Thursday, October 16, 2014


Hello everyone! This is my final blog post of the week, but it's the one I'm most excited about. I'll try to keep it pretty short and put lots of pictures. Words just can't do justice to how beautiful Scotland is!

Gabby, Sierra, Ryan, Ridgely, (some of my new study abroad friends) and I started planning our trip to Edinburgh a few weeks ago. It was one of the top places I wanted to visit during my semester abroad, and since it is so far north I wanted to visit the city before the weather got too cold. We bought our train tickets in advance and found a place to stay about 25 minutes walking distance away from the Royal Mile in central Edinburgh. We found the place on Airbnb and it ended up being awesome. We had plenty of space and a full kitchen so we were able to save money and prepare our own breakfast and a few dinners at the flat. Kudos to Ridgely for taking care of the flat rental and Sierra for making wonderful pesto pizza and pasta for dinner!

A few of us wanted to spend a day in the highlands, so we looked online for a inexpensive tour that went to Loch Ness and Glencoe. We found a tour company on Tripadvisor that was a little cheaper than most and had small group sizes, so we decided to book through them for a tour on Saturday. We arrived in Edinburgh Friday evening, settled in, then awoke bright and early the next day to meet our tour guide by St. Giles Cathedral. When we got there it turned out that we were the only ones who had booked the tour for the day, so we basically had a private tour! The day started out great. We drove north into the highlands getting our first glimpses of the beautiful landscape. We stopped after a short drive at Dalwhinnie Whiskey Distillery to have a tour and sampling. At first I wasn't too excited about the distillery, but the tour ended up being very interesting and informative. At the end we got to sample the whiskey in special glasses which we got to keep. I learned a lot about the whiskey-making process, but the whiskey was a little strong for me- I think I'll stick to beer and cider!
St. Giles Cathedral
After we left the distillery things began to get interesting. While we were driving, our van started to have some issues and we had to stop in the next little village to get it checked out. Long story short, the van had a problem and we ended up having to wait in this little village, called Spean Bridge, for about 3 1/2 hours while we waited for another person from the company to come get us. During the time we were stranded in the highlands (I'm being dramatic- it wasn't that bad) we got lunch (I tried Haggis! It was okay.), checked out a gift shop, and did a little hiking around the area. Eventually someone arrived to get us and we were told we would get full refunds and a complimentary tour the next day, which we decided to take (but more on that later!). Unfortunately by the time we were picked up there wasn't time to get up to Loch Ness before dark, so we drove back to Edinburgh. On the way back, though, we got to drive through Glencoe, which is one of the most beautiful places in the highlands. It's also the sight of a bloody massacre which my family history is actually tied to way back.

When I told my dad that I was going up to Scotland, he told me I actually have some Scottish in my blood from his side. This was news to me; I thought that on my dad's side I was pure English! My dad typed up a little family history for me which basically shows that way, way back, a man from the Fraser clan married a woman from the MacDonald clan, and somewhere along the line someone married an English person, and eventually I come along. The connection to Glencoe is that the father of the woman from the MacDonald clan was murdered by the Campbell clan during the Glencoe massacre. Not a happy moment in my family history, but it was cool visiting a place which is directly connected (albeit distantly, geographically and temporally) to my personal history. When we got back to Edinburgh we got a little supper (I also decided to try my luck with the Scottish lotto, and won 2GBP- yay me!) then headed back to the flat for another early morning the next day. 

We decided to give up going Loch Ness (it's a long way away and we had heard it's only the most famous because of Nessie) and go to Loch Lomond instead. We started the day with a stop at the Wallace Monument, then visited Doune Castle, the place where Monty Python was filmed! We made it to Loch Lomond in the afternoon and took a hike along the shore. The place we visited wasn't very touristy, so it was very peaceful. I wish we could have spend a whole day on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond (the words of a song I learned when I was younger). We had to go back to Edinburgh eventually, though, so we said our goodbyes to beautiful Loch Lomond and boarded the bus for the final time. When we got back to Edinburgh Gabby and I walked to an 8pm Mass then tried fried Mars bars afterwards (a local delicacy). They were actually surprisingly good!
Wallace Monument
Dog wearing a kilt at the Wallace Monument
Scottish flag
Doune Castle- "You mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!"

