments and exams. Our first major trip would be to London: October 22nd to the 25, followed by Edinburgh: November 12-15 and Dublin and Paris towards the end of the semester in December.

After deciding where we wanted to go, we next had to book transportation and a hostel. As I mentioned before, there is a bus station that runs out of Dundee, but booking bus tickets can be a stressful experience. For the trip to St. Andrews, we only needed a basic bus that ran on a daily cycle; however for intercity travel to Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Glasgow, a large coach bus is needed. Booking for an “Inter-City” or “Mega-Bus” should be done at least a week in advance, otherwise the bus could fill up or you will have to pay high ticket costs. I found this out the hard way when planning our first trip to Stirling to see the site of the famous Battle of Stirling and Stirling Castle. Several days before I noticed that the price of a ticket from Dundee to Stirling was 4.50 GBP, and the return trip to be 5.50 GBP. Not a bad deal, but I decided to wait till the next day when we had enough people confirmed for the trip. That day I noticed ticket prices went up considerably to 6-7 GBP and I decided we re-schedule for the next week and book the tickets that day. We used www.megabus.com to get our tickets and by using a debit or credit card, you can get your tickets electronically within minutes of booking. The total cost of the tickets was 10.50 GBP and for that we got a large coach bus with padded seating for a comfortable ride. We were ready then for our first planned trip in the UK.

The bus ride was nerve-wracking to say the least. The fact that you’re in a foreign country does not help as you don’t know where the bus is going (ours was to make stops at Perth and several smaller towns before we reached our destination) and the small roads we travelled through seemed too small to fit a single car. An hour and a half later we reached Stirling. I planned the trip so we got tickets for the 9:30 bus from Dundee so we could arrive at our destination by 11:00. Julie and I booked our tickets just before the bus filled up, leaving the rest of our party to choose the 10:30 bus. While waiting for the rest of our group to arrive, we set about exploring the town and visiting Stirling Bridge. The Battle of Stirling has been forever immortalized in the movie “Braveheart” where William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) utter’s his famous speech ending in the dramatic battle cry of “Freedom!” However the movie could not be further from the truth; in fact in the movie, there is no Stirling Bridge. But in 1297, William Wallace did fight in the battle which resulted in the routing of a large force of English soldiers led by Edward I, leading to the creation of the nation of Scotland. Nearby lies the Wallace Monument; this rises out of the ground and is visible from the surrounding countryside. Inside is an interpretive center that talks about the life and death of William Wallace as well as the Battle of Stirling. Unfortunately we were unable to go as time constraints and walking distance dictated we schedule a separate trip. In the meantime we met up with our group who had just arrived and had McDonald’s for lunch.

I know what you’re thinking “Does it taste the same as home?” and the answer is no. Government imposed dietary regulations have resulted in smaller hamburgers, fries and soft drinks. To put this in perspective, what we in the US would consider a “small” is a UK “medium”. The beef and chicken are raised in the UK as well so the meat is not from the same cows that are raised in the United States. Also because of exchange rates, a Macdonald’s medium double cheeseburger, fries and a coke in the UK costs around 7-8 US dollars. It wasn’t very filling and for the same price you can go to a traditional Scottish pub and order something unique to the area that is also filling (more on that in my next posting). After lunch we began our trek uphill to the site of Stirling Castle; one of the most extensive and beautiful castles in Scotland. Built around 1107, the castle was strategically built on a large plateau overlooking the town of Stirling. This strategic location made it an important asset to the Scots during their war for independence. Both the Battles of Stirling (1297) and Bannockburn (1314) would not have occurred if Stirling Castle had not been built. The Castle has also played host to many famous Scottish Royals; including Alexander I, James V and Mary Queen of Scots. The Castle was added onto well into the early 18th century and was used as a fortress and barracks for the 93rd Sutherland Highlander Regiment until the 1890’s. The Castle was amazing in that the various halls, chapels and palaces made one feel like they were in a medieval maze. It was easy to get lost when focusing on the gargoyles outside the Royal Palace, the intricately weaved textiles hanging in the Chapel Royale or gazing at the lush green Scottish countryside from the 18th century battlements. We spent at least 2 hours wandering around the castle grounds and could have easily spent more as there was also the Duke of Argyll’s lodging and a textile demonstration, but we wanted to see one last thing before leaving. Towards the center of town lies the “Old Stirling Town Jail”; a relic from the Victorian Age that gives a glimpse into what it was like to be a prisoner in Scotland during the mid 19th century. The Jail is well preserved and the creepy noises of miserable prisoners given off by the surround sound system made the tour all the more impressive. Our guide was an actor of the highest character and extremely talented. Within minutes he switched roles from hangman, to warden, to prison guard and prison escapee without losing his audience; keeping us well entertained with a mix of melodrama and historic fact. The cells also contained life-like mannequins of prisoners that demonstrated daily life in the prison; such as getting inspected by the doctor, doing punishment and getting into fights. The tour was 20 minutes in length and a wonderful way to cap off the day. The site also gives ghost tours every Friday night at 8pm given by the same gentleman, we will certainly go back to Stirling again. We got a quick coffee before heading back on the bus home which arrived in Dundee by 6:30 PM.

Overall our trip was a success and cheap considering the amount of things we were able to do. The bus was 10.50 GBP, Stirling Castle was 9.50 GBP, and the Jail gave a special concession for students which amounted to 4.30 GBP. Feeling more confident we awaited our next trip to Glamis Castle and Arbroath Abbey, more on that in Part II of my Travel Log!

