Entry 2: Private Hell-written 9/21/09

Studying in another country for a year (or even a semester) can build character quickly. When abroad you are taken from your warm, safe home and are suddenly dropped in a country with a different set of cultural and educational values. The first week of my stay in Dundee has been nothing but an exercise in learning how to deal with real world problems and overcoming obstacles over 3,000 miles away from home.

Life Lesson I: Patience is a Virtue

My life lesson began almost as soon as I walked into my room. It was the first night I would be staying in Scotland and I was excited to show off the new room to a couple of my friends. We were planning on going into town to dine at one of the Scottish pubs we had seen when we first got off the bus and were meeting at my Flat before heading out. I had just to lock the key to my door and a night of taking in our new surroundings could begin. However after turning the key to lock I noticed the door didn’t close shut at all and to make things worse, the key was stuck in the tumbler. With a door that could easily be pushed open and my key now embedded in the door like “the sword in the stone” , I knew tonight’s plans were going to have to be put on hold. With that I picked up the phone and dialed maintenance. Dundee has an emergency phone line that is open 24/7 in case something should arise (such as a fire, injury, leak and being locked out). The maintenance crew arrived within 15 minutes and looked at my door; after a couple of minutes of trying to pry it out with a pair of needle nosed pliers, they decided to call the local locksmith. By this point it was 10:30 at night, I had been up for almost 24 hours and had yet to take a shower, I certainly didn’t look or feel ready to take on a pub crawl. However I still had to eagerly await the locksmith and that was torture in the cruelest sense.

Our group also felt the same and we decided to hang around the flat till late before everyone went back to their residences to get a well deserved sleep. I on the other hand continued to stand watch over my broken door like a guard at Buckingham Palace. Finally by 11:30 pm, the locksmith arrived and quickly set about trying to get the key dislodged. It turned out the only logical thing to do was to break the lock completely and remove the key that way. As the situation appeared to get bleaker and bleaker, I attempted to look on the bright side of an otherwise annoying and random event. First of all; I wasn’t locked out of the room, nor locked in, I could still get in or out. Second, the locksmith was pretty friendly and I attempted to pick up some Scottish slang from hearing him curse and try to describe to me why the lock “is all pear shaped”. At a quarter to twelve the lock was finally snapped and my key removed. As he had no exact replacement of the lock, he instead gave me a different lock with a special key before saying that he would “do his best to find a proper replacement for the dodgy one”. I thanked him for his help and finally for the first time since leaving home took well deserved shower and fell asleep; thankful that my door had been fixed and hopefully be the first and last of my problems; but it wasn’t.

Life Lesson II: The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

The next several days passed uneventfully. I went shopping in the “Wellgate” (a large mall to the east of campus on the High Street) in order to get some essentials, socialized at some of the local clubs and pubs in and around campus and bought tickets to see “The Jam”; one of my favorite bands. After a couple of days of doing this, the money I had converted at the airport was wearing thin and it was time to use the new Debit card I ordered from my local bank.

I was at first slightly worried that it might not go through as the bank that issued it only had branches in the mid-Hudson Valley and was not Federal. But noticing the MasterCard emblem and the fact there was a picture of a globe on the background gave me a slight confidence it would go through no problem. I tried to put the pin number in 3 times (thinking I had accidently typed it the wrong each time). On the 4th and last time, I struck out “Invalid Pin: Card Witheld By Bank” flashed the screen; and with that I heard the shredder within the machine swallow my only means of getting money. My heart dropped, my face paled and my knees buckled. Now I was in another country; far from home, with no bank account and only 80 Pound Stirling (roughly $160.00) in my pocket. This wasn’t as simple a problem to fix as my lock; this would require some real coordination between me and my parents.
I called home immediately after my card was swallowed; you can’t even begin to imagine how you have surreal the conversation was; “Hi mom! Oh yeah I’m fine, well actually the reason I’m calling is because my debit card got swallowed!” I was hoping that the “I’m doing well” would negate the latter part of the message, how naïve was I? We had planned for everything months in advance; we got the debit card thinking it could be used overseas and that would be my main means of getting money for travel and essential items, neither my parents nor I expected this to happen. What I got in response was “I’ll get your father”.