Hamish the highland cow
Loch Lomond
The Kelpies- horse statues outside Edinburgh
Edinburgh Castle lit up at night
Since our train back to London left at 2:30pm on Monday, Monday morning was our only chance to see Edinburgh, and I was determined to see as much as I could during this short time. Gabby and I woke up at the crack of dawn on Monday morning to hike up a hill at Holyrood Park for a view of the city and the sea (I originally planned to hike Arthur's seat, but it was too muddy). The view from the top of the hill we hiked was incredible. You could see Holyroodhouse Palace, Edinburgh Castle sitting majestically on a hill, the top of St. Giles Cathedral, and the sea shining in the west. At the top it was peaceful and powerful, and I wish I could have stayed longer.
View from the crag at Holyrood Park

After leaving Holyrood Park Gabby and I stopped at a lovely little coffee shop for coffee and breakfast, then made our way back to the flat to clean and check out. During the rest of the afternoon we all went separate ways to see what we wanted in the city. I knew I wouldn't have time to visit the castle or Holyroodhouse, so I went to visit Greyfriars Bobby. Greyfriars Bobby is a dog whose master died in the 1800's who loyally stayed by his grave and was taken care of by the local people until he died. Even though it wasn't allowed to bury dogs in the cemetery at Greyfriars Kirk, they buried Bobby there anyways so he wouldn't be separated from his master. When I was younger I had a book of stories that included one about Greyfriars Bobby, and I've always been touched by Bobby's loyalty. Visiting Greyfriars Bobby was very special, and I'm so glad I got visit Bobby while I was in Edinburgh.
Greyfriars Bobby
Bobby's grave
The time for us to leave Edinburgh came all too soon and we were all sad to leave Scotland. However, there are still plenty of adventures to come! This coming weekend I’m heading west to Exeter to visit some family there and the next weekend Gabby and I are going to Paris! Now that I’m caught up with posts, I’ll be posting something new every week about where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. Until then, thanks for reading and hope you’re all doing well!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

England in a Weekend

Hi everyone! This is the second of the three blog posts I'm writing this week. (I'm a bit behind, but am getting caught up!) Anyways, the weekend of October 4th and 5th was a busy one. In just two days I visited Greenwich, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath, the Cotswolds, and Stonehenge. The amount of ground covered this weekend is exhausting for me to remember. It was a great two days, though, and I'll start this post with Greenwich.

St. Mary's University organized a trip for all of the study abroad students to Greenwich which included a boat ride up the Thames to Greenwich and a short guided tour to the main attractions there. Here is a little bit of information on Greenwich which I adapted from the Greenwich Wikipedia page...

"Greenwich is a district of South East London notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. The town became the site of a royal palace, the Palace of Placentia from the 15th century, and was the birthplace of many Tudors, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and was rebuilt as the Royal Naval Hospital for Sailors by Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor. These buildings became the Royal Naval College in 1873, and they remained an establishment for military education until 1998 when they passed into the hands of the Greenwich Foundation. The maritime connections of Greenwich were celebrated in the 20th century, with the siting of the Cutty Sark and Gipsy Moth IV next to the river front, and the National Maritime Museum in the former buildings of the Royal Hospital School in 1934."

All of the study abroad students started the day by meeting up at Waterloo Station. This station is becoming a key point in my travels around central London as the nearest rail station to campus, Strawberry Hill Station, runs directly to Waterloo every half hour. (There are a few other ways to get into central London, but this is the quickest option.) From Waterloo Station we boarded a boat that took us up (or down?) the river to Greenwich, which really isn't all that far. The weather on Saturday was absolutely miserable- cold and rainy- but I suppose it gave us all a taste of the authentic London experience. Unfortunately I didn't have any rain gear at the time (I don't need it in Texas and hadn't needed anything in England yet) so I had to walk around in a huge navy poncho. It really wasn't that bad and it did keep me dry, but I felt ridiculous wearing it. (I learned that day that having some kind of rain gear is essential in England, and went to Primark later that week to buy a rain parka. The one I ended up getting is navy with Union Flag hearts on probably looks very touristy but is very cute!)
Me and my poncho by Tower Bridge
Although the weather was terrible, it was really cool to see the various sights of London from the river, and we got to sail under Tower Bridge! Once we got to Greenwich we went to the Painted Hall at Old Royal Naval College and the Greenwich Royal Observatory. The observatory marks the line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres and the absolute time for measuring time in different zones. We didn't get to go into the observatory, but there is part of the line outside where you can go stand so you are in two hemispheres at once. While I stood there I thought of the part of "A Walk to Remember" where Landon takes Jamie to a state border so she can be in two places at once. Cheesy, I know, but it's such a sweet movie! By the time we walked to the observatory the rain had cleared and the sky was very blue which made the view of London from the observatory hill absolutely breathtaking. The gorgeous weather in the afternoon made the nasty weather in the morning totally worth it.
Old Royal Naval College
Dining Hall at the Old Royal Naval College
Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College
One foot in each hemisphere- in two places at once!

