Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Time's Winged Chariot, or Can It Really Be Nearly March?

Teatime in Wales!
Tomorrow is the last day of February. Our journey abroad has passed its halfway point, but it feels as if I’ve been here forever. I am no longer stymied by the labyrinthine passages of the manor, nor feel surprise when I see the driver step out of the right side of the car. (I still have trouble with the doors, though, nasty things. They never open in the direction I expect). I have developed a fondness for stopping in my travels around three o’clock, in order to pop into a café for a pot of tea or glass of coffee, and am in love with the architecture I see around me on a daily basis.

Curiously, Harlaxton provides an interesting mixture of opportunities to be both more and less independent than we are at home. The Refectory provides all of our meals, and we have no opportunity to cook outside for ourselves, much as we may long for a wider variety of food. The cornerstone of the program here is the British Studies class, which every student takes, meaning that we share many of the same experiences. And there are absolutely no independent transportation opportunities; when I can’t take it any longer and need a Diet Cherry Coke, I have to wait for the shuttle to take me into Grantham rather than jumping into my beloved Impala, Amelia, and popping over to Target.

But yet, I have planned trips to foreign countries with nothing more than a friend or two, the internet, and my poor, abused credit card. When Cypress and I turned up in Bremen last weekend, we had neither map nor S-Bahn (train) schedule, but between my ability to speak German and her uncanny sense of direction, we had an amazing time, and got marginally lost only once. Navigating train lines, choosing a non-sketchy hostel and sleeping in an airport are no longer scary, and are just a part of regular life here. The ready availability of alcohol also fosters a sense of independence—we can buy it here!—which some people handle better than others, the last I shall say on that particular subject.

Bremen. How could you not be moved by the architecture?
In my admittedly rather unofficial and possibly quite skewed survey of my friends, both close and casual, I would contend that most people are having a wonderful semester, but will be ready to go home when the term is up. I would tend to agree with this. This is, by far, the most rewarding semester that I have ever had. Every experience I have, every place I go and every person with whom I speak enriches me immeasurably. That said, there is a sort of bizarre surrealism inherent in this experience; it still does not feel wholly real, that I just got back from Bremen, and that I will be going back to Germany in another two weeks; that I have day trips to LONDON planned; that I live in a freaking manor house. It’s really quite exhausting. There is the old adage that a college student can have two of the following three: good grades, enough sleep and a social life. Add into that mix traveling nearly every weekend, and you can see where the difficulty comes in! And of course, many people, myself included, are starting to really miss their families, their pets, their own beds.

Best care package ever.
And American food! At least once every day, I hear someone say something along the lines of “I would kill someone for a burrito.” Or for Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Or their mom’s sweet potatoes. My mother sent me a care package that contained Ramen. I almost cried for joy.

All this said, I would not give up the rest of my semester for the world. I have so much traveling left – Düsseldorf, another two trips to London and finally Edinburgh! (Why Düsseldorf, you might ask. The answer is no better than that I love Germany, and tickets were FOURTEEN POUNDS round trip. It would have been a crime to have said no.) There are more foods to try, people to meet, things to learn and see and do. I have not lost my sense of wonder; every time I see the manor from the road, my heart leaps up. At this midpoint of the semester, I am having the time of my life, and cannot wait to see what the remainder of my stay will bring. 

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Wales Wonderland

When preparing myself for this semester in Europe, I never thought I would venture to the seaside. I also never thought I would be staying in a hotel on the coast. 
I was wrong.
I am so happy that I was wrong! This past weekend I had the opportunity to travel to North Wales, where I visited Chester, Llanberis, Swallow Falls, Betws y Coed, and stayed in the coastal town Llandudno. Before this semester, I wouldn’t even have had a guess at pronouncing those cities, but now I’ve had a chance to explore them (and fail miserably at saying them correctly).
Wales is my favorite place I’ve been so far. EVER. 
Literally across the street from our hotel was the sea, along with a lovely pier and many brightly colored homes.

