Monday, 28 November 2011

Thanksgiving Abroad

Thanksgiving is typically a family holiday. We get a dayaway from school or work, gather around family tables, eat copious amounts offood, and generally enjoy each other’s company. Though my biological family iscurrently thousands of miles away in Indiana, I still got to enjoy all thesethings (accept the day off, of course!) with my other family, my Harlaxtonfamily. Though we may not be related by blood, I am fully convinced thatHarlaxton creates families away from our biological ones.

When I first signed up to study aboard for a semester, I wasworried about being away from my family over the Thanksgiving holiday. Eventhough I knew that I would be home by Christmas, Thanksgiving is a wonderfulgathering for my family, and I would be the first person to miss it in years. Iwas worried that I would simply spend the holiday going to school andforgetting that there even was a holiday.

It’s not even that far-fetched of an idea to forget aboutThanksgiving over here. As soon as Halloween was over, the Christmasdecorations started coming out. While I was in Bath the last full weekend ofOctober, I saw some people busily hanging lights over the main roadways. Whenasked about it, out taxi driver assured us that they wouldn’t be turned on justyet, but it was still so interesting to consider. No Thanksgiving leads to avery interesting start to the Christmas season.

Just as we were beginning to get into the Christmas spirit,I was reminded of Thanksgiving, thanks to Facebook of all things. My variousfriends from home were commenting how ready they were for Thanksgiving break tobegin; there were status about driving home and seeing family that they hadn’tseen in a year. And it was challenging. Hearing of family gatherings is always hardwhen you can’t be a part of them. But we did what we always do at Harlaxton: wemake it work.

After a normal Thursday full of classes and meetings, wegathered in the Great Hall for a short Thanksgiving service. The atmosphere wasperfect. There was a fire crackling in the fireplace for the first time thisyear, and we participated in a simple service led by students. As the servicedrew to a close, people were invited to stand and share something that theywere thankful for. It was really touching, as people commented about beingthankful for their families, both back home and here at Harlaxton, for (mostly)warm beds, and for friends that put up with you through the thick and thin.

When the moment was over, we all filled into the StateDining Room, where the kitchen staff had done their best to make an American Thanksgivingdinner. We gathered our food and sat in the Long Gallery with our families awayfrom home. We talked, poked fun at one another, and simply enjoyed being ingood company, just as we would on a normal Thanksgiving day. As the eveningbegan to wind down, my little Harlaxton family and I played our own round of “Whatare you thankful for”. The responses were incredibly touching, and I would belying if I said there weren’t a few tears shed.

So yes, I had a new Thanksgiving experience this year. Ispent it thousands of miles away from my biological family. But I also learnedthat Harlaxton gives you a new kind of family where the bonds are just asstrong as the ones you have with your family back home. So I’d like to closeout this blog post with a quick note to my Harlaxton family about how thankfulI am for them, and I invite you to leave your own things that you are thankfulfor in the comments.

I am thankful for my family, both at home and here atHarlaxton. We’ve been through so much together over these last 3 months (canyou believe it’s really only been 3 months?). But through thick and thin, we’vemanaged to grow so much closer. Sure, sometimes we get on each other’s nerves,and we think that we can’t wait to get out of this place. But isn’t that whatfamily is all about? Thank you so much for making this an experience I’ll neverforget, and giving me a true home away from home.

Friday, 25 November 2011

An American in Paris (and Normandy)

November 24, 2011
Happy Thanksgiving!

The long weekend of the Paris trip was the first time I travelled alone in a foreign country. When I say this, I’m not counting the UK as a foreign country: by now we’ve acknowledged that, yes, they do speak a kind of English there; and have trains that run on time; and there is nothing like returning to our Manor on the hill and knowing that it is temporarily ours. England, we like to say, is practically our home.

But France is scary. In the words of the security guard I know as Grumpy: “I don’t like France. It’s full of French people.” Quite a problem if you, like me, don’t speak a word of fran├žais but do feel like eating.

