Tuesday, September 25, 2012

So I was reading Richard II this afternoon.

And I fell asleep. For four hours.

Afternoon = gone.
Progress on Shakespeare = none.
Sam = defeated by cold room and solace of comfy bed.

Seriously, couldn't there be a couch in our flat? And maybe a warm room within which to put said couch? Or, at the very least, just a warm room?

Little things like these make me miss home a lot.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Edinburgh: Week 1, Part 2

Hello everybody!

Here I am halfway through my second full week in Edinburgh, and things have gotten much busier. (Just the way I like my life to be!) Classes started on Monday, so I've been a bit busy and only just now have time to sit down and recap the rest of my "Freshers Week" here at Uni. There are lots of photos in this post (yay!); feel free to click on any of them for a better look.

little things.
Last Tuesday, all of the exchange students (some 2,000 of us) met up for an informational meeting. I wouldn't even mention this but for the fact that, during the meeting, I overheard two Americans behind me complaining about "how hard it is to meet other Americans." I had to check myself, because I really wanted to turn around and smack them in the face. Why would you travel abroad with the intention of meeting Americans? The whole point of studying in another country is to meet people from different cultures. And here they were lamenting the fact that boring old Americans were seemingly few and far between. I have two messages for them: 1) students from the United States comprise the vast majority of exchange students here, so I'm not sure where you are looking, and 2) you're stupid.

I successfully got into all of the courses I wanted! My third return visit to the Visiting Student Office was triumphant. I am now taking three English courses, two at the third-year level: a course about tragedy within sovereign bodies between 1300 and 1625; a course about Edinburgh as it is portrayed in fiction and as a space within which to write fiction; and a course surveying the 18th and 19th centuries of Scottish literature. Since I'm a double major at home, I've never taken so many English courses in a single semester, and the course load both intimidates and excites me. I'm set to read about 40 or so books this semester...no social life for me! Ah well. The good news is that I don't have class on Fridays,  which enables me to travel quite a bit more. And to read. A lot. Reading reading reading. (I'll write more specifically about my courses in my next blog post.)

I had the best hot chocolate OF MY LIFE last week at a little Italian eatery. It's like they melted a chocolate bar and added a teeny bit of milk. Seriously, it was SO GOOD. I made Emily, Ahlam, and Anarkalee all try it as well, and we agreed it was positively heavenly. Definitely worth a return visit.

I am proud to announce that I officially know my way around the center of the city! This is a huge accomplishment, and one that I worked hard to attain (my tired map can attest to the frequency with which I unfolded and folded it last week). But now I can ably navigate the key areas of Edinburgh, and it feels amazing not to rely on visual aides anymore. The best part is that now I feel comfortable exploring off the beaten path - the little side streets, winding passageways, and short cuts that lend Edinburgh its true charm.

St. Giles' Cathedral.
Last Wednesday I visited St. Giles' Cathedral. One of the oldest kirks in all of Scotland, parts of the structure itself date back to 1124. The Cathedral is absolutely stunning: it is huge, with beautiful stalls and the most intricate stained glass. The organ was my favorite part. It is positively mammoth in size (check out a picture of it here) and it played such lovely music. Unfortunately, the public isn't allowed to take photographs without a fee, and since I am broke, I let this experience be one for my memory alone. Still, if you're interested in what St. Giles' interior looks like, click here.

Edinburgh Castle.

Last Thursday, I made my way up High Street to Edinburgh Castle, the earliest parts of which date back to about A.D. 600. It was built upon ancient volcanic rock, which is kind of awesome, and it is visible for miles in every direction. (I should know--I have a clear view of it from the kitchen window of my flat!) The Castle has been subjected to countless sieges and invasions over the course of its history, and much of what remains today serves primarily as a military garrison. Still, the Royal Palace was quite awesome to behold. It includes the chamber wherein Mary Queen of Scots (yes, the deliciously devilish Mary) gave birth to James VI! The rooms today are sparsely furnished, of course, because very little of the original furniture survives. Still, the rooms themselves were impressive; the moldings and crests on the fireplaces were especially beautiful.