What started out as a rainy weekend turned into an absolutely gorgeous one. On Saturday morning, we made our way from our lovely hotel to Caernarfon Castle, which was so much bigger than I can even describe. I felt like a child playing hide-and-go-seek, running around through the castle making sure I explored every inch of it before our time there ran out. 

From there we made our way to the town of Llanberis, which was a town that sat in the valleys of Snowdonia. It was a small town, but I enjoyed every minute of it, and grabbed some gorgeous pictures of the mountains in the distance and some wonderful food at Pete's Eats, which apparently is considered "the best cafe in the world." It was pretty good, and it reminded me of some small-town diners back home.

This is Snowdonia! 

We got back to Llandudno in the evening and scrambled to dinner because everything closed at 6:00 pm. Some were frustrated with the lack of "stuff to do," but that's why I liked Wales so much. It was so quaint, and every town we visited had its own unique characteristics. On Sunday we stopped in Betws y Coed, and wandered into a candle shop, where the owners would personalize candles. They were wonderfully sweet and were very interested to learn about us and our backgrounds! 

This is what I was so excited for about this semester. I wanted to visit smaller towns and wander into local shops and cafes and learn about their own everyday lives. I absolutely loved Wales for all of these reasons, and it was, by far, the prettiest place I have ever been. 
And I also learned the weather is not far from home — it's just as unpredictable as Indiana weather! Sunshine one minute, hailing the next. (And yes, that really did happen!)

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The People

Hello and welcome to a segment I like to call MythBusters: Study Abroad Addition.  Today we will be attempting to bust the myth that most Americans believe about the people across the pond.  We think the British do not like Americans in the least and, therefore, can be rude towards said Americans.  In order to bust this myth, I have gathered information in the field by setting up several, genuine, interactions.  Okay, so mostly I just wander about a lot and end up finding interesting people, but more on that later.

The main thing to remember is that, like Americans, the British do not enjoy an obnoxious group of young adults acting like they own the place.  I mean, how many times how you glared at a large gaggle of giggling girls who refuse to move out of their five across formation?  Too many to count?  I thought so.  This can lead to the cashier, waitress, or ticket taker to be short with you; not because they happen to hate Americans, but because it is rude to walk into the store, restaurant, or castle and act like you own the place.  Luckily, this is easily fixed: be respectful of those around you.  Remember that you are a guest in this country, so you should strive to be a good one.  Also, never underestimate the power of "please" and "thank you."  Common sense, I know, but you'd be surprised at how few actually use them.

Something some Americans might not know, however, is that the British think we are very loud.  It's not the sound of our "accent" that makes them cringe; it's how loudly we're using said accent.  We might think we're talking at a very normal volume, but to someone from a different country it may seem like we're shouting in their face.  This doesn't mean you have to whisper, but it may be a good thing to dial down your volume a notch or two, just in case.

She also helped us dress in full military regalia and took our picture!
If you follow these few simple guidelines, you never know the interesting people you might meet.  In fact, most people I've come across really enjoy talking to polite Americans.  They love to tell you some of their favorite places around the city and make suggestions on what you should see while you're visiting.  Some of my friends and I went to Cardiff this past weekend and met this lovely woman who worked in the history of war section (called The Firing Line) in Cardiff Castle.  She told us all of the fun, must-sees in the city and was really excited when we told her we planned on going to most of the places she had mentioned.  She went on to ask where else we planned on going while we were in the UK and gave us a list of places to go to in Bath this weekend (she mentioned a speciality Cadbury hot chocolate and sweet shop that I am simply determined to find).  We spoke to her for a good twenty minutes before saying good-bye, and the information she gave us was priceless.

So, the myth that the British hate Americans: busted.  They love to share their wonderful country with you as long as you're polite and interested.