Nevertheless, on the night of November 9th, there I was in Charles de Gaulle Airport—which, like all sensible airports, is at least an hour from civilization—trying to find a train. After a lengthy session of pacing the terminal, asking directions from employees who pointed me in opposite directions, and talking to random strangers—one of whom was convinced I couldn’t speak English, probably because of the horrified look on my face when I heard his accent—I boarded an intercity train to Paris. From Paris Gare du Nord (North Station), I took a very old Metro train to Lumiere, the nation nearest to my hostel.

Stepping outside in Paris for the first time, I was met by a man jabbering at me in French. I was sure he was hitting on me. (Myabe I’m paranoid, or maybe I’d just like to believe that a French man, even a creepy one, might find me attractive.) Walking along the dimly lit streets, clutching my directions, I thought about how I must look to people. A shivering stranger in a bright red coat with a poppy on the collar, carrying a Barnes and Noble shoulder bag with very obvious English text. (Oops.) I wondered if people thought I was American or English, or if they noticed me at all. It had been so long since I had been in America, and Indiana was the farthest thing from my mind. And besides, no one really wants to admit to being an American in Paris.

The more I travel, however, the more I realize that the rest of the world does not necessarily look down on you for being American. Not even all of France does. Granted, the woman at the restaurant where I bought my first sandwich did not take kindly to my “Bonjour, ham sandwich please, merci” routine. And according to the guide on my walking tour of Paris (but don’t quote me on this), there is a national council of some sort to protect the French language from the onslaught of English loan words—apparently, "le week-end" is not acceptable, though the people say it anyway. But there is a striking amount of both British and American influence on French life.

I noticed this particularly the next day, November 10th, when I went on a tour of the D-Day beaches in Normandy. Our tour guide was an Englishman who had made his career there. When he wasn’t giving tours, he went metal detecting with his sons; they still found ammunition, shrapnel, helmets from both sides. The only girl in our group, and the only one who knew nothing about military technology and next to nothing about military history, I felt a little overwhelmed. (To quote my notes from British studies lecture: “Stuff built—in GB? Pillboxes—reinforced concrete machine gun thingies.” And that was an epiphany.) But what struck me as it never had before was the scale of the war. Standing near the shore Omaha beach, as our tour guide drew squiggling maps in the sand, I tried to imagine how many people would have stood where I was standing, how many would have fought and died there.

As we all know, it’s impossible to imagine it, partly because we can never put names and histories to all the men. The American Cemetery, which we visited at the end of our tour, tried to do just that. The dead are marked by “crosses, row on row,” just as the poem describes. Some markers, of course, are the Star of David, but most are crosses. (And those seem to represent the only two religions you could be.) Each marker was largely identical, with the same four pieces of information: name, rank and division, state, and date of death. I thought it was particularly interesting that their state was deemed worth mentioning. Would a man from Indiana be that different than a man from Kentucky when they fought together on the same beach? Maybe not, but it’s a particularly American kind of identification, and I’m glad someone considered it important.

And, of course, the date of death. After a while, I lost track of how many crosses said June 6, 1944. You could fill rows on rows with the dead of D-Day. You could fill further rows with the unidentified men, remembered only with that famous phrase: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”
The cemetery holds only a third of the Americans who died in Normandy; the rest are buried elsewhere, mostly in the United States. But those buried here are also on US soil, as the cemetery is owned and maintained by the American government.
Before we arrived, our tour guide had warned us that we might be asked to help lower the flag. Usually, he said, they look for a veteran, but there are fewer and fewer veterans coming, especially this time of year, and often they will ask anyone from the United States. He said it was a huge honor. And believe it or not, as our group was exploring, a young man with an American accent asked if we would be willing to help him. We weren’t actually lowering the flag, it turned out, but we did help fold it, a task whose difficulty you can appreciate only once you’ve tried it. I felt strange folding such a sacred object, on such a sacred day, one day before Armistice Day. I’ve never been much one for patriotism, and my own country’s version of Armistice Day is a poor excuse for a day of remembrance. But that day, I think I could feel the presence of those people we try so hard to remember, and, in France of all places, I felt proud to call myself an American.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Homeward Bound

It’s only the latter half of November but it feels like I’ve been in the UK for a year.

