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Operation Spring Break: Milano!

Time May 29th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Hello my glorious blog readers!  Welcome to another addition of my spring break abroad.  Destination: Milan, Italy.  On this part of my journey, I traveled primarily alone, which was a unique and unforgettable experience.  I was in Milan from April 15-18.

Before I departed for Milan, I spent a few days at Palma de Mallorca, Spain.  This was intended for a nice relaxing few days on a beach, but it was mostly raining and chilly.  Palma is an island located in the Mediterranean Sea.  It has a beautiful cathedral with a nice city centre.  I wish I was able to get outside of the city because it has pretty views and great hikes.  I also realized how much Spanish I lost since I stopped taking it in high school.  Whoops.

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View of the city centre

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A beautiful walkway along the city centre

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Cathedral de Mallorca

Sunday, April 15 – I flew into Bergamo (about 45 minutes northeast of Milan) at seriously the smallest airport I’ve ever been in.  I was in and out of there in about 15 minutes, and without an immigration check.  Since I was in Spain before I arrived in Italy, I bypassed all immigration thanks to the Schengen Agreement.  The Schengen area comprises of 26 European countries that eliminates border controls with other Schengen members.  You do need your passport when first arriving into a Schengen country, but then you have free control to travel for 90 days in those 26 designated countries without stopping at border controls.  The United Kingdom and Ireland are not part of the Schengen Agreement, so whenever I enter the UK and enter/leave the Schengen area, I have to go through immigration.  It’s kind of a shame because I go to so many cool places, but I have very few passport stamps to show for it.  But quite honestly, it is a massive time saver.

After arriving at the hotel, I went out for my first Italian dinner: penne arrabiata with pane, a glass of white wine, and a glass of champagne.  There was quite an interesting mix at the restaurant.  The two waiters were hilarious older men both fluent in English.  They both made me feel welcome in my first night in Italy.  The restaurant customers were also international, which added to the interesting mix of Milan.  I found out very early that many Italians spoke English pretty well, and it could be that way because Milan is Italy’s industrial city.

Monday, April 16 – I checked out a travel book of Milan from the Cardiff library, and it had guided walks that I spent the entire day walking on.  I walked to many different cathedrals, parks, ancient infrastructure from the Roman Empire, and castles.  I stopped for a slice of pizza and ate it at the Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church that holds Da Vinci’s Last Supper.  The great thing about Milan is that it is easy to get around; the city is not that big.  You can walk everywhere, and there is an underground train system for fast travel.

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A bridge at Parco Sempione

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Alter at the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio

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The best known Roman ruins in Milan, Colonne di San Lorenzo, date back to the 2nd Century

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Naviglio Grande, a canal that used to be important for trading is now home to cute restaurants and bars

Tuesday, April 17 – I went on a walking tour of Milan that included going into the Duomo, stopping for a café break, and checking out The Last Supper.  The Duomo was very impressive, but I wish I had a chance to check it out longer.  I would have liked to walk up to the top of the cathedral; the views are supposed to be amazing.  There were large stained glass windows with tapestries everywhere.  After the Duomo, we went to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which is between the Teatro alla Scala and the Duomo.  The Galleria holds designer stores with extremely overpriced restaurants.  We later stopped at a café where I had a cannoli and some tourists had tiramisu.  I met tourists from all over the world, but my group consisted of mostly Americans.  After walking a bit throughout Milan, we ended up at Santa Maria delle Grazie where we saw The Last Supper.  You need tickets in order to see the fresco, and they sold out.  Luckily, the tour provided tickets, and it wouldn’t be a trip to Milan without seeing The Last Supper.  The fresco is held in the most unbelievable room ever: it is completely pollution free.  They are very strict about the amount of people seeing the fresco at one time, which is a huge change from years ago when tourists could walk right in without a problem.  The painting underwent a massive restoration that took 21 years to complete, and it seriously looked stunning for a 15th Century wall painting.  There is another massive fresco on the wall opposite to The Last Supper, but no one noticed.  It is quite unfortunate because it is a beautiful fresco, but people overlook it because of The Last Supper on the opposite wall.

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The Duomo

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The stained glass windows at the Duomo

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Inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

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With my cannoli!

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At the Santa Maria delle Grazie on my way to see The Last Supper

Once the tour was over, I found an amazing gelato place that specializes in chocolate gelato.  After a quick break at my hotel, I went out to dinner with a mutual acquaintance who was studying abroad in Milan.  We went out for pizza, espresso, and cannolis at night.  It was nice to see a different perspective of Milan through the eyes of a local student.  We walked to the Duomo, and it was packed with people trying to sell you things.  One thing I hated about the tourist places: it was crowded with foreigners trying to sell you useless things like stupid toys, umbrellas (even though I had one), sunglasses, etc.  I found this everywhere I went, and I was always worried this was some elaborate scheme for them to steal my wallet.

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My amazing gelato

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At a chocolate bar enjoying a wonderful espresso

Wednesday, April 18 – I had a few hours to kill before my flight to Barcelona, but it was pouring.  I toughed out the weather for one last gelato, and at the shop, I noticed two Americans ordering a gelato.  They totally stood out with their massive backpacks and their mannerisms.  At the airport, I ran into the same Americans from the gelato shop while in line to get on the airplane.  I found out they were in a group of five students, all of them studying abroad University of Iowa students, and all of them from the Chicago area.  It was completely unreal.

Italian word of the day:  Bar.  When we think of bars, we think of parties, alcohol, beer, whatever.  When you see the word “bar” in Italy, be prepared for coffee drinks and desserts instead of ale.

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Operation Spring Break: the Lake District, Edinburgh, & Liverpool

Time May 14th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Hello there loyal blog followers, and welcome to the start of my 3 week spring break!  Yes, you read correctly: 3 weeks!  Yes, I know spring break started March 30, but seriously, for the past 6 weeks, my life has been crazy.  Here’s what I’ve been up to: March 30-April 23 = spring break, April 21-May 2 = my dad came up and visited me in Cardiff, so I was traveling between London and Cardiff for that time.  After my dad left, I had to focus on final exams and essays.  So, as you can see, I was very, very busy.

Anyway, let’s talk about my first week of spring break!  That’s an amazing amount of time considering I am used to one week of spring break in the States.  While the regular full time students revise and study for final exams, us study abroad students travel all across Europe.  We aren’t necessarily irresponsible students, but this is our biggest opportunity to travel with this much time off.  The biggest challenge for me was figuring out where I’m going to go and who I’m going with.  My flatmate Sarah offered me to stay at her house for a few days, and I gladly accepted that opportunity.  Sarah lives in the village of Hawkshead, a small village with a population of 300 that sits right in the middle of the Lake District in northwest England.  The Lake District is like no other place in England: it’s full of mountains and meres, tarns, waters, waites (like a mini lake, but not deep enough to be classified as a lake, and these 4 classifications have slight differences to them), and it has its own rich Cumbrian culture.  This place is definitely no London, and for all those who say they’ve been to England because they’ve been to London, they have not truly experienced England.