We worked on forming an ad-hoc “Plan B” for getting money until I could either set up a bank account with “Clydesdale Bank”; a bank located near the college that offers bank accounts for students at the University or have my parents sign for a new credit and debit card in my name and ship it to me. Luckily for me there was a Western Union station in a consignment shop not too far from campus where I could accept money orders from home. After finding out from Clydesdale that they would be unable to set up an account with me for another several weeks, I chose the latter route of Western Union money transfers; despite the fact they would charge an additional $50.00 for every order I put in. In the mean time, my parents helped set me up with a new debit card and credit card from home, and they would be sending them as soon as they arrived in the mail.

Once again, I re-assessed my situation. I was in a real bind this time; losing all of my money was one of my biggest fears before leaving the United States. Lucky for me I had two of the best parents in the world who I gave my personal information to ahead of time so they could establish a card and account for me. I also still had 80 pounds; 25 of which I spent on a printer so I could forgo paying a print quota at the library and write papers from the comfort of my room. Third; and most important in my mind, I had tickets to see one of my all time favorite rock bands! I had gone through another test of fire and came out unscathed; but I still wasn’t done.

Life Lesson III: Don’t Stop Believing

We’ve all been sick before. Living with several other people in a confined space has a way of spreading all sorts of nasty germs and diseases and we have all done the occasional phone call (or even travel) home where we can imagine ourselves in our warm beds with mom or dad making hot soup to make us feel better. But when living  in another country, you’re physically and mentally bombarded with emotions you never thought you had and “to be homesick” takes on a whole new meaning and relevance.

As my first week in Scotland drew to a close, I was feeling on top of my game. Not only had I survived the flight over, my lock being broken and my debit card getting eaten, I was making many new friends and was taking in the scenery of my new surroundings. Some of my flatmates; as well as Jen however, were going through various stages of getting sick. They all had the same basic symptoms one would expect; cough, sore throat, runny nose etc; but nothing out of the ordinary. I was almost too confident in my immune system as I interacted with my flatmates and Jen without keeping a distance. By Thursday the 10th of September however, I was feeling pretty sick. I was too sick to really get out of my flat and didn’t go out with my friends that night; thinking that rest and the Tylenol Severe Cold I had packed before leaving would do me good and by the weekend I would be much better.
Friday came and I was sicker than usual, worse still I was going out that night to see a punk concert with some of my friends. We got there at 8 pm; as the tickets said but the show didn’t start for another hour and a half. My flatmate Julie was also very ill and could only stay until the end of the first act. I thought of doing the same but I was determined to see the show through and enjoy every minute of it! For the rest of the night I forgot about being sick and head banged the rest of the evening away; it was my high point for the week.

My low point came the next day. I was achy, feverish, sore and tired. Worst of all, the medicine I brought from home wasn’t working and I was ready to give up. Instead I made the most of the situation and wrote in my journal and watched some British Television on “Youtube”. Sunday came and went as I was still sick and in a vain attempt to prove to myself I wasn’t too bad; cleaned my room and bathroom, but in the end I got worse and Monday would bring the first day of class. Most of the week to follow was a blur of head congestion and fatigue. Something had to be done.

Registering for a doctor (or “General Practitioner”) should be one of the first things you should do upon arrival in Dundee. There are several choices for you to pick and all are within distance of your flat. The “Fresher’s” page on the University of Dundee website has a list of Doctors (or “General Practitioner’s”) you can register for (http://www.dundee.ac.uk/freshers2009/living_in_dundee/gp_surgeries.htm).
Using the list, I went to Tay Court Surgery to register. The whole process took only 15 minutes and as long as you are a student with the university they will treat you the same as a citizen of the United Kingdom. Several days after registering I was almost out of medication and I wasn’t feeling any better. Assuming I had a sinus infection, I made an appointment with Tay Court.

Dealing with a Practitioner in the UK is slightly different than dealing with a US doctor. For instance there is a certain protocol that must be followed. When I called Thursday (September 17) to see a doctor; I had to give my contact information and had to wait for the nurse to contact me when she got through the previous calls. When she did call, I told her my symptoms after which she told me since they were “flu like”, I was to go through a special back entrance to the office so as to not contaminate other patients and practitioners and I was to arrive at 5:25. The outbreak of Swine Flu in the United Kingdom has caused General Practioners and hospitals to adopt this policy and it is common practice to have two separate entranceways. After arriving at the rear entrance, I was greeted by a nurse wearing full scrubs and a face mask; who pointed out which room to use. The room was a typical of one you would see at your neighborhood doctors, but as I was being treated as someone with Swine Flu, the room was covered in protective paper and I was given a mask. The doctor followed soon after and checked my throat and sinus area; giving me the “head punch” test to see if it hurt. Turns out I didn’t have Swine Flu but an a bad sinus infection; although the doctor was never convinced in the first place that I had Swine Flu at all. He jotted down a prescription for anti-biotic and told me to hurry as all the stores close at 6:00 pm. The whole checkup took 5 minutes and did not cost anything. The only thing I would pay for would be the medication which came out to 4 pounds (8 US dollars).