I'll admit that I was slightly bummed that there wasn't more of the actual castle to see, but I suppose that's what the other thousands of castles in Scotland are for!

Also within the complex are the Scottish Crown Jewels, featuring some breathtaking pieces that apparently weigh as much as a small child. (I suppose when you have the money, the bigger the better, right?) Featured in the chamber with the Crown Jewels is the Stone of Destiny, a historically important block of sandstone revered as a holy relic and rumored to have been the pillow for Jacob (yes, biblical Jacob). In later years, kings of Scotland were crowned upon the Stone. Today it sits on exhibit at Edinburgh Castle, but its legacy makes it quite a bit of fun to see.

Across from the Royal Palace in the upper courtyard of the Castle is the Great Hall, which is absolutely huge, very echoey, and features a ceiling built from the hull of a ship. It is seriously one of the coolest and most impressive things I have ever seen. The Hall also consists of some gorgeously carved window seats, some beautiful antique chandeliers, and a few simple suits of armor.

Across from the Great Hall is the Scottish National War Memorial, a tribute to all of the soldiers who fought and died in WWI. Stepping inside the large stone building, I immediately felt a sense of reverence, one which deepened when I began to sift through the huge volumes filled with the names of the deceased. I even found an entry for a Donald MacMillan, born in Campbeltown Argyllshire, who died on August 17th, 1916. MacMillan is my family's clan. I found one of my relatives. It was such a surreal, moving moment.

Other neat things about Edinburgh Castle include the National War Museum of Scotland, which featured a great exhibit on the history of the bagpipe (I'm a dork, I know); St. Margaret's Chapel, built in 12th century and today the oldest building in Edinburgh; and Mons Meg, a cannon from the 1400s that weighs more than five tons (and is utterly useless as a weapon since it would destroy pretty much everything within a significant radius, not to mention sink the ships for which it was intended).

Perhaps the best part of Edinburgh Castle, though, are the absolutely amazing views that it provides. Since it's situated so far above the rest of the city, it allows for stunning panoramas, and some of the city's architecture, viewed from above, is even more brilliant than when seen up close.

I also made two new friends during my excursion to the Castle--Kaiti and Hina. After a pleasant two hours of exploring the grounds together, we decided a commemorative photograph was in order. A sweet elderly couple from Georgia took our picture, but the winds seemed to have their own plans in mind. Ah well. Such is life in Edinburgh.

Underground Vaults.
Last Thursday I also took a night tour of the Underground Vaults. My "ghost tour" consisted of an eccentric (but highly effective) guide named Emily, outfitted in cloak and all, who led us on a trip around historic areas of Edinburgh's Old Town (including a parking lot built on top of the city's oldest cemetery) before finally leading us into the Vaults that lie beneath the street of South Bridge. Emily told some highly entertaining stories about the Bodysnatchers (naughty, naughty people), as well as some more recent tales about ghostly inhabitants of the Vaults. There are over 150 rooms in the Vaults, but apparently only three of them seem to be haunted. I'm not sure what my beliefs are as they pertain to ghosts, but I will say that my hands felt weirdly cold while I was in the Vaults (much colder than they'd felt when I was outside), even with my gloves on. Strange, no?

St. Andrews.
On Saturday, I made a trip out to St. Andrews, which lies on the east coast of Scotland, on the bay of the North Sea. Let me just say that I am completely charmed by the place! It is so clean and green and scenic and beautiful. This, I'm sure, was well-aided by the fact that it was a beautiful 65 degrees and sunny with very little wind. Still, though, St. Andrews is wonderful, especially if you're looking for laid back exploration. It's a very economically comfortable area, which affords it the ability to have some of the most well-manicured lawns I have ever seen. I spent my first hour in the town just wandering with my friend Julia along North Street, which lies along the coast of the North Sea, taking in the house fronts with their darling colored doors and the sight and smell of the waters just a few meters away. The cliffside is very steep, but the views are beautiful, with birds flying over the water and the smell of salt overhead.

We also passed by St. Andrews' Links, the world-famous golf course. It was also perfectly manicured and green. But of course. St. Andrews is the birthplace of golf, after all. Next, we explored St. Andrews Castle, which wasn't much of a castle at all, since it's now in ruins. Still, what's left today is impressive, especially when viewed from afar along the cliffs by the water.