Friday March 30 – This was the last Friday of classes before break began.  Since I have no Friday classes, I was able to enjoy my Friday without any interruptions of class.  The Taf, Cardiff Uni’s student union pub, organized a special event this Friday: VIP Breakfast Club and Drink the Bar Dry (D.T.B.D.).  What does that mean?  It means you pay £8 to get a D.T.B.D. T-shirt, breakfast, and entry into The Taf for reduced priced drinks.  All the students were leaving for break, and The Taf needed to get rid of its alcohol.  It’s a great concept, and the students were eager to help The Taf.  The theme of the event was the American West.  Here’s the UK’s interpretation of the American West: baked beans at breakfast (though I later found out beans are a part of a “Full English” breakfast), pictures of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as cowboys, random Indians everywhere, country music, and lots and lots of Confederate flags, with a few American flags thrown in.  It was quite a spectacle, and I absolutely loved it, even if they mixed the West and the South up a bit.  After breakfast and mimosas, we went straight to The Taf.  I won’t go into too much detail here, but I spent the entire afternoon at The Taf and had a great time with friends and new acquaintances.  It was a fun way to start off break, and I will never have that experience again.  No American university will agree to such an event, and that’s why I love Cardiff so much.

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The Decorations

Monday April 2 – Traveling.  Traveling, traveling, and more traveling.  I swear that’s all I did on this day, oh!, but I did go on a pub crawl, but I’ll get into that later.  This is the day we (Sarah & I) traveled from Cardiff to Hawkshead for 6 hours.  It included an hour layover in Manchester, 2 train connections, a walk down to Sarah’s mom’s workplace in Windermere, and finally a 20-minute drive to Hawkshead.  Thank god I bought some Welsh cakes at the Cardiff Market before we embarked on our journey.  Despite the longevity of our trip, it was pleasant viewing the Welsh and English countryside.  It’s quite beautiful and green, and nothing like the boring Midwest countryside of endless brown farms.

After we settled in a bit, Sarah’s two high school friends joined us for the infamous Hawkshead pub-crawl.  We started at one end of town and crawled our way back to the center of the village, stopping at 6 pubs along the way.  The only rule: local ales only.  It was a great time, and I got to hear the local Cumbrian accent as well as walk along a ton of sheep.  We retired back at Sarah’s for an epic night of Cardiff Monopoly until 2 am.  It was definitely a long and busy day.

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Like my view?

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This was my first time over a style.  They keep the sheep from escaping while people use the public footpaths.

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One of our 6 pubs

Tuesday April 3 – Forget it being “spring,” on Tuesday, I got to enjoy a nice surprise: a blizzard!  Sarah and I were running errands around Ambleside and Hawkshead most of the day, and it was frigid.  The week before had 60 degree weather (15°C), so the snow was not a welcome change.  I felt bad for Sarah because she was only wearing a sweatshirt, but at least we stopped for some hot chocolate at a local café.  We had planned to go see The Hunger Games in the late afternoon, but unfortunately everyone in the L.D. had that same idea, and it was sold out right as we got to the theater (or cinema as the Brits say).  We ended up going at the evening show, but driving back home through the blizzard at night was a headache.  Props to Sarah for being the expert driver and not crashing us :-)

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Where I stayed.  The pharmacy is on the ground floor.

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Stopping for some mint hot chocolate!

Wednesday April 4 – Edinburgh.  This was my one opportunity to travel to Scotland, and Sarah and I decided to make a day trip out of it.  We took the train from Oxenholme to Edinburgh Waverly.  Of course, starting out on our adventure didn’t go exactly as planned.  Firstly, Sarah and opted to have her train tickets delivered to her home, but they never arrived.  She needed to buy new tickets at the station.  Secondly, we needed to pay £8 for our parking spot at the station.  The dumb machine doesn’t take bills, so we had to compile all our change, which only came out to be £7.40.  So I stayed out in the freezing cold to guard the car and look for lost change in the parking lot (Brit word= car park).  Thirdly, our train was delayed by around 40 minutes.  Lastly, I slept for most of the train ride there.  I usually don’t oppose to sleeping, but the ride into Scotland has fantastic views through the mountains.  These mountains had new snow on them from the day before.  Oh well, c’est la vie.

Edinburgh is quite a unique and beautifully old city.  It has its own atmosphere that is clearly “Scottish” and not necessarily “British.”  We walked around a lot and were the ultimate tourists.  We got hop on/hop off tour bus tickets that took us through much of the city while we listened to the Haunted Histories stories of Edinburgh.  It was a cold day on the upper deck of the bus, but it was all worth it.  The sights were beautiful and historic.  We stopped at Edinburgh Castle and the Scottish National Museum.  Regrettably, the museum was closing in 5 minutes when we got there, so we ran around the place and saw as much as we could within that 5-minute timeframe.

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View of Edinburgh

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At Edinburgh Castle

Thursday April 5 – After the past few cold days, the weather finally warmed up a bit, and Sarah and I went on a lovely hike up large hills (possibly mountains) to check out the nice views of the L.D.  The Lake District is a huge tourist destination because it has one of the most beautiful vistas in the country.  At our highest peak, we had a picnic in a tree and ending up hiking throughout forests for the rest of the day.  We walked by a ton of sheep too!  Sarah definitely took the city girl out into the country, and it was a wonderful change of scenery.  This was probably my favorite day in the L.D.  It’s rare I get in touch with nature, and I wish I was able to do it more often.

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One of the route signs we passed along the way

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At the top.  Like the view?

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Through the woods

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More beautiful sights along the way

Friday April 6 – This was just a lazy, relaxing day.  We were recovering from yesterday’s long hike day (or at least I was).

Saturday April 7 – I was traveling back to Cardiff this day, but I decided to make a stop on the way back: Liverpool.  I spent about 7 hours in Liverpool sightseeing and going on a Beatles Magical Mystery Tour.  On the tour, we went to the childhood homes of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, Brian Epstein’s house, and the Cavern Club.  I was definitely the youngest person on the tour, with the average age being 55.  The tour guide was hilarious, and he had a thick Liverpudlian accent (I couldn’t understand a word he was saying at times).  After the tour, I walked around the docks a bit and headed towards the main shopping district.  Liverpool was hosting Manchester United that day for a huge football match, so the city was crazier than normal.  All in all, it was a great time, and I’m glad I made my Beatles pilgrimage out there.

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My awesome tour bus.  I was actually on the Magical Mystery Tour!