There are several pharmacies in Dundee, but the one most people go to is Boots, which is like a CVS or Walgreen’s. Whereas most pharmacists close before 5:30, Boots is open till 6 and I was able to get the prescription filled with no hassle. Boots also offers coupons and discounts on its items and is the cheapest to get medication.

I finally made it back to my flat, medication in hand and secluded myself for the next several days. That night I was able to talk to my parents for the first time since getting sick. The first week away from home was easy for me as I was so engrossed with my new surroundings and socializing, I even made the statement that “I could live here if I wanted”. Being sick made me realize at this point that I wished to be home in my bed surrounded by family; and the hulusitory nightmares and feverish symptoms did not help me settle into Scottish life any better. Hearing my mother’s voice over the phone made me miss home even more and there was nothing more I wanted (and I’m not afraid to admit this) was a hug from her. We talked for an hour about my day and what happened to me that week. We had communicated through e-mail once a day and talked on Skype or on the phone several times a week but this time was different. This time I really missed home.

It was at this point I realized how lucky I was to have made such good friends. All of my flat mates helped me in their own way to get me on the mend. Julie, Sydney and Lauren made dinner or did my grocery shopping and Jen checked me every day and fixed dinner as well. What void was missing from home still existed, but had shrunk because of the hard work and patience of my friends. I really couldn’t have been able to get through that week without them.

As of today (September 21), I am feeling much better and ready to continue with my courses. I also received my credit and debit cards today as well and am now financially prepared to travel and take care of unexpected problems. What I’ve learned in the first week and a half towers over anything I picked up in school. I asked in my application to Dundee that I wished to learn just as much about myself as I wanted to learn about the past. What did I learn exactly? First of all, I learned I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I (with a little help) solved all of my problems and more importantly, solved them in a country I had never set foot on before. If I can do it in Scotland, I can certainly do it in the United States. Another lesson I learned: everything gets fixed, it’s just a matter of how. If you find yourself in a similar situation at home or abroad, remember to think positively and be patient. Being angry and frustrated solves nothing whereas a cool head and even temper will. Finally; and most importantly, never lose touch with home. An e-mail a day or a talking on Skype or the phone for a minimum of an hour with friends and family will help ease you into your new life abroad. Talking to someone from home will help add normality to your routine and home won’t seem so far away.
I learned a lot in my first week and a half abroad and I doubt that this will be the end of it. But as things are for the moment, I am planning a few trips, aspiring to meet my professor’s highest expectations and enjoying every day I wake up to a new day filled with endless possibilities.

Entry 1: Leaving on a Jet Plane-written 9/11/09

From the moment before I got on the plane to class matriculation, my first week abroad has been nothing but a learning experience I will never forget! When my two travelling partners and I were waiting for our flight to board, I kept running the same mantra in my head: “I can’t believe we’re doing this, I can’t believe we’re doing this”. It was almost like a dream. One minute you’re in the comfort of your home watching a documentary on the History of Scotland on T.V. looking at the castles and landscape saying to yourself “I wish I could be there” and in the next sitting in an airport terminal with a group of strangers eagerly awaiting that intercom call “Flight 96 to Edinburgh now boarding”. It was almost too surreal for words and I had to take several minutes to myself to get adjusted to the situation I had gotten myself into.

The first hurdle we had to cross was when our terminal had been switched last minute on account of a flight for Madrid leaving later than expected. Luckily enough the directions at the airport were clear enough that we knew where to go and have time to spare to collect ourselves for the trip yet to come. Before we knew it the time had arrived. At 8:00 PM we were told that our flight was boarding. The three of us raced slowly got in line with the rest of the passengers for the flight and we headed down the short corridor towards the waiting plane. On board we took our seats and settled in for a long flight. We were expected to arrive in Edinburgh by 7:30 AM the next day. Before taking off we overheard another passenger behind us talking about the University and it turned out to be an abroad student from North Carolina named Andy. Who would imagine running into someone from a different state going to the same university abroad and sitting right in front of them? The coincidence was almost too strange but now we added a fourth person to our abroad group.