Also, one more helpful hint before I go.  Instead of asking what state you are from, they often ask what region you are from.  Chances are if you just say the name of your state they'll know exactly where you come from.  Hopefully this will prevent you from looking like an idiot when you're silent for a few seconds wondering if you should say the mid-west, America, or Wisconsin.  It's too late for me (one cashier at Asda probably thinks I'm a little slow), but there's still hope for you!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Mr. Jones, Lucky Charms and "Chattell Lines"

Fellow blogger Cassie, Shannon, and I on the Airlink
By now, I'm starting to feel like a seasoned traveler. I've been to London, to Edinburgh, and on various day trips with the school and with my friends. But last weekend, four of my friends and I put ourselves to the ultimate test--planning a long weekend all on our own. It wasn't without difficulties, figuring out which hostel to stay at, how to get from the train station to the airport, from the airport in Dublin to our hostel, but we were nevertheless determined to spend an amazing weekend in Dublin, and that's exactly what we did.

It's a rush, the realization that you've managed to get yourself to an entirely different country. Stepping off that cheap Ryanair plane with it's bright yellow and blue seats (which took me back to my year in middle school as a Northwest Knight in blue and gold before I moved to Ross and "found myself" as they say) was amazing. For the first time, I felt really capable of anything, everything. I'd been to other countries before, but not like this.

Perhaps the feeling was a little bit prophetic, because my experience in Dublin was vastly different from the other trips I'd taken before. Every single trip has been fantastic in its own way, but in Dublin I really felt like it was about more than just seeing the sight and saying I'd been there. In Dublin, we really got to interact with the PEOPLE, with the CULTURE, in a way I hadn't before.

See, people in Dublin are friendly. Or at least, men in Dublin are friendly when they see a group of five pretty American girls on "holiday." The guy working reception at our hostel (which was called Mount Eccles Court and which I highly recommend, as an aside) was all too happy to give us recommendations on where to eat, and since we were tired, hungry, and ready to celebrate Lesley's 20th birthday, we were more than happy to take those suggestions. That's how we found ourselves at The Oval, where our waiter was not only attractive but also incredibly friendly, and again, all to happy to suggest what food and drinks we should get. A quick celebration involving a "birthday squid" in Lesley's seafood chowder and a slight buzz off some delicious cider later, and we were already feeling incredibly satisfied with Dublin. Who would have known the cultural experience (and the boost to our feminine egos) was only going to get better?

The soup and bread Gina and I had at the Cafe--yum!
The next day was spent walking around and getting familiar with the city--at least for Shannon, Gina, and I. We saw the National Gallery, had lunch in a cute little cafe, and spent some time looking at shops and of course having tea. We stepped into a bookshop and met yet another incredibly friendly person, who was happy to help Shannon find books about Irish history, giving customer service that definitely went above and beyond the usual. Everywhere we went, people were telling us to have a great weekend, asking us where we were from, and if we had Irish heritage or not. I even learned a little bit about my own background--apparently my ancestors were metalworkers!

The Picture, Courtesy of Irish Stranger
And then, our night out. Shannon, Lesley and I decided it was about time we had ourselves a real Irish pub experience, and we were determined to get one. I'll be honest, I don't really drink. But the idea of sitting down in a pub with some Dubliners and having a drink or two really appealed to me. I guess it just seemed like the type of thing one ought to DO when in Ireland. Anyway, after a somewhat exhausting search we found ourselves in The Celt, a cute and slightly crowded little pub that smacked of authenticity, if only because most of the people in there were NOT wearing green sweatshirts or cowboy hats and did not have American accents (believe me, that's a common thing, especially in the Temple Bar district.) We sat down, had a drink, and Shannon ended up engaged in conversation with a man we'd asked to take our picture. How often does that simple request result in learning someone's life story? Apparently, in Dublin it happens fairly often (even if we were pretty sure the thirty-something guy was trying to hit on her, it was mostly harmless).