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“And nothing to get hung about…strawberry fields forever”

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Where the Bealtes played over 250 times

My first week of break was definitely exciting, and it was one of the highlights of my study abroad experience.  I loved the atmosphere of the Lake District with nature surrounding me, and there was a calming effect waking up to a view of mountains out the window.  Whenever I come back to the UK, the Lake District is definitely one of those places I will visit again.

Beatles fact of the entry:  “Hey Jude” is only sung 24 times in the song “Hey Jude”, despite its long running time of 7:04.
 

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An Irish St. Patrick’s Day

Time March 22nd, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Top O the mornin’ to ya!  Can you guess it??  I finally ventured out of the United Kingdom and entered Ireland for the very first time in my life!  I was so excited to see some leprechauns and a big pot of gold.  Unfortunately, that stuff doesn’t exist in real life (that I know about), but Guinness beer does, and boy was it good.  So why Dublin?  It was St. Patty’s Day of course!  I was the one of many tourists who visited Ireland that weekend to spend all my money in the pubs.  Besides celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, this was my trip to visit my friend Norah who is studying at Trinity College in Dublin!  What a double whammy.  Thankfully, I have a friend in Dublin because accommodation in Dublin was completely booked, including hostels.  If I didn’t book my flight as early as I did, I could have been looking at a £200 flight ticket one way.  On normal days, tickets could cost as low as £20.  Everyone worldwide knows to come to Ireland on March 17.

I arrived in Dublin on Thursday, March 15 around 8 pm after a long day of traveling.  Unfortunately, flying out of Cardiff has its challenges.  If you look on a map, Cardiff and Dublin are pretty close, so what’s the problem, you ask?  Cardiff is not a well known city (despite being a capitol city), and the only airlines flying out to Dublin was extremely expensive.  Finding my route to Dublin was a challenge, and I did a lot of homework to figure out how to do it.  I first looked at ferries from Wales to Ireland.  I would have to travel to Holyhead (northwest Wales), which would have been a 5 hour train ride, and it would have been more expensive taking the train than flying.  Flying was definitely the best option, but flying from where?  Bristol!  Bristol, England is only a 45-minute train ride from Cardiff, and I found tickets very cheap (it does help that I have a student railcard; the discounts are amazing!).  On my way to Bristol, I had a lovely chat with my mom on the phone before I headed off on my adventure.  Once I arrived at Bristol Temple Meads train station, I took a bus from the station to the airport, which is one of the smallest airports I’ve ever been to.  Of course I’m used to O’Hare.  I arrived with two hours to spare because I had no idea how long it was going to take me to get through security.  It was nice to keep my shoes on as I was walking through the metal detectors.  I flew out of Ryanair which is one of the cheap airlines to travel throughout Europe.  Sometimes, they sell plane tickets for £12 anywhere in Europe.  Too bad there isn’t a Ryanair in Cardiff, or any part of Wales.  It’s annoying traveling to England just to fly out of the UK for a decent price.

The flight to Dublin was just less than an hour.  I got a lovely new green (of course it’s green) stamp on my passport, and I was on my way.  There were green, white, and orange balloons everywhere, along with many decorations inside Dublin Airport.  I took a bus from the airport to the city centre at Trinity College/Grafton Street where I finally met up with Norah!!  I hadn’t seen her since the fall semester ended in December, so it was a very happy homecoming for the both of us.  My first night there was a relaxing one.  We watched Forrest Gump at her apartment while we ate dinner.  This Forrest Gump night was a long time coming.  We planned on having a Forrest Gump night in the fall at Iowa, but with different schedules, it was hard to coordinate a date.  Watching this movie in Dublin made the moment a whole lot sweeter.

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“My name’s Forrest, Forrest Gump”

Friday was rainy.  It was very hard to see the city because it was either misty or pouring.  Sometimes it was raining with the sun out to show off some nice rainbows.  I hoped there was a pot of gold on the end of them.  Why I came to Ireland without an umbrella or a raincoat is beyond me.  I think I wanted the weather to be nice, and therefore I didn’t bring appropriate raingear.  So dumb.  Norah and I mostly ventured into the city centre where we saw a lot of St. Patty’s decorations.  We walked around the Bank of Ireland, Temple Bar, and touristy souvenir shops.  Eventually, we sought shelter at a pub called MacTurcaills, and that is where I had my very first Guinness!  I honestly didn’t know what to expect.  I have been saving up for this moment for a long time, and it actually wasn’t bad at all.  I don’t know what it tastes like in the States, but in Ireland, it is delicious.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to the Guinness Storehouse (the Guinness factory) nor the Jameson Whiskey distillery because tickets were all booked.  It is a crazy touristy weekend after all.  After we finished our pints, we ventured back into the rain and went shopping.  Norah needed a green Dublin shirt for St. Patty’s and I was just looking for Christmas ornaments and souvenirs.  I ended up getting a shamrock ornament that says Ireland on it, along with a Guinness keychain, which can also be an ornament.

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I found a leprechaun!

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Hanging out with Molly Malone

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Bank of Ireland

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Norah and I at Temple Bar

We went back home to escape the rain and dry out our clothes.  I was completely soaked.  My feet were totally wet, and there is nothing more uncomfortable than wet shoes and socks.  After we dried off and took quick naps, we went out again.  We picked up sandwiches along the way to pub called Porterhouse where we met up with Norah’s Trinity friends for a pint.  This was an interesting pub: they make all their own beer from all over the world.  You cannot find a Guinness there.  The only downside was that the place was completely packed.  We ended up finding a small table available in the beer garden along with all the smokers.  It wasn’t too horrible and the house beer was quite good.  We went back to Norah’s friends’ apartment where we all hung out until it was time for us to go to bed.  We needed our rest; the next day was Patty’s Day!

Ready for St Pattys

Getting ready to go out!