The first month is epic — you’re in the exploratory phase of traveling abroad. Learning the layout of the Manor itself takes a few weeks, and after the preliminary trips (London in my case, then Wales) you’re ready to enter phase 2: homework, with as many trips as you can during the weekends. It creeped on me, really, when I realized I didn’t realize I was abroad anymore at Harlaxton.

Harlaxton does such a good job of creating a home-like atmosphere that I only feel I’m in foreign lands when I’m off campus. I didn’t mind phase 2 at all. That’s when the big things happened, but also the first rounds of exams and projects. But now that I’m through the initial struggle it’s all about keeping busy, something I feared would never happen during my first weeks when there were things to see, names to remember, and trips to plan. But now everything on campus is like background noise, sorta like it was at UE for me. I enjoyed it when I had the time, and was part of it when I didn’t.

But now we’re in the tail-end of phase 3, the homestretch, and things have picked up. I guess it would have to have been the costume ball, which I recall I didn’t think too highly of when I first saw the posters, but when you know everybody during the reception, and now that you have so much in common with these once-strangers, you realize how far you’ve gotten. Maybe it was the wine? Anyway…

For once we had a chance to celebrate campus and all it had to offer, together, and forget about term papers and group presentations for a weekend. But now that’s the past, and all I have left is Ireland this weekend, finals, then a grueling plane-ride to Chicago. I’m torn between leaving, as I assume most are. On one end I’m thinking, “It’ll be great to be home, have taco bell, and not sound like a tourist.” But on the other it’s “wow, has it been three months already?”

But I’d have to say I have no regrets, and plan to make the most of the homestretch ahead and enjoy the States as much as I can.

Until then,


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Memmingen…not Munich

This past weekend of traveling was interesting to say the least. I have been fortunate enough to not have any issues traveling…until this weekend. The trip sounded like a great idea-fly into Salzburg, Austria, spend a day and a half there, then take a train to Munich, spend two days there, and then fly home from the Munich Airport with 3 of my good friends. What we did not know, was there are two Munich Airports, which is an incredibly important thing to know.

We got to Salzburg pretty late in the afternoon, so it was beginning to get dark. We decided to just take a walk around the town and see a few of the sights. After being lost for about 45 minutes, we finally found the main part of town and it was absolutely beautiful. The next day we got up early and checked out of our hostel. We each bought a Salzburg card which was 22 Euros and allowed us to take public transportation all day and get into most of the tourist places for free and the others at a discounted rate. We then hopped on a bus and headed to the famous “Sound of Music” pavilion. It was off season so all the workers were setting up for the Christmas Market that goes on there. It was very festive and still beautiful. Next we went to Mozart’s birth house. It was very interesting and full of items from his lifetime. The most amazing part for me was getting to see his childhood violin from when he was six years old, since I started playing the violin when I was six years old. After that we just moseyed around town for a while and looked inside the little Christmas shops. We then went to the Museum of Modern art and got to see Salzburg from a panoramic view. It was beautiful. The last stop for us was the Stiegel Brewery where we got 3 free beer tastings and a free gift. We found it to be a successful day and decided to get on the train to Munich.

Our 2 hour train ride to Munich was only 6 Euros, so we were off to a great start. We got to our hostel around midnight excited to start our adventure in Germany. The next day, we woke up and went to Dachau Concentration Camp. This may sound odd, but I have wanted to go to a concentration camp ever since I could remember because of my huge interest in the Holocaust. We were there for 4 hours and we didn’t even see everything there. It was one of the most moving things I have ever experienced. That night when we got back, we walked around the Marienplatz and had a traditional German meal that was delicious. Our last day, we woke early and went on a walking tour of the city that was free through the hostel that we stayed at. We were able to see the town hall and experience the Glockenspiel first hand. We then got to see a few churches and hear a lot of the city’s history from our American tour guide. Unfortunately we had to leave the tour early in order to catch a train to the airport. This is when the trip went terribly wrong.