Before we knew it we were taxiing onto the runway and preparing for take-off. The plane picked up speed going faster and faster until the front angled diagonally and the massive structure lifted off the ground. From the window I saw lights and buildings getting smaller and smaller; less familiar and more distant than they were before. The flight staff then served dinner and turned on the in-flight entertainment; so as to create a sense of normalcy, as we travelled further north-east towards Labrador and then east where we would reach our final destination of Edinburgh. I was too tired and exhausted to eat my order of micro-waved chicken and rice; opting for some television to take my mind off of the journey ahead.

One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do was to fall asleep on an airplane. For all the courtesy of the flight crew and capability of the pilot, it is of my opinion that the airlines have a vendetta against tall people. The” pillow” we were given felt like a bag of cotton stuffing and did as much good on my lower back as it did my head and it certainly did not help that I was anxious about arriving in Scotland and taking a first glimpse at the landscape of my new temporary home. In my half dreaming, half waking consciousness I turned to my one companion in order to make an attempt at conversation. I remember at one point asking if the light on the end of the wing was the rising sun; much to my embarrassment and both of our amusement. I then turned around, closed my eyes and attempted to go back to sleep. By the next time I’d wake, it would be daylight and we would be an hour and a half away from Edinburgh.

I groggily awoke from my uneasy sleep to the sight of clouds outside my window. It looked almost like we were flying on top of a white quilt that enveloped the plane. We had our breakfast and before I knew it we were 45 minutes away from the airport. As the minutes ticked away, we began to come closer to the Scottish coast. It was a spectacular site, the likes of which I could never imagine nor forget. Green fields checker boarded with oblong plowed fields; whose boundaries were loosely outlined with stone walls and the only sign of habitation a minuscule farm house. Getting closer to Edinburgh we saw evidence of suburbs and old neighborhoods made of builds built several centuries ago but still being used by the newest of a series of owners; and just when we thought it couldn’t get more spectacular, a rainbow overhead. It was a truly glorious welcome into this amazing country. By Sunday September 5th at 7:30 AM, I was in another country, over 3,000 miles away from home and quite tired. We made our way through customs and grabbed our bags. Under the weight of our luggage we slowly made our way to the meet and greet service Dundee had sent to meet study abroad students.

The bus wasn’t due to arrive until 10:30 am so we had roughly three hours to collect ourselves. I grabbed my toothbrush and toothpaste out of my carry-on and decided to “freshen up” the best way I can. While the rest of our party grabbed breakfast, caught some sleep or wrote their thoughts down to paper. Soon we were greeted by other study abroad students. One was Katie (a classmate of Andy’s) and Sydney; who turned out to be one of my “flat mates”, from Canada. For six individuals who had just gone through jet lag and culture shock (no Coke-Cola does not taste the same as it does in the United States), we were extremely talkative; sharing stories of who we were, what we are doing and where we were going. What we didn’t know was when we were leaving the airport.

Then the time came as our school representative greeted us and took us to the bus that would in turn take us to Dundee. The airport at Edinburgh acted as a sort of “decompression room”, where we were not allowed in or out and we collectively imagined what the outside world would look like once we left the front doors. Then it hit me; “I don’t think we’re in New York anymore”. To a casual observer, Scotland may not appear strange; the people mainly speak English, live in homes complete with indoor plumbing, heating and electricity and have televisions, radios and computers. However once you get passed the surface, you realize there are very distinct and recognizable examples of how people talk and behave. The first thing I noticed was the way people drove. I know that although this may sound stereotypical and almost cliche’, the fact that people drove on the opposite side of the road from the way Americans drive the first visually recognizable difference after walking out of the airport. Once we were all seated on the bus I got an audio queue that we were in a completely different country; namely the thick Scottish brogue our bus driver spoke in. Traveling through the countryside he would point out “Coos” and “Hooses” (Cows and Houses) that would pass our windows, we all turned towards each other quizzically and muttered at the same time “I don’t know what he’s saying”. Despite these differences, there was enough similarities in the lush green Scottish countryside to remind me of home. The rolling hills and expansive farmland was not too different than that which surrounded me in New Paltz and in this I found comfort until we made it to the campus at Dundee.