Here is my impression of St. Patty’s Day: crowded, loud, crazy, and green.  It’s basically what you would expect for an Irish holiday where you celebrate the national saint by drinking your heart out.  My day wasn’t that over-the-top extreme, but I had quite a good time.  After we woke up and got ready in our green, Norah, Norah’s roommate, and I headed to the parade on Dame Street.  It was a beautiful day, except during the parade.  The only part it rained that day was during the parade.  Go figure.  Unfortunately, I am 5’5’’ and couldn’t see the parade.  I found out later that there were more than 500,000 attendees.  From what I did hear and see, it was pretty good.  The music was great and I heard a lot of bagpipes, and some of the tall structures in the parade were interesting.  Because none of us could see the parade, we went to the Porterhouse again for a pint.  They were giving out free pints so that was awesome.  After the parade, we went back to MacTurcaills where the Trinity College International Society was throwing a party with free food.  I met some interesting people from all over the U.S., Mexico, Norway, Italy, Australia, etc.  I was slightly taken aback when the Australian guy asked me right off the bat if I lived in a red or blue state.  I thought that was slightly inappropriate for the very first topic of conversation.  We hung out at that pub for a few hours playing fun games and having nice conversation with different people.  We tried to go meet up with some other friends at a pub called Peadar Kearney’s on Dame Street.  Worst idea ever.  The pub was so packed, we couldn’t even make it to the bar.  I was hanging out with six other American study abroad students, and there was no way we were going to make it back there.  We literally couldn’t move forward, only back out the door.  They had live music, and our friends were all the way in the back.  Our group went out for pizza and burgers and came back to the apartment to watch…Mulan!  Yes, imagine 10 university students watching Mulan on St. Patty’s Day.  Yes, it was pretty ridiculous and a lot of fun.  The Mulan watching crew consisted of a mix of American and Irish students.  It was great when everyone was singing along to the songs, especially “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.”

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At the parade.  Like my view?

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Decorations

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At MacTurcaills with a Guinness

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Waiting for the pizza

Some of the Americans in our group had to go back to Limerick, so Norah and I were on our own for the rest of the night.  We went back to Peadar Kearney’s again hoping we could get in this time.  Our friends stayed there the entire day, but of course, it was still packed with people.  They actually had security blocking off sections of the pub because it was still so crowded.  We headed back to MacTurcaills for a while and were surprised to see many people still there from the party 7 hours earlier.  After some time there, we went back home.  Despite not seeing much of the parade, my Dublin St. Patty’s experience was a blast.  Dublin itself was a madhouse, and no matter what nationality you were, everyone was Irish that day.  My next journey: Mardi Gras in New Orleans (though that might be a few years down the road).

The day after St. Patty’s was gorgeous!  Blue skies, sun, and warmth.  This was the perfect day to do some sightseeing.  We walked around Dublin’s main park, St. Stephen’s Green.  The grass was very green and the flowers were an extraordinary color.  It had a cute footbridge and lovely fountains.  It was extremely lively, especially the day after St. Patty’s.  We walked out to Grafton Street where a lot of the main shopping is.  Flowers and buskers crowded the streets, but we were more interested in the gelatos we just got.  I had pistachio gelato which was absolutely amazing.  After gelatos, we went to Norah’s school, Trinity College.  It’s the highest ranked and oldest university in Ireland.  The buildings were absolutely beautiful, but campus was filled with tourists.  Trinity holds the Book of Kells, which I had the pleasure to see.  The Book of Kells is a Gospel book in Latin circa 800.  I don’t know much about it, but it was very cool.  This was a part of the old library which had many old texts out on display.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take pictures of either place, but the library was definitely my favorite part.  After visiting Trinity, we went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  I didn’t go in, but there were plants, flowers, and trees everywhere, including a massive fountain.  The rest of the day we just hung out, and at night we were finally able to get into Peadar Kearney’s.  There was a live musician singing Irish pub songs and people of all ages.  There was a large group of mid-twenties Swedes that took up most of the dance floor.  Personally, they were the best entertainment.  After a pint, we met up with some friends at Temple Bar.  I couldn’t find one Irish person in that place.  The drinks are outrageously expensive because tourists don’t know any better; it’s such a tourist pub, though it didn’t start out that way.  The live music was good, but a large group of French people started chanting and singing French tunes over the live guitarist and bassist.  I was extremely peeved by this, and we left the bar soon after.

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At St. Stephen’s Green

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By some flowers

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The footbridge

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Seems slightly out of place, but beautiful nonetheless

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Gelato break!

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The front of Trinity College

Trinity Interior

The Trinity interior

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Trinity building

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The Book of Kells

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Flowers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

St Pats cathedral

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

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Fountain at St. Pat’s

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Flowerpots

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At Temple Bar getting ready for some live music

I left Dublin at 8 am the following morning.  It was nice to spend three full days in the city experiencing Ireland; however, I need a trip back to Ireland soon.  How London is to England is how Dublin is to Ireland; they are cities within a country, but there is so much more to the country than that one city.  Once the weather starts getting nicer, I might make a trip to Cork by ferry since the ferry departs from Swansea (an hour west from Cardiff).

I hope you enjoyed your Patty’s Day just as much as I did.  As for St. Patty’s in Dublin, that’s one item scratched off my bucket list.

Irish phrase of the entry: “What’s the Craic?”  What’s happening?  How are you?  Craic is pronounced crack.

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St. David, Ghosts, and Hogwarts…(sorta)

Time March 15th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Happy St. David’s Day!!

What, you don’t know what St. David’s Day is?  Seriously, it’s a more famous day than Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Day!  Um…not really, but I think the Welsh like to believe in the next 50 years it will become a largely well-known day outside of Wales.  Disneyland Paris even had a St. David’s Day parade with fireworks.

So what is St. David’s Day?  St. David is the national saint of Wales, just like how Patrick is the saint of Ireland, George for England, and Andrew for Scotland.  David went on several religious pilgrimages throughout Wales and west England and founded many religious centres.  He settled in southwest Wales where he preached and performed “miracles.”  St. David’s Day is celebrated on March 1, and it is custom to wear either a leek or a daffodil, along with the national costume.  This year was a beautiful day for Welsh festivities, and this was the first time I actually heard the native Welsh language.

Boy Welsh Costume

Boy in traditional Welsh costume.  The yellow cross with black background is St. David’s flag.

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Welsh Flags at the parade

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Traditional Welsh costumes

Women in Costume

A women with a large daffodil in traditional costume

In order to celebrate St. David’s Day, two friends and I went to Llandaff Cathedral for a dose of Cardiff history by going on a ghost walk!  Llandaff is an area of Cardiff that was its own city until Cardiff swallowed it up.  It includes ancient castle ruins, its own cathedral, and medieval architecture.  For the ghost tour, we met up at an ancient preaching cross that immediately set the mood for the rest of the night: spooky!

We walked north of the cathedral a few hundred feet to an open field where the tour guide talked about some of the spooky and mysterious tales of Llandaff.  If you owned a pub or were a landlord, you were doomed at Llandaff.  We walked along the River Taff on the Taff Trail slightly west until we came upon “the Walk of the Dead” and listened to more ghost stories.  The Welsh have their own mix of the Grim Reaper and a Banshee.  She’s the Gwrach y Rhibyn, the Hag of the Mist.  She has a green and white face with long fangs and flapping wings.  She likes to appear and shriek at the people’s windows, and then shortly after she takes him/her back to hell with her.  Whether or not you want to believe these stories, this also gives a little bit of history of the Welsh culture.  Before weirs controlled the River Taff, it was a very violent river that had strong tides and quick floods.  The open field next to the cathedral was a part of the river until the course was controlled, and it flooded a lot.  Many of the ghost stories dealt with accidents or disasters surrounding the Taff.  We also walked through an abandoned graveyard next to the cathedral which is a site for many ghost children.  Sound like a great way to spend a Friday night??  Well, it actually was.  My flatmate was the most noticeably freaked out person in the group of about 25 people (and she wasn’t the youngest).