Every single sign that we saw just said “airport”, but did not specify which one. So of course, we assumed there was only one airport. After getting to the airport about an hour and a half before our flight was supposed to leave, we learn that we are at the wrong airport (Munich Airport) and that the one we were supposed to be at (Memmingen Airport) was a good 2 hours away so we missed our flight. After freaking out for a good ten minutes, we finally gathered ourselves and went to the last minute ticket desks. We found flights ranging anywhere from 300 Euros to 150 Euros. As poor college students, we obviously could not afford that. So we found an internet lab and began to look up tickets on the cheapest websites we know. We finally found one on Ryanair, but it did not leave until Monday afternoon which meant we had to miss a full day of classes, but really had no other choice. So we spent the next 24 hours sitting an airport hungry because we didn’t have any money left for a meal. $200 extra later, we made it back to Harlaxton Manor unharmed. I guess after so many successful trips, it was our time to have a hiccup.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Frankfurt, Germany

Frankfurt, Germany has been one of my favorite cities in Europe so far. A friend of mine and I decided to go on a whim. We arrived without a map. Neither of us spoke German. Our airport turned out to be two hours outside of the city. We had to stay overnight for one night in Stansted. All in all, this could have been a disaster.

Frankfurt's Historic Square

Somehow, we both survived and had a good time.

German food was fantastic. We stopped everywhere for cheap pastries, pretzels, and brauts. The underground system took a few tries to figure out, mostly because it was in another language. Our favorite part of town was the historic square, which was surrounded by restaurants, souvenir stands, and churches. From the center, the church bells seem to echo off of each other on the hour.

Frankfurt is also famous for the “Museum Mile,” which is literally a mile of museums on the Main River. We only had time to see one and it was the Museum of Applied Arts. It was pretty cool, and if you have time to do more than one there is a cheap day-pass that allows entrance into all of them.

In one afternoon we stopped at Palmengarten, Frankfurt’s botanical garden. The autumn leaves were just starting to show their colors and the flowers were gone, so it wasn’t as pretty as it could have been, but it was still worth the trip.

View from mall
At one point in our wanderings we came across an eight-story mall with a viewing platform on the roof. We and all of the other tourists were there taking photos.

Speaking of viewing platforms, we spent the first night trying to find Main Tower. This is a big tourist attraction according to google, but few of the Germans we spoke to had ever heard of it. Unfortunately we only know the area of town it was in, not the actual address, so we were wandering in and out of buildings asking “Main Tower?” throughout Frankfurt. Eventually we found it, despite all language barriers, and the views were worth it.

View from Main Tower

One last thing we ran into on accident was Occupy Frankfurt. What began as Occupy Wall Street in New York City has spread across the pond, as well. Occupy London may even interrupt our field from next week to St. Paul's Cathedral. It's not generally dangerous but it is something to be aware of--strikes and protests happen in some parts of Europe all of the time, and generally tourists should try not to get caught in the middle.

Our airport being so far away did give us a chance to see the German countryside, which we were happy about. The expensive bus ticket wasn’t as exciting, but these things happen in travel.

Germany was absolutely beautiful. Getting out of a tourist town is one of the best things I ever did. Things were relatively cheap, and no one was trying to sell me anything. Plus, it gave us a picture of actual German culture as opposed to the glossy whirlwind of tourism. So my advice to you is to act on a whim every now and then, and try to avoid the traps that only want your money.

Monday, 7 November 2011


I won’t lie. I was a little skeptical about going to Spain. I had heard so many horror stories about things getting stolen and the locals not being helpful at all. However, I already had two trips booked to go there so I didn’t really have a choice. The two trips were very different, and I’m happy to say both trips went very smoothly and I couldn’t be happier that I made the decision to go!