Dundee is fourth largest city in Scotland with a population of over 140,000 inhabitants. Dundee has also shared the title of “The Sunniest City in Scotland” and “The City of Discovery” as many advances in the fields of science and biomedicine have been made there. The city is also known for its ship building industry and thriving port located on the River Tay; on the northeastern coast of Scotland, just below the Kingdom of Fife. One of the more famous contributions Dundee has made to the history of Science and shipbuilding is the ship RSS Discovery; which carried Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his expedition of arctic adventurers to the Antarctic during the 1901 “British National Antarctic Expedition”. The ship is now berthed in Dundee where it now resides as a museum and tourist attraction.

Another tourist attraction; and probably the most defining feature of the city, is “The Law Hil”. This “hill” is in reality a basalt plug of an extinct volcano and measures approximately 571 feet. This hill has a long history of settlement dating back to the Iron Age Pictish tribes, to Roman settlers. In 1992, a monument dedicated to the fallen heroes of World Wars I and II was constructed at the peak of and can be prominently seen from the University of Dundee Campus.

Founded in 1881, the University of Dundee is best known for its schools of Medecine, Law and Dentistry; however the main campus at the city’s west end also houses the Duncan of Jordanstone school of Art and Design and thus has a flourishing Art and Life Sciences Program.

The Dorm (or “Flat”) where I would be living in (Belmont Flats), is located in the northwestern part of campus off of Old Hawkhill, which is near the Student Union (a three story multipurpose night club and event center created for the students), the Library and Chaplaincy center. The flats vary on amenities based on price and location; Belmont being on the center of campus was one of the best flats to choose as it had six separate bedrooms with a personal bathroom (including sink, toilet and shower) and internet. There is also a common room complete with working kitchen and living space. Our bus stopped at the “Sanctuary Building”, where we picked up the keys to our rooms. Each key chain comes equipped with a plastic “fob” or scanner key that lets you into the lobby of the residence, a flat key; which opens the main door to the flat you are staying in, a room key that is used to access and lock your bedroom, and a cub board key that opens your own personal cub board in the kitchen. The key chain also has a small purple token that can be used to get a discount on the local bus (or “trolley”) that takes you to the supermarket in the center of town. The helpful university staff helped us with our bags and we got on the elevator; who greeted us with the sterness of Super-Nanny “Doors Opening, Doors Closing, Fifth Floor”. I had no idea elevators talked until now!

Sydney and I finally reached our flat on the top floor of Belmont Flats and began the long process of settling in. we first wandered around the kitchen and common room like puppies being brought into a new home (and looking at all of the weird electrical sockets). Then we opened the doors to our rooms and marveled at the view! I could see the Dundee Law from mine and a beautiful panorama of the city and Sydney’s opened towards campus and the rising sun. Having our own bathrooms was also a novelty; especially for Jen and I for even in SUNY New Paltz as nice as the dorms and rooms may be, bathrooms and showers are a shared affair; both of us found it strange to finally have one to ourselves. As I put my clothes away and my bedding down, I sat up on my bed admiring the view of the setting sun as it went over a somewhat cloudy sky and hearing the ambient noise of people going about their lives as normal. Unbeknown-st to them of the amazing journey Jen, Laura, Andy and I had all just taken. I shut my eyes slightly to let the moment sink in and opened them once more, saying to myself: “I think I’m going to like being an American in Scotland”.

Epilogue to Day 1:

Since moving into our flat, Sydney and I were joined by three more girls: Julie (from Chicago), Cho (from China) and Lauren (from Scotland). Our flat was recently rounded out by the arrival of a study abroad student from the Netherlands. Jen (living in Seabraes Flats with similar accommodations) has several roommates from Scotland, France and Germany. Laura (who lives in Tay Mills with Andy whom we met on the plane) rooms with a girl from Lithuania and several other flat mates from the UK. Katie (also living in Belmont Flats) has roommates from Scotland, the UK and Ireland. Finally we met another student from the United States; Ashley who lives in the flat next to ours. This will certainly be a VERY international experience!

Prologue: An American in Scotland-Written 9/6/2009

So there I was standing behind the vinyl rope waiting to go through security at JFK Airport. Since February I was eagerly anticipating this moment; counting down the days before departure and shopping for the essentials like laundry bags, bed linens and toothpaste. But somehow despite all the preparation, this moment felt particularly surreal. My parents were on one side of the gate and I on the other and we both knew that the time had come for us to part for almost four months.