And now to the main point in my tale of social exploration. We headed down the street to Maddigan's Pub, a place we'd seen advertising live music earlier. The bartender ushered us in off the street, telling us the music was going to start any minute. We had a seat at the bar, Shannon treated us to a round of Baileys (which is DELICIOUS, by the way) and we found ourselves yet again engaged in conversation by none other than the bartender. Maybe I just don't know how this works, seeing as how it was certainly my first time sitting a bar, but he was incredibly nice and very OPEN. He asked us where we were from, and we learned that apparently people associate Indiana with Indiana Jones, since whenever we told them that's where we were from they'd ask "How's Mr. Jones?"

The Irish conception of people from Indiana?
Anyway, long story short we went from sitting at the bar talking to the incredibly friendly bartender to sitting at a table with a group of Irish boys about our age. And that was how we ended up learning a LOT about Irish culture. One of the boys had come up to us, wanting to interview us about our holiday for his job (about which we were a little skeptical at first). One of the questions he asked was "what are some of your favorite chattel lines?" Naturally, we just sort of gave the guy a blank stare. What on EARTH was that? After a little awkward fooling around with the idea, he and his friends got us to understand that it was the equivalent of what we Americans call a "pick up line." It's amazing, the different shades of language even within English.

The American conception of the Irish?
From there, we got on the topic of stereotypes and learned that, although Americans frequently reference the Lucky Charms leprechaun, Irish guys have no idea what Lucky Charms are and will NOT understand the joke any more than we understood the chattel lines or the "How's Mr. Jones" thing at first. It was truly amazing, though, just the surreal moment of being an American in Dublin, sitting at a table with Irish boys FROM Dublin and talking about our perceptions of one another. When one of the boys asked me what my Irish stereotypes were, it was hard to come up with anything at first, but then I realized how few redheads I'd seen (one of the boys quipped that they didn't want them and shipped them all off), and how I had essentially imagined a land of Guinness and shamrocks and not much else. I was amazed at the interest they had in our culture, because I'd never really thought of my culture as anything unique before. Yet here we were, discussing leprechauns and the impossibility of finding hot dogs in Dublin and how confusing it was for them that there were so many stops for commercial breaks during the Super Bowl (they don't get the American commercials).

The Five Intrepid Explorers in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral
I've loved all the sight-seeing, and the tourist attractions, and the ease of all my previous travels. But this was the first time I felt I was starting to see life through the eyes of someone who'd been raised in a totally different world, even though they spoke the same language... more or less. It's impossible to sum up a long weekend in a single blog post, and there was plenty more where that came from, but the things I'm always going to remember about my trip to Ireland will be Mr. Jones, Lucky Charms, and chattel lines.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

An Overseas Valentine

Whether you call it Valentine’s Day, Single’s Awareness Day, or just Tuesday, the day has arrived and —just like any other college— Harlaxton is celebrating. Our SGA (Student Government Association) has organized a Karaoke Night, which will be tonight at 8:15pm in the Bistro. It’s sure to be filled with sappy ballads and plenty of spirits. Also, our RAs have been selling Candy Grams, which are essential little bags of candy with an optional message attached. The events at Harlaxton, however, pale in comparison to how the rest of the United Kingdom plans for the romantic holiday.
For example, I spent the last weekend in Dublin, Ireland, and my friends and I were wandering the city streets in search for some inexpensive dinner. Finally, after almost a half an hour of walking, we realized all the restaurants were too expensive (most displayed specials beginning at €20, which is about $27) and all the pubs were severely overcrowded. Desperate, we stopped and asked an Irish woman what affordable restaurant she would recommend— and she stared at us, confused, and kindly suggested, “McDonalds?”