  Llandaff Cathedral

Llandaff Cathedral in the dark

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In the graveyard.  See any ghosts?

The following weekend I went to London because it was time for IFSA-Butler’s second excursion to Blenheim Palace and Oxford.  On Friday, I managed to do a bit more sightseeing.  After I arrived to Victoria Station, I made my way up to Baker Street, the home of Sherlock Holmes.  Unfortunately, 221B Baker St is completely made up, but 221B Baker St is actually a Sherlock Holmes museum.  I didn’t tour the museum itself, but I spent some lovely time in the gift shop and bought a souvenir.  The people working in the museum had lavish costumes from Sherlock Holmes’ 19th century era.  After hanging out at 221B Baker St, right next door at 231 Baker St was the London Beatles Store.  I was in heaven.  I wanted it all, but I just settled for a mug which included all the albums.  A few days after I bought it, I noticed the mug had a typo: “Meet the Beagles” instead of “Meet the Beatles.”  Someone had dogs on the mind when they were making the mugs.  I needed my own personalized mug for tea time in the flat.  I then made my way up to Trafalgar Square to go into the National Gallery.  This is just like Chicago’s Art Institute.  The building was gorgeous, and it’s free for the public.  There was a free concert going on and being filmed featuring a cello and acoustic guitar.  That added to the atmosphere as I was looking at various works of art.  Though, one thing that museum is lacking is some modern art.  There wasn’t much after the 1900s, but their art collection went as far back at the 1400s.

  Sherlock Holmes Museum

Sherlock Holmes Museum

Beatles Store

The London Beatles Store

Baker St Tube

Baker Street tube station

National Gallery

The National Gallery

On Saturday, I went to Oxford first.  It was a beautiful city, and I haven’t seen anything like it before.  This is what I thought England looks like outside of London: old and beautiful buildings.  I took a tour of the city where we went to many of University of Oxford’s individual colleges.  The University of Oxford is the second-oldest surviving university in the world, dating as far back as 1096.  There are thirty-eight individual colleges at the university.  The day I arrived happened to be graduation day.  I got to see a lot of students and faculty in robes around Oxford.  Oxford was also a site for many religious public executions, and there were small memorials throughout the city to mark the death-place for many bishops, etc.  Emma Watson is supposedly studying abroad at Oxford through the Butler program, but I was unable to catch a glimpse of her.  However, I was able to see different parts of Hogwarts because much of the Harry Potter films were filmed all over Oxford.  I was unable to see the Great Hall though (I ran out of time).

Randolph Hotel

The Randolph Hotel

Oxford stores

Oxford shops

Religious cross

Crosses throughout Oxford that mark religious executions

Sheldonian Theater

Sheldonian Theatre.  Where you graduate among other ceremonies.

Oxford bridge

Bridge resembles those in Venice

Oxford Library

The Bodleian Library.  Has every single publication stored in the library.

More oxford streets

More Oxford shops

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An Oxford church

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Students and professors in graduation robes

more buildings

A university building

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Christ Church College on left that holds Hogwarts’ Great Hall

After Oxford, I made my way up Blenheim Palace, which is the home of the Dukes of Marlborough, and it is the birthplace of Winston Churchill.  It was a beautiful palace, and we had a tour that unfortunately took up my entire time, and I wasn’t able to roam the grounds.  During World War II, it was used by MI6.  The filming of Harry Potter also took place on the grounds of Blenheim Palace.

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Gate that leads to the Palace

grounds looking to Column of Victory

The grounds that lead to the Column of Victory

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Looking at the palace straight on

Palace to the left

Palace to the left

me at the signs

At the signs

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more gardens

The gardens

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My favorite place was at the Italian gardens

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The back end of the palace

British Word of the Entry: Squash.  Not the vegetable or the sport.  This is a concentrated fruit juice that needs to be mixed with at least water.  My flatmates drink this and it’s all new to me.

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Ancient Stones and a Round Table

Time February 24th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Hello my lovely followers!  I hope this blog finds you in good spirits because the Welsh weather is not so nice.  I am currently writing this entry on a gloomy day with a misty rain.  4 hours ago while I was in the city centre, it was beautifully warm with the sun out.  Wow, look at me…complaining about the weather already.  I’m just like a true Brit.

But besides my weather woes, I am doing quite well.  School has nothing exciting to report, but I am soon going on some fun adventures once March rolls around.  Here’s what’s coming up:

March 2-3 – I am going to London for the night, then onward to the second Butler excursion to Oxford and Blenheim Palace.  I don’t know much about these places, but I’ll learn once I’m there.

March 9-11 – This is the big Butler weekend of the spring semester, aka Adventure Weekend.  This weekend is taking place in Bangor at Snowdonia National Park in northwest Wales.  It is a very mountainous area with similar terrain as northwest England.  I plan on hiking, mountain biking, go karting, and socializing to name a few.  Obviously, this one weekend will be a main topic of this blog in the future.

March 15-19 – I’ve booked my flight to visit my friends Norah and Taylor in Dublin, Ireland for St. Patty’s Day!  This will be my first time outside Great Britain and the United Kingdom this semester, and it will be my first time in Ireland.

I am looking forward to these trips.  On February 4, I went on Butler’s first excursion to Stonehenge and Winchester.  This trip is a part of my study abroad program fee, and all I had to do was buy transportation from Cardiff to London.  After spending Friday night at my cousin’s house, I made my way to the IFSA-Butler London office in Notting Hill where three coach buses were waiting to take 150 American students studying abroad in England, Wales, and Scotland to Stonehenge.  I got a lot of much needed sleep on the bus ride out to Stonehenge.