The first place I went was Ibiza with five other girls. It is known as the party capital of the world, but it was off season when we went there so we didn’t really experience much of that. We still had an amazing time. We ended up finding an apartment for all of us to stay on really cheap online. We were skeptical about how nice the place would be, but when we showed up, we were pleasantly surprised. The apartment even had a balcony that overlooked the beach. It was also a nice change to go to a place in the high 60’s-70’s rather than England with low 50’s. We spent most of our time laying on the beach and walking about the town. Neither was very busy since it was off season. It was a very relaxing trip and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

My trip to Santander, Spain was much different. One of my friends here has a best friend who is studying abroad there at this time, so we had our own personal tour guide, which was especially lucky for me because I do not know one word of Spanish. I felt that I experienced more of the Spanish culture while in Santander rather than Ibiza. Ibiza is mostly centered on tourists so it is a little more “Americanized”. Santander is not. This time we stayed in a hostel that really felt like Grandma’s house. It was an apartment building where an older couple lived and they rented out a few rooms. Each day the lady of the house would clean our room, make our beds, and give us clean (free) towels. We even had our own personal bathroom that was cleaned daily as well. The culture in Spain is very different from most. The three things that are mainly focused on there are sleeping, eating, and night life. They also have a totally different concept of time. A typical day for the Spanish includes a nap, or siesta, in the middle of the day and not eating dinner until about 10:00 or 11:00 at night and then going out to the clubs until the wee hours of the morning. Even the little shops around town close for a few hours during the day so everyone can get their nap in. It is very different from what I’m accustomed to, but it is something I could definitely get used to. Once again, this was a very relaxing vacation. We saw many of the sites (we even saw penguins and seals!) and ate traditional Spanish dishes, such as seafood paella, but we never felt rushed and we always felt rested.

Spain is such a beautiful country. I would highly recommend a trip to Spain for a nice relaxing time and a taste of a different culture than your own.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Grantham Weekend Trip

Half the campus is on a sponsored trip, homework is piling, and it’s Friday (or any night…). What is there to do? Well, luckily, Grantham offers only the finest clubs, pubs and entertainment.

Whether it’s a cab of four or four cabs of four, there’s plenty to do in Grantham on a weekend. Most frequented by Fall 2011 students is the Goose, a cozy pub in the middle of town. There’s plenty of seating, a large drink selection and food until late. The Goose has become a meeting point for students who prefer to go out on the town with students. This goes both ways, of course. On one side you are safer in small groups of friends, and have less chance of deciding to walk back to the Manor at 3am to save 2 pounds. But sometimes groups attract attention and deter the locals, but whenever it’s a pound a shot (a rising price, unfortunately) or 2 pounds a pint, who really cares?

After a few at the Goose we walk two blocks to the nightclubs. Now, for many of us under 21 (US-illegals), clubbing was an abstract and disturbing thought. But in Grantham it isn’t so bad. They are inviting, cheap, and accommodate both the outer-ringers (those who prefer to watch the fun) and the party people. Most of all they are relatively safe, each featuring at least two door-men for ID checks and turning away the incoherent and undesirable.

Grantham clubs and pubs, because they are so close, often illustrate migratory patterns. For example — most nights at the Vibe start slow, so many will go across the street to Late Lounge or Gravity, both respectable, or Taboo (the not-so-much club). It isn’t uncommon to visit several establishments in a single night to see what there is to see and meet up with others. And the best part about late-night Grantham are the take-aways, eateries often unfamiliar to Americans. They are grease-buckets, who sell pizza, burgers, sandwiches, or anything a person 9 pints deep will find satisfying. Better yet? They’re cheap.

So it’s closing time. You’re friends are grinning, slobbering and laughing all at once, and it’s time to go home. Easy — leave the building you’re in, walk towards a (parked!) cab, and more often than not they’ll recognize you from the drive in and get you home safely.

Not saying I speak for everyone at Harlaxton, but going out is fun, but don’t limit yourself! I’ve been several local friends going out, most of which I see every few weekends. Going out in large groups prevents such mingling, most of the time, because what’s more intimidating than 27 boisterous American’s taking the floor? Not much. So keep an open mind, meet people, and (here’s the PSA) be safe.

-Brennan Girdler

p.s. Don’t bring more than 30 pounds on a night…because you’ll often leave with less

(and sorry — pictures and images better not to be included)