It had been a long journey from the application process to boarding Delta Airlines Flight 96 to Edinburgh Airport. Who would think that a suggestion from a Professor would lead me down this road; something as simple as “If you’re pursuing History, you should consider University of Dundee” leading to a three and a half month long odyssey of adventure and intellectual and social growth an ocean away from home.  After visiting a Study Abroad Fair in the fall of 2008, I picked up a packet of the various programs New Paltz had overseas. University of Limerick in Ireland and Middlesex in England both stuck out as strong front runners but never Dundee. When I told one of my professors about my choices, he began asking if I thought of Dundee; one of his colleagues was teaching there and working in tandem, both established the Study Abroad Program there for New Paltz. I told him that I would think about it, and went home to do some research on the university.

Never was I so impressed with the amount and variety of programs they had to offer. Everything from the history of Medieval Russia to Early America and contemporary British issues were on hand for me to explore! As a keen student who is passionate about learning about the people and events that shaped the world we now live in; I knew this was the school for me! The extra-curricular activities such as “The History Society” and “Rucksacking Club” also appealed to me because I wished to not only study History from the classroom but fully immerse myself in it by talking about it with other students from Scotland and around the world and also travel through it physically on hikes and day trips. After this my mind was settled; Dundee in the Fall of 2009 semester was going to be the journey of a lifetime and nothing was going to keep me from this majestic place steeped in history and a vibrant culture.

What was more was I wasn’t doing this alone. I had met another history student earlier that year who was planning to go to Dundee as well. Jen and I hit it off automatically and it was good to know someone who was planning to go to the same location as me in addition to seeing some of the same places I wanted to go to. Laura; an Art major, was also going to Dundee to round off her education as well. Together we had shared experiences of New Paltz and abroad we would share experiences of Dundee.

Once all the paperwork was handed in, the waiting began. I was always nervouse that an important document had been filed wrong or that I had misplaced a document that could single handedly undo all of those trips to the International Programs Office and my dreams of hiking across the highlands and visiting centuries old ruins and castles that have stood the test of a millennia. However by April I received the confirmation I was waiting for; I was approved to go overseas and study at the University of Dundee along with Jen and Laura! All of us had to prepare for what was to come next.

Several months of hard preparation were to follow where I got the essential items needed to survive the first few weeks: a microwaveable bowl, sheets and comforter,  a week’s worth of pants, two weeks’ worth of shirts, medicine, several hoodies, tooth brush, soap and more were stuffed into two large rolling suitcases, a smaller carryon and a laptop bag.  I couldn’t imagine fitting three and a half months of my life into three suitcases but somehow I managed!

Then the day finally came for my flight. At around 1:00 PM I said a fond good-bye to my grandparents, my younger brother and baby sister before my parents drove me to JFK to see me finally off. When we reached the airport I was nervous but at the same time eager to start my journey. I had never been to a foreign country before; led alone on a plane, so everything seemed new and exciting to me.  It was by the bag check that I met one of my travelling partners and we both went on our way to the security line. My parents stood at one end, me on the other, and we both knew that it was time that we part ways.  Behind the rope where my parents stood was my past and all the two people who meant the most to me, and on the other my future; where my destiny awaited, to take me on a trip that would change my life forever and bring me closer to my dreams of discovery! We embraced each other for one last time and I and my companion went on our way, full of excitement and a shared goal in completing what we had set out to accomplish several months before!

Picnic in the Park

Although classes were done, school work continued. Plenty of papers needed to be completed, and one exam needed to be taken. However, there was still some fun to be had before most of the study-abroaders went home! On a windy spring afternoon, we held a picnic in Kingston’s Fairfield Park. Organized by Philip, Jen and Alison, it was an afternoon complete with refreshments and sporting equipment. It was a nice opportunity to see everyone from British Life and Culture just one more time, and outside of the classroom setting. We engaged in some football (soccer to Americans) passes, as well as rugby passes, neither of which I excelled at, but found enjoyable. The highlight of the picnic was the touch rugby game, during which Philip and Jen captained each team with vigor.

touch rugby

I did not engage in this, but was amused from the sidelines. The game of rubgy still baffles me…

Although this splendid picnic in the park marked the end of the study abroad experience for some, I would stay in UK for over another month. It turned out to be probably the most exciting, productive, and surreal month of my life!

Welsh Wanderings

To celebrate the end of classes in early May, my friends Niki, Laura, Christine and I planned a long weekend in Wales. We took the National Express coachbus to Cardiff, the Welsh Capital, and stayed in the city for a couple of nights. Although our hostel was based in Cardiff, most of our sightseeing was done in the countryside and in the valleys.