So, what is Stonehenge?  It’s basically a lot of stones in a circular layout.  That’s about it.  No one knows what it was used for exactly.  Some reckon it was a place for worship and studying the stars, others believe it was a place for trading.  It is an open field with a path around the stones that visitors walk on while listening to an audio tour.  All of the IFSA-Butler students had audio tours, but only a handful used them.  Embarrassingly, most of the American students were loud and obnoxious at this historic site.  They really disrupted the peace at Stonehenge, and I felt sorry for the other visitors who were there to enjoy the historic atmosphere.  A lot of students just cared about getting the best pictures, and were extremely rude in their big groups.  One visitor even ran off the path, touched the stones, and ran back.  Touching the stones is a big offense at Stonehenge, but I don’t know if he was an American in our study abroad group or not.  Security obviously escorted him out, but how discourteous is that?  Typical Americans I guess…

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Stonehenge

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My not-so-obnoxious picture of Stonehenge and I

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What Stonehenge might have looked like

Our trip out to Winchester was delayed.  There were students returning back to the buses about 30 minutes late, ruining the experience for the rest of us who were on time.  The only reason we didn’t leave without them was because there is no public transportation out of Stonehenge.  I didn’t get to spend as much time in Winchester as I hoped, but I still enjoyed my time there.  Winchester is about 45 minutes southeast of Stonehenge.  It’s a small English town that houses The Great Hall and King Arthur’s Round Table, Winchester Cathedral (where Jane Austen is buried), and a cute city centre.  Once again, the American students entered the town like a herd of wild animals.  The 5 Cardiff students (including myself) left the massive group immediately and found a nice quiet Indian restaurant for lunch.  We also figured that if all the students were going into the city centre, we wouldn’t find a place to eat without a wait.  For small town Winchester, this Indian restaurant was surprisingly delicious.  After lunch, we made our way to The Great Hall.  I didn’t take any tours of The Great Hall so I don’t know much about it, besides it holds King Arthur’s Round Table, and had the king and queen’s thrones.

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The main entrance to The Great Hall

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More of The Great Hall

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King Arthur’s Round Table

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The king and queen’s thrones sat upon these stones

Once we left The Great Hall, we made our way to the city centre.  It was very lively for being very small (only about 3 city blocks long).  There were vendors selling pasties along with other treats, and there were stores on either side of the main street.  A group of people gathered around to watch a civilian break dancing with music in the background.  I made my way to a chocolate shop and bought two bars of organic chocolate: 34% cocoa smooth milk chocolate and 54% cocoa dark side milk chocolate & butterscotch.  That was probably the best chocolate I’ve had in a long time; needless to say, it didn’t last long.

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The very beginning of the city centre

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A statue in the middle of the city centre

We left the city centre and quickly made our way to Winchester Cathedral.  It was a gorgeous cathedral, but unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to take a tour.  However, we met a wonderful tour guide who let us through the cathedral quickly so we could get a better look inside.  She took us to Jane Austen’s resting place within the cathedral and told us why she was buried there because she wasn’t from Winchester.  Apparently Jane Austen was very sick and was seeing a doctor in Winchester, but she passed away shortly after.  She was buried here because she died here, and she was buried in the cathedral not because she was a well-known author, but because her father had powerful connections and pulled some strings so she had a proper resting site.  It was extremely expensive to travel a dead person back to their hometown, so people were usually buried where they had died.  It was only a coincidence that Jane Austen is a famous author, and it wasn’t until much later after she died when she gained her popularity.

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Front/main entrance of Winchester Cathedral

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Side view of Winchester Cathedral

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A memorial for Jane Austen

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Jane Austen’s resting place

After the cathedral we left for the buses and back to London.  London was just starting a pretty nice snow storm which impacted my bus ride to Cardiff.  Of course once we arrived back to Wales, the snow turned to rain and it was pretty foggy.

Hopefully the next excursion next weekend won’t be so hectic and chaotic (and embarrassing for me).

Word of the Entry: Aubergine.  You know that purple vegetable I adore so much?  Yeah, eggplant!  Except they don’t call it eggplant; in the United Kingdom, it’s called aubergine.  And zucchini is called courgette.  If I said zucchini, people would probably not know what I’m talking about.

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Cardiff? What’s Cardiff? Whales or Wales??

Time February 13th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

Hello there my loyal blog readers!  Do not worry if you don’t know the questions above; that is what I’m here to talk to you about.  I have noticed along my travels that not many people (including some Brits) know what Cardiff and Wales are!  Cardiff?  Wales?  Ugh, it’s like a foreign language to some people, and in a way it is; it’s not England!  For all you non-geography majors out there, Cardiff is the capitol of Wales.  Wales is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, and it sits on the main island of Great Britain.  Whoa, what??  Don’t worry, I have a map below to help you.

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The United Kingdom

So the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (extreme official name) consists of: Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Great Britain is the name of the giant island that homes Scotland, England, and Wales.  No, the Republic of Ireland is not in the UK; they wanted to become independent in 1916, and now they are a separate EU (European Union) country with zero ties to the Commonwelth.  Unfortunately, the top/north half of the island wanted to stay in the UK, so Ireland split into two countries: Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Actually, at this very moment, Scotland is trying to become independent.

So enough about them, let’s focus on Wales.  Wales is pretty small to say the least.  In total area, it is slightly smaller than New Jersey.  About 20% of the population speak Welsh, the rest English.  In the larger metropolitan cities, like Cardiff and Swansea, English is more widely spoken.  I still have yet to hear people conversing in Welsh.  The Welsh are very proud of its language and culture.  Every single sign is written in both languages, from signs in grocery stores, street signs, school buildings, and my residence hall.  It’s easy to pick up a few words, but it’s definitely not easy to pronounce.  Here’s some examples:

Croeso i Gaerdydd = Welcome to Cardiff (actually, Cardiff is Caerdydd, but the “c” changes to a “g” after an “i”, hence Gaerdydd)
Cymru = Wales
Os darganfyddwch dân = On discovering a fire (that was on my fire prevention poster in my room)

Money, money, money, money, money…oh money.  I like the money here: every coin is shaped differently (and there are more coins), and the paper notes are all different shapes and sizes.  You can tell what is in your wallet by the color without having to take it out, unlike US Dollars.  So, what currency?  The Great Britain Pound Sterling (£).  One of the girls in my orientation came to London with Euros in her wallet.  Yes, you need at least a 3.0 GPA to get into Cardiff University.  Ignorance is bliss, until you realize you can’t buy anything with Euros in the UK.

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British Pound notes…what a colourful creation

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From left to right: 1 penny, 2 pence, 5 pence, 10 pence, 20 pence, 50 pence, one pound, two pounds

So what is Welsh culture?  My English flatmates say it consists of four things: sheep (there are more sheep in Wales than there are people), Tom Jones, leeks, and daffodils.  It’s more than those stereotypical items.

Welsh Love Spoons.  What’s more romantic: men carving love spoons for their girl or men giving flowers to their girl?  Please, flowers are so cliché; the real romance lies within Welsh love spoons.  This tradition started hundreds of years ago where a young man would spend hours carving the spoon in hopes that the girl would accept it.  If the girl accepted the spoon, she would demonstrate her interest in him and commence a relationship.  Where do you think the origin of the word “spooning” came from?  The word might have evolved a bit over time, but the same basic love element is still there.  Spoons could also suggest food on the table and a cozy family life, which would impress the girl and his ability to care for her and her family.  Wales was a poor society whose youth could not afford presents or expensive jewelry, so the men would do their best to create the most beautiful spoons possible.  This also demonstrated the young man’s skills.  The more complicated and difficult the design, the more it would symbolize the depth of the creator’s love.  How romantic!