Julia and I grabbed lunch at this really neat restaurant called "The Glass House," which is a tiny little eatery that used to be a Salvation Army but has since been converted. I had a delicious sausage, leek, and mushroom flatbread pizza, possibly some of the best pizza I have ever had. We then began our afternoon by exploring St. Andrews Cathedral, also in ruins. It must have been utterly enormous back in the day, because what's left of the structure today is massive.

It was so interesting to stroll among the gravestones and read the epitaphs, and to gaze up at the staggeringly-high remnants of the Cathedral's original structure. By far the best moment of the day (and the most rewarding) was climbing the 155 steps up to the top of St. Rule's Tower. Upon reaching the top, we were greeted by soaring panoramic views of the town and the North Sea beside it. It was absolutely breathtaking. And also very windy. But of course.

We ended our day by visiting part of the campus of St. Andrews University, the oldest and most prestigious university in Scotland, now famous for two graduates by the names of William and Kate. The campus was absolutely gorgeous-- more flowers, more stone buildings, more green grass--and if anything, it made me miss Mount Holyoke so very, very much!

Thanks for sticking with me through such a long post! I'll hopefully be posting more pictures on Facebook soon. I have a 500-page novel to get through by Monday, however, so we'll see what happens. Still, I have enjoyed my time here so far immensely, and I just hope it keeps getting better! I'm feeling less lonely than I initially did, although I do experience huge bouts of homesickness from time to time. I'm assuming that once my courses swing into high gear, I'll have very little time to think about it at all. Here's hoping I retain some semblance of a social life with my crazy reading schedule...we shall see.

So what's next? Finishing out my first week of classes, reading that 500-page tomb of Sir Walter Scott's (among other books), hiking Arthur's Seat (weather dependent, of course), and a day trip to Loch Lomond this weekend! Stay tuned for my next blog post.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Edinburgh: Week 1, Part 1

Well here I am in perpetually-overcast Edinburgh, Scotland!

Three days in and I am finally starting to feel a little less lost. It's a wonderful feeling, though I definitely don't feel at home yet.

I'm not sure what exactly to share with you all (few and far between as you readers are!), but since this blog is also for my own benefit (my memory is faulty at times), I'm going to write as much as I can remember. Feel free to skim!

the flight over.
I wouldn't comment on this but for the fact that the First-Class seats on British Airways are hysterical. They're arranged in modules or pods, and they look like little hamster mazes. Maybe I was overly amused by them (I have always flown Economy, so I think I'm just used to cramped rows of seats), but take a look for yourself here - they're quite odd. During my layover in Heathrow, I met a fellow American traveller named Rachel, who is studying photography at the Glasgow School of Art for a semester. We got terribly lost in the airport terminal together, but it was all good, and it was nice to have somebody to chat with. I also need to make a minor note here that during my flight over, I watched "The Hunger Games," and while I've never read the books before (I've been meaning to!), I have to say that the movie was SO GOOD. Seriously though. I understand the cultural obsession a bit more now.

moving in to my flat.
I have a cute little single in a flat that faces a beautiful green golf course, with brown stone buildings rising up in the distance. It's a lovely view and I'm always tickled to wake up in the morning to find lads in full golfing attire putting around on the green. My single itself is small, but I find it really cozy, and all my clothes fit (Mum, you'd be proud!), so that's good. The very first thing I noticed when I opened the door to my room was a huge brown spider on my floor. It is now dead. The end.

getting around.
Day 1: 
The first day I arrived, I took it upon myself to acclimate to the time difference. Determined not to crash in my bed from jetlag, I set out on a quest to buy a duvet for my bed as well as some groceries. After about two hours of very misguided self-navigation (supplemented by well-intentioned directions that proved to be less than helpful), I found my way to a store called "Argos." This store can only be described as a fast-food restaurant for material, non-edible objects. Except it's also on Ikea-strength steroids. You look for what you want in this huge five-pound catalogue, which has pretty much everything a person could ever need to buy, and then pay at the counter for your order. After about a five minute wait, you pick up all your stuff at a counter where they've packaged it all up for you. It was a bizarre shopping experience, but a humorous one nonetheless. The kicker was having to carry the huge duvet that I bought all the way home, which was about three and a half miles away. I also got lost on the way home. Whoops.