Stirling Trip Slideshow

Entry 3: In the Crowd-written 9/28/09

We all remember our first college party, the feeling of anticipation hoping to make new friends while enjoying the evening as we look ourselves over in the mirror hoping to give off a good first impression. Now fast-forward a year or so, your socializing gets you a throng of friends and you’ve gone to ‘80’s Night enough times to know every song by heart and you never go alone, but suddenly you are dropped someplace entirely new, with a different culture, people and none of your friends to give you that extra boost of confidence. Meeting new people in Scotland your first time abroad might at first appear challenging, but as long as you be yourself, be confident and are willing to try new things, you can make the transition into the Dundee social scene easy and fun!

When I first arrived in Scotland, I was lucky enough to be traveling with a small group of friends already; and after making more at the airport I realized that meeting people and making connections wasn’t so hard to do. We were going through the same experience of being in a foreign country for three months to a year and something as simple as that is enough to form friendships that not only last the time abroad but forever. Within minutes we were trading contact information and our flat addresses so we knew where we all lived until our computers and international cell phones were set up. No matter who or where you are, having several friends (or even just one good friend) can be enough to make you feel more at home.

As we are centrally located on campus and therefore the most convenient to get to, the flat Sydney, Julie, Lauren and I are living in has become the “de-facto” meeting place if we decide to go out to a pub or club, have a group dinner, travel meeting or just hang out. In fact we have so many people over and get along so well, we have been called “The Cool Flat” by our next door neighbors.
In order to survive mentally and physically abroad, you have to learn to work together. After our first exciting, yet un-nerving night in Scotland, we realized that if we acted more as a team and less as individuals, we could make our lives more comforting and our stay in Dundee exciting and fun. For example, when shopping for our flat we try to go out in either a pair or group. I grocery shop with my other flat mate as we both eat the same foods; so when we do visit the supermarket we buy for the both of us and we each pay half. This not only saves us money, but ensures we don’t buy so much food as to take up space in our refrigerator or cause it to spoil. Likewise with cleaning essentials for our bathrooms and kitchen, we agree to share so we save money individually while helping out the flat as a whole.

The buddy system also works if one or both us is having problems either adjusting to life overseas or with school. Talking about your personal feelings with someone who you can relate to helps and gives a much needed confidence boost. This boost comes in handy especially when you go out to the student night club (or Union). At The Union, you will come face to face with students from around Scotland and the world at large. Everyone flocks to the Union throughout the day as its restaurants and sports bars give the ideal place for students to congregate and unwind from a hard day’s studies. During “Fresher’s Week”; a week long orientation session, the Union is filled to maximum capacity with students socializing in 4 separate bars and dancing the night away at “Mono”; the basement dance club. Speaking as someone who (despite similar experiences at home and a senior in college) felt like a stranger in a strange land, the prospect of going to The Union at first appeared daunting and made me feel like a freshman all over again. Luckily my friends were going as well and in that respect I didn’t feel so bad and just focused on enjoying myself and having fun. The club was loud and packed with people, and I still found it hard to start a conversation with anyone. However some of the people I did approach were very friendly and curious about where I came from, what my “Study” (or major) was, and if I enjoyed Dundee. It was strange being the center of attention all of a sudden, but when you’re the foreigner I suppose everyone is curious to hear your opinions and thoughts. I told them what British television shows i watch and what bands i listen to (most either British or Scottish in origin). It was strange as when I responded to the same questions at home I got quizzical looks and had to explain the band or premise of the show. Here everyone knew what I was talking about, and in thus it was comforting to talk to someone who could relate, despite the fact they were from another country. I finally knew what it must be like to be a study abroad student at New Paltz, some of them were in my classes last semester and I often wondered what it must be like for them to adjust to life in America; this time the roles were reversed.

After my first several nights at the Union, I was still having growing pains but slowly got more confident. Despite the accents, the slang and style of dress, Scottish students are the same as American’s when it comes to socializing with others, if you have enough confidence to walk up to someone, introduce yourself and start a conversation, you will make many friends here. In fact I’ve made a couple of friends just by doing laundry, standing in line at the student run convenience store, and waiting for class. Never underestimate the power of your own self-worth.

However if you are still having trouble meeting people, Dundee offers a variety of clubs and organizations that conform to everyone’s interests. There is an activities fair during Fresher’s Week in which one can join whatever club or sport piques their interest. For example there is a Forensic Anthropology Club, Psychology Club, Music Club, Gaming Club and LGSBT organization in addition to a variety of other groups. These clubs meet regularly and sponsor field trips, dinners, dances and events in which one will get to meet other people with a common interest. My fellow abroad students and I joined several (including The International Students Association and Peer Connections).

The latter group I highly recommend. Peer Connections is run through the International Programs Office at University of Dundee and is a discussion group made of students from around the UK and other countries and helps first year internationals get acclimated to life in Dundee while giving them a place to socialize with other students from around the world. The first time we went to a Peer Connections meeting, my friends and I took two students from Switzerland, one from Lithuania and one from Scotland out to a pub for dinner and then to The Union for drinks and dancing; needless to say they have become regulars at our flat and are the newest members to our “Family”.

As I look back at almost a month abroad, I realize how far I’ve come since those first exciting steps into Edinburgh Airport. Making a fair amount of friends from all over the world and taking part in campus activities has made me feel more than just a student from New York studying in Scotland; I finally feel a part of the campus at Dundee, meeting fellow students for tea at Costa or dinner at a local pub and taking trips with my friends to the many historic castles and sites that dot the area surrounding Dundee and Scotland as a whole. I consider myself no longer a student of SUNY New Paltz, but instead a student at The University of Dundee. If this is what anthropologists have warned against (i.e. “Going Native”) then I fear I have become their most wanted man.