View from the Royal Observatory
After visiting the observatory we had a little free time, so I went to the National Maritime Museum because I really wanted to see the jacket Admiral Nelson was wearing when he died (bullet wound from the Battle of Trafalgar). Unfortunately I got there too close to closing, and just missed it! After leaving the Maritime Museum I walked over to the Greenwich market with my friend Sidney for a few minutes, then met up with Gabby to catch a vigil Mass in Greenwich. Although it can be a little stressful trying to figure out where churches are, Mass times, and how to get there, visiting so many different churches has been really cool. After Mass Gabby and I met back up with some of friends and headed back to Twickenham to prepare for our long day on Sunday.

A few weeks prior to Sunday Gabby and I found a tour on Groupon titled "England in a Day" which was half off the regular price. Since it was so cheap considering how much it packed into one day, we decided to go for it! We woke up super early Sunday morning and headed to Victoria Coach Station to begin our journey. Our first stop of the trip was Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, which is quite a distance from London. Fortunately the coach was pretty comfortable and our guide was interesting and sometimes funny (there were some extremely corny jokes, but I think that comes with the job). After arriving in Stratford-upon-Avon we went to Shakespeare's birth house where we enjoyed champagne and scones in the cafe while an actor performed a scene from "Comedy of Errors" for us. We then got to tour the birth house and had about an hour to walk around Stratford. Ridgely, another study abroad student, and I walked along the river Avon to the church where Shakespeare is buried. The church was closed for services, but it was still cool to see the outside and know that the body of one of the greatest writers of all time is buried within.
One of my favorites!
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."- Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare's birth house
The River Avon
The church in which Shakespeare is buried
After leaving Stratford we headed through the Cotswolds to Bath. We didn't actually stop in the Cotswolds, but there was plenty of beautiful scenery to see from the coach. Once in Bath we didn't have very much time to visit any of the major attractions, so Gabby, Ridgely, and I grabbed a bite to eat and walked around the town area surrounding Bath Abbey. While exploring we walked by the river and discovered the place where Javert's suicide was filmed in the most recent film version of Les Miserables! I wish we could have had more time to see Bath- I would have loved to see the inside of Bath Abbey, the Roman Baths, and the Royal Crescent. However, even in the short time I was struck with how alive the town was (maybe just with tourists, but alive nonetheless) and how pretty the yellow-y tinted stone buildings were. Bath is definitely on my list of places to revisit sometime during this trip.
River Avon (not the same one as in Stratford) and scene of Javert's suicide
Bath Abbey
Our third and final stop was Stonehenge. I'd actually already been to Stonehenge before during my family's trip to England when I was six years old. It's one of the few places I have a pretty distinct memory of visiting. Before leaving for the UK, I found my family's photo albums of the trip and scanned a few pictures, including one of me posing at Stonehenge. One of my goals on my second visit was to recreate this picture. We walked around the stone circle and eventually found the exact spot where the old picture was taken, and Gabby skillfully captured the shot. It was a really cool feeling to be back to the exact place where I had been 15 years ago- so much has changed!
After spending about and hour and a half visiting and learning about Stonehenge we hopped back on the coach and headed back to London. Fortunately we drove through Richmond on the way back to Victoria Coach station and were able to be dropped off there, which got us back to campus about two hours earlier than we would have. By the time we got back we were all exhausted. It was a busy weekend, but worth it. I got to see three major sites, lots of beautiful scenery, and learn more about English history and culture.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my post on my trip to Edinburgh last weekend, coming soon!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Life at St. Mary's University College

Hello everyone! I'm sorry for taking so long to write this post! It's been a few weeks since my last post but I just haven't found the time to sit down and write everything I would like to say about life in the UK. But I’m writing now (better late than never!) and from now on I hope to publish a new post each week (and I mean it!).