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Beautiful Welsh love spoons

Dragons.  There are dragons everywhere, and actually the Welsh flag has a giant red dragon on it.  One of my university buildings, the Bute Building, has a giant red dragon on the roof.  But seriously, what’s up with this dragon?  Well, here’s the folk tale:  There were two dragons, one red and one white, that remained at Dinas Emrys for centuries until King Vortigern tried to build a castle there.  However, the castle’s walls and buildings were demolished by some unknown force.  Vortigern is told by his advisers he needed to find a boy without a father to sacrifice (nice, right?).  This boy, named Merlinus Ambrosius, is to become the powerful wizard Merlin, whose father is supposedly the devil making him half demon.  I know, complicated story, but it gets better.  This wise boy told the king of the two dragons fighting in the hill.  Vortigern dug up the hill, freeing the dragons.  The white dragon was about to defeat the red dragon, until the last minute where the red dragon defeated the white dragon (the part of the story where the red dragon defeated the white dragon in the final moments is an important attribute for the Welsh attitude).  The red dragon symbolized the Welsh and people of Vortigern while the white dragon symbolized the Saxons.  It also symbolizes the constant struggle the Welsh had with the English.  The red dragon is also a prophecy of the upcoming King Arthur.  Whew.  I hope you understood that because that was a lot to grasp in class.

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Flag of Wales

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The dragon on top of the Bute Building, Cardiff University

Rugby.  These fans are crazy about their rugby.  They also like their cricket and football (soccer for you Americans), but rugby is the main sport.  For February and March, there is the 6 Nations rugby tournament that consists of six nations: Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Italy.  They play at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff in the city centre, just south of my campus.

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Go team!

Welsh cakes.  Honestly, I don’t know how important Welsh cakes are to Welsh culture, but I have been eating a lot of them, so I think they’re important.  They are made up of eggs, butter, flour, sugar, and currants.  They look like mini pancakes, but they are much more firm.  You can find these anywhere, especially from vendors in Cardiff Market located in the city centre.

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Yum…Welsh cakes

I am located in Cardiff, which I said is the capitol.  It is the largest city in the country, with around 330,000 people.  This is also one of the cheapest cities in the UK, and that’s great for my wallet.  Cars are driven on the opposite side of the street (like the rest of Great Britain), but I’m pretty much used to that by now.  Cardiff’s city centre is known for their shopping arcades, which are like mini shopping malls between the buildings and main shops.  The city centre also consists of the most high-tech library I’ve ever been in.  I got a library card and took out two books, and honestly it’s one of the nicest buildings there.  There is no circulation desk, but there are a bunch of computer stations on all floors where you can “self-check out” your books.  Just scan your library card, scan your book, and you are good to go!  However, the books are the British versions (obviously) and the grammar and terminology is different.

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The front entrance to the Queens Arcade

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Cardiff Central Library: one of Cardiff’s 20 library branches, this is the biggest located in the City Centre.

Cardiff has the reputation of being “UK’s party city.”  The nightlife is pretty awesome.  The routine is pub-hopping (traveling from pub to pub), then settling down at a club.  The students don’t go to the city clubs on Saturday because that’s when the rural Welsh people from the boondocks come out.  Everyday besides Saturday is fair game.  I have found the best night out has been Wednesday, which is convenient for me since I don’t have class Wednesday, and I start at 2 pm on Thursday.

My school is Cardiff University.  Even though it is located in a larger city right next to the city centre, a museum, city hall, and Cardiff Castle, you know when you are on and off campus.  It is not like DePaul or other city schools where the city and campus blends.  My uni (short for university) has about 30,000 students, so it is quite a big school, but everything is in walking distance!  I live just under a mile from campus, but once I’m there, all my buildings are close.  The Student Union is so cool, with a pub and nightclub right in there!  Sometimes, the union nightclub is the largest one in Cardiff.  Crazy huh?  We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.  I have joined the Cardiff University Tennis Club, and the courts are right next to Cardiff Castle.  Literally, the far court is pretty much touching the wall that surrounds the castle.  How awesome is that!?  I play tennis next to a castle.  I bet you have never said that before.  The only downside is that we don’t have any indoor courts, so, rain or shine, we are out there to play.  They have hard courts and astro-turf (basically fake grass).  I could not get the feel of the astro-turf, and I thought I was going to slip and do the splits any second.

I am still adjusting to the academic system.  It’s hard reading for class when some textbooks are unavailable to students.  Students do not buy their books; they check them out of the library.  The professors give a ridiculous reading list (maybe 50 references), and we (students) select what we want to read.  This is such a different concept; I’m still figuring it out.  There are almost no online articles that I’m used to in the States; everything is in textbooks.  No procrastination allowed.

British word of the entry: Quid.  Slang for British Pounds.  Instead of saying something costs 50 pounds, you say it cost 50 quid.  Just like US Dollars, you would say 50 bucks.  Same idea.

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A Day in the Life…of my travels throughout London

Time February 10th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Almost a month has passed since I first arrived in the United Kingdom, and I have so much to say.  I have been on an incredible journey and learned so much about different cultures and attitudes, not only from the Brits, but from other people worldwide.  School has started, and I am busily adjusting to my life in Cardiff.  But let me back-track.  I have had an incredible week in London that you don’t know about yet….

Let’s look back to January 18 while I was still in London.  My cousin Jenni and I became the ultimate tourists, driving first to Abbey Road Studios.  I definitely had to make my Beatles pilgrimage out there and cross that zebra crosswalk.  I’m sure the cars and traffic weren’t too happy because they had to wait until I crossed the crosswalk before they could continue.   I was taking my time.

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Abbey Road sign

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Front door of Abbey Road Studios

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The famous zebra crosswalk

We parked at a nearby parking garage, but this garage had the most elaborate cars: Porsches, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys, Audis, Mercedes…you get the picture.  I did find the coolest Mini in this garage as well.  The car was detailed as if it was an X-ray.  There was a skeleton that looked like it was driving on the side of the car, and the hood showed an x-ray of the engine.  It was so creative and so cool.  After buying some Beatles souvenirs at a local shop, we took the St. John’s Wood tube to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the Guard.