On a gorgeous Sunday, we ventured to Caerphilly Castle. Vacated for centuries, Caerphilly is very much a ruin. Today it exists as a museum, a reception venue for weddings, and it is also a popular hangout for fishermen and dogwalkers. Its location is not on a great crop of rock, but rather simply the green hills of the Welsh countryside. An interesting fact about Caerphilly is that one of its towers out-leans the leaning tower of Pisa!

CaerphillyCastle

Wandering the grounds of Caerphilly was one of my favorite experiences in the United Kingdom. The green hills, wonderful weather, and minimal crowds all made the day so peaceful, and I had wished I had prepared a picnic.

Although it doesn’t have the ceremony and the trimmings of Windsor Castle, Caerphilly provides quite the playground for anyone who ever dreamed of exploring the remains of a medieval castle! Complete with a water-filled moat and a bridge, it is perhaps the castle I had always wanted to see in reality.

On a drizzly monday morning, we travelled by bus to the Rhondda Valley in search of its famous mining community of the past. At the Rhondda ValleyHertiage Park, the four of us were given a private tour by an ex-miner named Terry. We wandered the mining facilities, and even went a bit underground to see a reconstruction of the real mines that lay far down below.

Terry and Hard Hats

With hardhats on, we descended in an authentic mining elevator to the exhibit. Smells of sulfer and the cranking of machinery filled the dark tunnels, which we explored for a good while before resurfacing via a motion simulator ride. Visiting a Britain mine was very important to me, since one of my favorite British films, “Billy Elliot”, is set against the backdrop of the 1984 Coal Miner Strike in Northern England.

Later that night, before catching our bus back to London, we went to Cardiff Castle.
Cardiff Castle
I had fallen asleep on the busride from the Rhondda Valley back to Cardiff, so I was rather dazed and exhausted while touring the famous castle of Cardiff. However, I took some great pictures from the top of the fortress, and walked through the drizzle to go back home.

United Springdom

“You alright, yeah?” is a typical greeting among British youth. I hope you are alright indeed, and I apologize for the posting silence. As finals are now done, I have been travelling around the UK, and seeing things that I have always dreamed of.

I returned from Switzerland and Germany (a ten-day trip) on the Queen’s birthday. It was really a fitting day to fly back. During my time in Europe, on the continent, I was homesick…or rather, home-base sick, for the UK. Upon landing, I vowed to myself that I would dedicate the rest of my time abroad this semester to seeing the UK and all that it has to offer!

To celebrate our return to England, my friends and I went to Cambridge. Like Oxford, Cambridge is a university town, but with much more open space. The highlight of our day was our punting boat ride down the river Cam, which weaves its way past the various college campuses!

Cambridge

Just two days later was one of Britain’s biggest holidays: May Day! The first of May is a Bank Holiday, but more importantly, the cermonial start of Spring! Kingston had its very own May Day festival called “May Merrie”. The local park green was completely transformed into a fairground, with rides, games, booths, puppet shows, and a jousting competition. I honestly forgot I was just right around the corner from my flat!

MayDay

My favorite part of the day was seeing a real “Punch and Judy” puppet show. “Punch and Judy” originated in the 17th century and is the oldest puppet show in Britain still performed today. The main character, Mr. Punch, is a naughty man who beats his family members and the local police officer with a giant stick. Despite the violent nature of the show, “Punch and Judy” has retained its popularity for over three centuries.

The following week, my friend Niki and I attended the “Punch and Judy Festival” in London’s Covent Garden, where over ten puppet booths were set up at a time, running numerous shows at once. Different models of Mr. Punch and the other characters graced the various stages, each putting their own spin on the classic storyline.

More UK Springtime adventures to come!

A Romp Through the Renaissance

Upon the start of Spring Break, I was in for my most intensive art history lesson yet. Rather than looking at slides of Florentine Art and Architecture, I was actually seeing the churches, palaces, paintings and sculptures with my own eyes! The “Art and Architecture of Renaissance Florence” Study Trip was an amazing opportunity.
Dome

My friend Reimi, who is from Japan, also signed on for the class and was a fun travel companion. We left our rooms at Middle Mill hall at an unearthly hour to make the trek to Gatwick Airport, during which we saw the sunrise. When we met up with our professor and fellow students, we recognized a rather unfortunate situation; my professor, Ros, had her arm in a sling. Just a day before, she had broken her arm while placing a book back on the shelf at home. Ros had such strong enthusiasm for guiding our trip that one would never guess she was wracked with pain.