She proceeded to explain that no restaurants would be inexpensive or without table reservations so close to “Saint Valentine’s” (as she called it). Afterwards, I began noticing the lavish pink and red color schemes, the sparkling streamers, and the heart-shaped decorations that adorned every restaurant. Though we certainly celebrate Valentine’s Day in the US, I'm not accustomed to celebrating to this elaborate extent. Still, we eventually found a local deli within our price range and had some delicious Irish food— but, I certainly learned that if I’m ever here again around Valentine’s Day, I’ll be making my own dinner.

This is La Cave restaurant, which is famous in Dublin for its fine selection of wines. The “Table D’Hote Menu” includes an impressive arrangement of entrees— and begins its pricing at €28 ($37).

As far as my own plans for Valentine’s Day this year, I’m attending a Gavin DeGraw concert in London! My two closest girl friends and I are going and having a girls’ night, complete with music, chocolate, and plenty of bonding time. All our boyfriends are overseas, and today can serve as an unwelcome reminder of the almost 5,000 miles between us. But, we’re staying busy and trying to remember that this truly is a once in a lifetime experience, and no one back home wants us to spend this semester unhappy.

Armed with that reassurance, and with the guarantee that London will be an exciting place to spend the holiday, I’m looking forward to starting my day. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Or, as the Irish would say: Happy Saint Valentine’s!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Exploring Grantham

Have you ever stumbled across the upsetting news that you want to travel, but you're broke?  Or maybe you have too much work to leave for more than a few hours, but you still want to do something fun over the weekend.  Whatever the case, the town of Grantham should not be viewed as anything less than an adventure.  Most merely see this as the stopping point between Harlaxton and other glamorous vacation spots, but Grantham has a charm and elegance that is worth a look around.

If you want to spend the day in Grantham, I suggest you go on a Saturday.  Why?  Because every Saturday there's a fabulous farmer's market.  The mere atmosphere is spectacular with vendors yelling out their prices and wares; the air is alive with a kind of energy you don't find much outside this close-knit community.  Plus, they sell everything you could possibly want.  Fresh fruit and vegetables abound, so even in the middle of winter you can get juicy and delicious strawberries.  If fruit isn't your thing, fear not!  There's a stand set up for you no matter what your interests are.  In this two block stretch of road there are stands that sell books, fresh bread, cheese, sweets, clothes, toys, bakery items, records, meats, seafood, and hardware.  And if you don't feel like shopping, then you can always just get some lunch from the street vendors and take a look around while you eat.  However, if it's freezing when you go, might I suggest getting lunch at the cafe inside of the Morrison's grocery store?  The food is excellent and inexpensive, but, best of all, if you have sinus issues or a plugged nose (which I've seemed to have since arriving) the best thing for you is a bowl of their Chili Con Carne.  It's so spicy and delicious I guarantee you'll be able to breathe after three bites!  Definitely worth it.

If you get cold easily, but still what to see the many things Grantham has to offer, you should check out the charity shops.  All over Grantham are small thrift stores with second-hand items: kind of like Goodwill's cousin.  However, these shops donate their earnings to certain charities.  There's a store benefiting the Red Cross, Vets For Pets, and retirees.  They all have really great finds in them as well.  Grantham is surrounded by wealthier towns, and when people clean out their closets they're more than likely to bring unwanted possessions to one of these places to help promote the greater good.

And, if you're craving a little slice of home, one of the places Harlaxton students visit the most is Asda. Asda is the United Kingdom's version of Wal-Mart, and they have everything you could possibly imagine.  Most students who go there buy food: usually bread and some form of Nutella (a chocolate hazelnut spread).  As long as you're there, though, you might as well look around at all the fun things they have.  When you look back on your day in Grantham I'm sure your memories will be full of good times, and your wallet won't be empty!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Lincoln Field Trip

When I was in second grade, my class went on a field trip to Fort Snelling, essentially the most important historical building in Minnesota. It was really quite cool – an army outpost built in 1819, designed to protect American territory from the wicked, insidious British forces that were (apparently) a major threat to national security. Or something nice and oversimplified like that.