Anyways, the first week Gabby and I spent at St. Mary's was mainly orientation activities. There are a lot of other American study abroad students and we've met a lot of people and made some new friends. During the first week we took a trip into central London, confirmed our schedules, and of course moved into our dorm rooms. My room (we get our own rooms) is in a quiet hallway with one of the less busy kitchens. The rooms are simple but nice. My favorite thing about the room is I have a nice window looking out the back of the dorms which provides lots of sunlight and a nice breeze when I have it open.
View from my window
Brewing tea in the campus kitchen
The cafeteria here runs on a weird points system but the food is pretty good. Only two meals are provided each days, but I’ve found ways to get around that. For dinner each person gets seven meal points which don’t roll over, so I’ll usually use 4 points on dinner and then get food in a to-go box for lunch the next day. Since we have kitchens in the dorms this system has been working really well. The breakfast they serve is pretty good, and I’ve started to really like baked beans and sausages for breakfast!

Classes started the second week, and they are all going well. I’m taking four classes (all English literature): Gothic Cultures, WWI Literature, Modernism in the Novel, and 18th c. London. Each class meets once a week for either 2 or 3 hours. I got very lucky with my schedule and only have classes on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, so I have a four day weekend! There is a lot of reading for class each week but it is manageable. The classes themselves aren’t too different from back home. My favorite classes so far are Gothic Cultures and WWI Literature.
Map of London I drew as an activity in my 18th c. London course
Apart from classes I’ve been trying to stay involved with other campus activities. Each week there are various events, including a weekly pub quiz at the campus bar (yes, the campus has it’s own bar!). I’ve gone to the pub quiz most weeks, but not very successfully; the questions are pretty hard! Gabby and I have also gotten involved with the Catholic student center on campus. During the day sometimes I’ll go into one of the nearby towns for a little shopping or studying at one of the many coffee shops. From Twickenham it is very easy to get to Teddington, Richmond, and Kingston. Sometimes if we’re not too busy, some of my friends and I will all meet up for a movie in someone’s room or just to hang out.
Park in Twickenham (the river in the back is the Thames)
Cappuccino from the Costa Coffee in Kingston
Campus life isn’t too different from in the states, but it seems like there is a lot more drinking and partying. A lot of people smoke too and it doesn’t seem like it has the same kind of negative social stigma as in the US. Everyone I’ve met has been very nice, but it’s been hard to make friends with British students. Outwardly the US and UK don’t seem that different, I’ve found that I actually don’t have as much in common with local students as I thought. I’ve been trying to blend in and live like a regular British student at uni, but sometimes I feel like I don’t stand a chance because the minutes I open my mouth to speak it becomes obvious that I’m a foreigner. In all I feel more like an outsider than I thought I would. However, this isn’t really a bad thing. Part of the reasons for studying abroad is learning about other cultures and people and sharing your own culture with them, and already I’ve learned so much about the differences between life in the UK and the US. Being different isn’t a bad thing, and I’m now trying to wear identity as a Texan in the UK confidently. After all, Texas is an awesome place and although England is pretty awesome too, Texas will always have the biggest place in my heart.

Now, moving on from the slightly corny stuff! In the past few weeks I’ve gotten to do a lot of exploring in central London. Some of my favorite things that I’ve seen are Westminster Hall, the top of the Gherkin (open for London Open House weekend- I waited for about two and a half hours to go in, but it was worth it!), the National Gallery, the state rooms at Buckingham Palace, and the Tower of London. I’ve also gotten to see two plays at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Since the Globe Theater is open roofed, the season only runs through mid-October because the weather gets really cold and wet. I knew that if I wanted to see a play at the Globe before the season ended, I would have to do it right away! I saw the play “Julius Caesar” on a lovely Tuesday and it was awesome! I’ve studied “Julius Caesar” in school several times, and it’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. It was so special seeing performed at the Globe. I had a standing ticket so I got to experience the play as a peasant would have done in Elizabethan times. I went back to the Globe for new play called “Doctor Scroggy’s War” with some friends about a week later, which was also very good.
In front of the back of Buckingham Palace
Cake and a cappuccino after visiting Buckingham Palace
Monet's Waterlilies at the National Gallery
The Globe Theater (sorry the picture isn't better- pictures aren't allowed before performances so I had to take this very sneakily!)
View of St. Paul's at night
Horse Guards
Wellington's desk inside Horse Guards

Westminster Hall
Stained glass window at Westminster Hall
Ceiling at the Banqueting House
The Gherkin
At the top of the Gherkin
I’ve also been to Greenwich, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath, Stonehenge, and Edinburgh, so I’m going to split those into another two posts which I hope to also post today or tomorrow.  Everything has been wonderful so far, and sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am to be spending four months in England!