On the plane, I enjoyed a window seat which awarded me amazing views of the snow-capped Alps

Alps
We arrived in Pisa and drove an hour south to Florence. One of the most interesting aspects of the Italian landscape was the form of the trees. I always though Renaissance artists were using creative license when painting such vertical and closely-clipped trees, but I saw that the forms were indeed real.

The Hotel Cordova was rather old fashioned and authentically Italian. We were staying on the same street as the Palazzo Medici, and just a short walk from the Duomo and the Bapistery of San Giovanni! Mopeds, Motor Bikes and cyles are the mode of transport in Florence. It was funny to see such modern technology zipping by the landmarks of the Renaissance.

DavidDuomo
David, the Duomo, and a portrait of the dome’s architect Brunelleschi

Upon seeing the Duomo for the first time, I uttered a word that I cannot repeat here. The sheer enormous size of the building, as well as its intricate inlaid marble facade kept my eyes busy for awhile and must have put me in a trance. Of course, I jumped at the sight of Brunelleschi’s famous dome, one of the most amazing feats of engineering in the world. At the Bapistery, just a stone’s throw away, I presented Ghiberti’s bronze door panels to my class, thereby freeing myself of academic stress for the rest of the trip!

Arno
The Beautiful Arno River

To be quite honest, the trip’s schedule was set at such a rigorous pace that it is impossible to do a day-by-day breakdown. We saw so much in such a short amount of time, that experienced numerous episodes of sensory overload. By the end of each day, I was so exhausted that I went to bed by 10:30 each night! The last time that happened was probably when I was in middle school!

In addition to seeing the major sites and works, the best part about my experience in Florence was the element of surprise. It was great to stumble upon my favorite pieces that I hadn’t expected to see in Florence, but elsewhere in Italy. I would also like to extend a huge “Thank You” to Ros Ormiston for being such an awesome professor and guide despite the pain of her broken arm.

The trip was so much fun that I had forgotten I was taking a class! However, I just remember that it was a class and I am off to write the paper now!

Next Entry: Switzerland and Germany!

Happy Mothers Week, Mum!

Hey everybody, I have a lot of catching up to do!

About a month ago, my mother came to visit me here in London, and it was her first time to Britain. I hoped she would be enchanted by this great land and she sure was indeed. How fitting that she arrived the weekend of Britain’s Mother’s Day!

Here we are in “Sticky Fingers”, the Rolling Stones themed restaurant owned by former band member Bill Wyman.

Mom and Me

On our first full day together, we went to Marylebone Station to take a Beatles Walk entitled “In My Life”. The walk, run by a Beatlemaniac named Richard, covered areas of Westminster featured in the film “Hard Day’s Night” as well as some of the Beatles’ living spaces. The highlight of the tour was indeed a pilgrimage to the legendary Abbey Road Studios! I daresay that the famous Abbey Road crosswalk is the most busy crosswalk in the world. Many frustrated motorists honked their horns as tourists walked proudly across the street multiple times.

Abbey Road

The following day, we went to the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is one of the most unique museums I have ever visited. A museum of the Fine and Decorative arts, the V & A houses many objects of various materials from many cultures and time periods. For instance, there plaster casts of Renaissance sculptures, along with a 1970s model of a filing cabinet! Such diversity. My mom and I were especially interested in the intricately painted miniature portraits.

Victoria & Albert

A real highlight of our outings was seeing “Billy Elliot The Musical”. The film “Billy Elliot” immediately became a favorite of mine when I first saw it in the movie theater over five years ago. It tells the story of a young English boy from a working-class town who defies the expectations of those around him by pursuing his passion for dance. The musical, written by the creative team of the film, and Elton John, was amazing to see. It had such freshness and British authenticity unlike any other show I have seen. Below is a production photo of Matthew Koon as Billy, and Hadyn Gywnn has his dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson.

Billy Elliot MK
picture from http://www.billyelliotthemusical.me.uk

The greatest highlight of all was showing my mom around Kingston one afternoon. Luckily the weather was wonderful. We visited the street market, walked along the Thames, spent some time at my building, and went to eat at my favorite pub.

Marketplace

After a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, Mom and I parted ways in the tube station. She was sad to go, but had a great experience.

Next Post: My trip to Florence, Italy!