Last Wednesday, the entire college went on a field trip to Lincoln. Which is by no means the oldest settlement in Britain. But was a Roman outpost. To put it rather inelegantly, stuff is just so much older here. In the United States, virtually nothing from the precolonial period is still surviving. But here, it’s not uncommon to see structures more than one thousand years old. Incredible.

The day of the field trip was cold. Extremely cold. Being from Minnesota, I know how to dress for bad weather. Geared up in my incredibly unattractive ensemble of leggings, tights, jeans, wool socks, a tank top, long-sleeved top, flannel top, sweater, scarf, mittens and coat, I thought I would be duly prepared. And I didn’t freeze to death, although I was quite chilly for most of the day. However, we did experience a miracle—the sun was out, and was shining gloriously at that. I tend to be rather more pensive here than at home, but the sun managed to dispel the intense and brooding mood that had been plaguing my friends and me of late.

Part of the walking tour
Because such a massive horde of American barbarians was descending upon the city at once, we were divided into a number of groups and sub-groups. I am pleased to report that the city of Lincoln managed to withstand this invasion better than it did the Romans, although I am sure we wreaked some form of havoc or another. There were four main activities planned for us. Almost all of which took place largely outdoors, I may add. My group first did the independent walking tour. Well, actually, I am rather shamed to report that, while the hardier members of my group may have done just that, a couple friends and I did a significant proportion thereof, got cold, and then found a cozy little bookstore to while away the remainder of the hour. We did see a good amount of the city, including the aptly named Steep Hill, which, I can assure you, is not a lark. Beautiful town, however, and immersed in history.

The magnificent Lincoln Cathedral
We then proceeded to the Lincoln Castle tour, which was perhaps the most frigid part of the day, what with the exposure on the walls. That said, it was really quite interesting. Our guide was an adorable little old lady named Dorothy, who knew a great deal about the castle and delighted in regaling us with some of the rather less palatable facts about the...rather ignoble history of the British prison system. And hearing it come from her tiny body and grandmotherly face made it even more interesting. Basically, the Normans built the castle on an old Roman site around 1068. Eventually, it was used as a prison and was the site of a not-insignificant number of hangings. It also houses one of the few extant original copies of the Magna Carta, and is still part of the English Court system.

After a break for our thoughtfully-provided bag lunches (read: ducking into a coffee shop and trying desperately to warm up by drinking a hot beverage, as well as attempting to stuff our faces with our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as inconspicuously as possible), the next stop on our grand tour was the Cathedral. Which was simply magnificent. I am fully aware that it was built in a manner designed to impress a sense of awe on the onlooker, but even with that knowledge, I was overwhelmed by its beauty and majesty. The sheer vastness of the building, the intricacy of the carvings and statues, and the light coming in through the elaborate stained-glass windows created an overall impression of grandeur and reverence.

Finally, we went on the “Roman Walk,” which my wordplay-besotted mind thinks should be called “Roamin’ the Romans,” or something similarly groan-worthy, but I digress. We saw a number of ruins, which we quite interesting, but honestly, by this point in the day, we were too cold and too overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new and impressive sights that we—well, myself, at least, but I feel like this was not an uncommon problem—had trouble focusing on the extremely important, but rather less magnificent Roman well and arch. Saw a lovely statue of Tennyson, but I am afraid we glossed over that rather quickly. Twas a shame. I do so love Tennyson.

My friend Emily and I braving the cold.
Overall, near-frostbite aside, the Lincoln field trip was a really good experience. While the cathedral was particularly glorious, everything we saw was beautiful. And as interesting it is to hear about history—about castles and cathedrals, battles and prisons—it is so much more rewarding when you can physically, tangibly experience a place. I love to read about history, but when one reads about a place, one only learns about the place. However, standing in the Lincoln Cathedral, I finally understood the sense of awe about which I had always read. That alone would have made the entire trip more than worth it.