Day 2:
Emily arrived on Sunday and we made our way over to Princes Street to buy SIM cards for our phones. I am proud to say I perfectly remembered how to get there, and we didn't get lost once! We managed to get my phone set up, but only after I accidentally jammed the SIM card into the wrong part of the phone and had to have a really kind (and amused) Scotsman help me take it out with his safety pin. We also raided Pound Stretcher for a disgusting amount of necessities.

That evening I had a relaxing dinner with my flatmates, two of whom are from Scotland (Scorcha and Hebe) and another who's studying abroad like me (Michaela). I think (and hope!) they're all beginning to warm up to me. Maybe? Pretty please?

Last night Emily and I went out for the first time. We hit up a bar called "The Three Sisters," where two somewhat incoherent Irishmen chatted us up, one of whom was quite charming (the other was very, very intoxicated). We ended our night at a second bar, "Frankenstein," where we met two Americans and a Brit, danced the night away, and even did a karaoke rendition of Miley Cyrus' "Party In the USA" (but of course).

Day 3:
Today I didn't wake up until 1 p.m. (I still haven't overcome my jetlag!) I successfully navigated my way to George Square, where I stopped by the Visiting Students Office and managed to adjust my courses to make them somewhat more pertinent to my studies at Mount Holyoke. I plan to go back later this week to try my hand again - I am determined to weasle my way into a third English literature course!

After lunchtime, I met up with Anarkalee (finally!); we shopped around Nicholson and Princes Streets. Emily and I visited Primark for the first time, where I bought a very cheap pair of bright pink rainboots.  I will have to restrain myself from buying a bajillion new pairs of shoes there, although some of their jumpers are worth a second look.

Today was my flatmate Hebe's 19th birthday! I don't know her very well yet, so I wasn't sure whether or not to get her something small. In the end, I bought her a really cute card and snuck it under her door when she wasn't looking. Earlier tonight, Emily, Rachel (her flatmate from England who's a sweetheart) and I went grocery shopping at the Scotmid Co-Op (I freaking love co-ops!), where I bought food for the rest of the week (and subsequently went broke as a result). Looks like everything else I do this week will have to be free. Tomorrow I plan to go to Edinburgh Castle...I'm excited!

things I've noticed.
01. It's a very "couply" city. Everyone is paired up - there are so many couples on the street. Literally every few passersby are holding hands. They're adorable (helped forever by the fact that they're Scottish), but it makes me acutely aware of my singularity in the city, and the fact that my own wonderful partner in crime is 3100 miles and an ocean away.

02. I am perpetually in a liminal sartorial space, suspended between needing my coat because it's freezing and rejecting it because it's stuffy and causing me to sweat. This would be fine but for the fact that these intervals occur within minutes of each other, making me the crazy jacket lady who can't seem to get with the weather patterns.

03. Streets are labeled on the buildings, not with signposts. This took me about twenty minutes into my first-ever stroll around Edinburgh to realize, which was about twenty minutes too late.

04. There is no rhyme or reason to the city's layout. And to think people tease Boston for its cowpaths. The tangled streets are definitely part of Edinburgh's charm, however, and I love, love, love the cobblestone streets!

05. I can't keep bits of English and Scottish accents from creeping into my own speech. It's a huge problem, and I'd hate to offend anyone, but I do it subconsciously. Maybe because I'm a theatre major? Maybe just because those accents drive me wild.

06. The accents here. I freaking love them. I seriously cannot get enough. One of my roommates is from Inverness, and she has this really thick accent. Another roommate is from London, but has a slight Scottish accent herself. I love, love, love listening to them talk. I don't even mind asking people on the streets for directions, because I get to listen to their mesmerizing accents.

07. When you start walking seven miles in three hours, you realize that we don't walk at Mount Holyoke as much as we think we do. At all.

08. We refrigerate much more in the US than they do here in the UK. Things I was surprised to find unrefrigerated: eggs, carrots, strawberries, lettuce. I'm paranoid about all of my produce (especially since the UK doesn't use preservatives), so I'm refrigerating everything anyway.

It's a cold, dreary, wet evening out and I believe I'll be spending it inside, with the company of some fellow Mount Holyoke women.

I know that was a lot, and I apologize if I lost any of you along the way! Thanks for sticking with me.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Packing Woes and Other Pre-Departure Thoughts

I am sitting on my four-poster bed surrounded by clothes. My clothes are literally engulfing me and I look ridiculous lounging here, enveloped within them. I should probably transfer these intimidating stacks to my suitcases, but I cannot seem to find the motivation.

This shouldn't really come as a surprise to friends and family. Anyone who knows me well knows that the one thing about which I can be fully counted on to procrastinate is packing. Always. Always, always, always. I don't know why I avoid it so much - I really don't even hate it (my family members would kindly disagree with that statement). 

But I honestly don't hate it. I just don't like doing it. Maybe it's the effort and the time commitment involved. Sometimes I wonder if I avoid packing because I am figuratively (and literally) putting myself into a box: here are all the clothes I am bringing with me, and during the next four months of my life, these clothes - only these clothes - will define my days sartorially. Packing a suitcase feels like a huge form of dictation, one of which I am not sure I wish to be a part. 

I have no idea what the next four months of my life will look like, and that both excites me and intimidates the hell out of me. Packing seems so authoritative; the clothes and shoes I place into these suitcases are the closest things to stability that I'll have, at least during the first few days and weeks of my journey, and here I am without any sort of confidence in my packing abilities.

This is why going to college in Massachusetts is so easy! I just throw all of my seasonally appropriate clothing and shoes into boxes and go. (I don't know how my friends who fly to Mount Holyoke with only two suitcases do it.) But here I am now, with two suitcases (giraffe-patterned...but of course) to my name. I am a two-suitcase traveller. This terrifies me. 

I hate being so dependent on material objects. This may seem laughable to some. I do love to dress well, and I own upwards of 70 pairs of shoes. Still, I take little comfort in knowing that, were I to lose either of these suitcases in the midst of my travels, I would be utterly screwed. (PLEASE, ALMIGHTY PACKING GODS OF HEAVEN, LET THIS UNFORTUNATE INDIVIDUAL NOT BE ME.)

That being said, here I am, on my bed, with the packing process 80% completed. I've laid out dresses, skirts, blouses, sweaters, jeans, cardigans, tights, scarves, and shoes. I'm taking ten pairs of shoes. Most people probably think I'm overpacking in the shoes department. I think I'm severely underpacking. (Welcome to my life.)

Now all that's left to do is throw everything into my suitcases, and pray that each one weighs less than a baby hippo. 

Today I exchanged some money for my trip into pounds. It felt strange holding the notes in my hand, so lightweight and foreign, with the Queen staring sternly into my eyes, no doubt laughing at the cringe-inducing exchange rate I had just endured in order to come into possession of her beautiful currency. Why does the exchange rate suck so bad? Come on, America. At least make your money a little prettier.

I've spent the last few nights shuffling through my Frommer's Guide to Scotland and highlighting, making notes, and marking off everything I want to see. I've created a tab system, because I'm a dork like that. Red for castles, museums, and architecture. Orange for food and bars (duh). Yellow for shopping. Green for nature, hiking, and all things active. Blue for villages, towns, cities. I've used so many tabs already, and my book looks like it vomited confetti. 

There is so, so, so much I want to see and explore, and I fear that four months will not be enough time to cover it all. I think I would honestly need years of my life dedicated to wandering the country before I could begin to feel content with the thoroughness of my travels. Add to this the fact that I am determined to explore the remainder of the UK as well as continental Europe, and I might as well drop out of my courses and simply spend my time as a vagrant (sans the begging part).

My flight leaves from Logan Airport tomorrow night at 7:10 p.m., and by this time on Saturday, I'll (hopefully) be settling into my new home in Edinburgh. It hasn't hit me yet, but I'm so excited for the moment that it does finally kick in.