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The sweet Mini. Notice the x-ray/skeleton

I wish I was taller.  Buckingham Palace is a madhouse for tourists, especially during the changing of the Guard.  I saw most of the ceremony through some man’s video camera because I couldn’t see over the heads of the crowd.  The Guards weren’t donning their more famous red coats, but instead they were wearing lavender purple.  Don’t worry, they were still wearing their tall, funny hats.  After we saw most of the ceremony, we took the tube from Green Park to Westminster to check out Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey.  We came out of the tube station right at the bottom of Big Ben, and it was so grand and beautiful.  I took lovely pictures of the amazing architecture.  Across the street of Parliament was Westminster Abbey.  I have never been inside Westminster before, but unfortunately, it cost £16 just to get inside, including the student discount.  I passed, but I still plan on going inside sometime before I leave.

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Changing of the Guard

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Big Ben and I

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The back end of Parliament

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The front of Westminster Abbey

We made our way back to the Westminster tube station.  This tube station was not like the rest of the tube stations: it was high tech and extremely modern.  It was a very impressive station.  We were both getting hungry for lunch, so we made our way to the best place in town: Harrods.  Now that is an impressive department store.  The wall and ceiling decorations were breath taking, and the food halls were gorgeous.  We took an Egyptian themed staircase/escalator up to a café and had lovely sandwiches and tea.  Everything about Harrods was grand and definitely attracted a certain demographic (usually people that have lots of money to spend).  After lunch, we made our way back to the food halls and bought big, beautiful cupcakes and a bunch of mini cupcakes for the kids.  I had a red velvet cupcake, and we also bought flavored marshmallow cubes.

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Hanging out at Westminster tube station

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Cupcakes galore at Harrods

The following day on Thursday, I met the Chewing Gum artist.  Jenni and I found him on the street working on two pieces of gum, and he stopped to chat with us for a few minutes.  He was a local artist who paints on old gum from the sidewalks and turns them into works of art.  He has gotten a lot of recognition in the art world around London, and even in New York.

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Meeting up with the Chewing Gum Artist

Later that evening after dinner (fish and chips), Jenni, Jon, and I went to the Duke of York Theatre to see a play called Backbeat.  Here’s the synopsis: Backbeat is the story of how the Beatles “became” the Beatles when John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best, and Stuart Sutcliffe embarked on their journey from the famous docks of Liverpool to search for success in the seedy red light district of Hamburg.  The compelling triangular relationship between the band’s original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, the striking German photographer Astrid Kirchherr whom he fell in love with, and his best friend John Lennon, became an intrinsic part of The Beatles’ story – and put them on an unstoppable trajectory onto the world stage.  Obviously, I just copied that from the website, but it was fantastic!  It was raunchy, hilarious, had great music, and I would really like to see it again.  The actors who played Stuart, John Lennon, and Paul were fantastic!  When they were playing, they actually looked like the Beatles!  The Paul actor had all of Paul’s head movements perfectly, and he looked just like him.  The only small hitch was that the actor was not playing lefty (of course that would bother me).  The actor that played John was spot on with the way he bounces.  Even for the brief time Ringo was in it, the actor played a perfect Ringo.  He smiled constantly, and played his drums just like him.  They had such Liverpool accents that even Jenni and I were having a hard time understanding occasionally.  There would be laughter in the crowd, and we were clueless, unsure on what they said.  At the end, the actors played a few Beatles numbers which got the crowd up and we all sang and danced.  I screamed and sang like those darn Beatlemania girls.  They played “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Love Me Do,” “Twist and Shout,” and so many more.

On Friday, it was time for me to leave the Alpert house and move to Notting Hill where my Butler orientation was taking place.  I traveled by tube, and the one hour it took to travel from Muswell Hill to Notting Hill was the most miserable time on the Underground to date.  I had my giant suitcase and bags with me, and the stations had neither escalators nor lifts (elevators).  I had to make a transfer from the blue Picadilly line to the red Central line at Holborn station.  Worst station ever for lots of luggage!  It only had stairs!  Once I made it up and down the stairs to my platform, I almost couldn’t lift my big suitcase onto the tube itself!  There is a tall gap between the platform and the tube and that was miserable; I seriously thought the tube was going to start moving with my suitcases still on the platform.  I finally reached Notting Hill Gate station, walked up more stairs (my arm was seriously about to fall off), and made it to the exit.  The only problem: I couldn’t fit my giant suitcase through the exit in time, and the gate closed on me.  I was essentially trapped and couldn’t get out because my Oyster card already scanned me for leaving the station.  I was definitely miserable, and I had to get Underground personnel help me out.  Finally, they let me through a restricted gate and I was free.  One of them even helped me carry my bags up the final set of stairs, and I was at street level.

The rest of the weekend was very touristy.  Friday evening I had a joint dinner at Wagamama, a chain Asian restaurant, with the rest of the girls in my orientation (5 going to Cardiff and one headed to Bristol).  We were from all different parts of the States: Fargo, Madison, Kansas City, North Carolina, Michigan, and of course me from Chicago.  After dinner, we decided to go to a pub called The Windsor Castle.  It was a cute pub with a big heated outdoor patio.  Half of us got drinks, but the minute we started asking questions about the different beers, they decided to card us and give us some nonsense about how we needed to be 21 past 7 pm (it was 6:45).  They weren’t denying us drinks per say, but we got the hint that they didn’t want American students at their pub, so we finished our drinks and left.  Not cool.

The next morning we had orientation at Butler’s London office.  We talked about how to succeed in the British academic system, and we talked about differences in studying compared to the American system.  School is very different in Europe compared to the United States.  Getting a degree at university in the UK only requires 3 years, and you only take major classes; there are no general education requirements.  Lectures are only once or twice a week, but there is a lot of independent reading a student needs to do.  Assessment is done by either an essay or exam at the end of the semester.  There might be a presentation due during the semester, but there is essentially no “homework.”  Your homework is basically reading up for your final essay or exam.  It takes a lot of personal responsibility to succeed.

After the morning’s orientation, we all had lunch and traveled to the Duchess Theatre to see The Pitmen Painters, a play about northern England miners who become painting sensations and artists.  It was very good, but it was extremely long: 2 and a half hours.  I’m pretty sure all of us dozed off at one time or another because it was a very long day.  The audience was mostly an older crowd, but if you made the slightest noise, audience members would look and yell at you.  I adjusted myself in my seat, which made a little noise, and the person in front of me looked back at me as if I was making a racket!  Ridiculous.

The rest of the evening was spent taking a nap and walking around London’s Kensington nightlife.  Unfortunately, one of the girls in my orientation had her purse stolen at a Starbucks.  Her purse consisted of all her cash, all her credit and debit cards, local UK phone and iPhone, and her license/ID.  Basically the only thing she didn’t get stolen was her passport, which would be the worst thing to lose.  Apparently, she had her purse behind her chair (why? I don’t know) and that’s how it got stolen.  I think she underestimated how easily it was to get things stolen in a big city, and what a hard lesson to learn.  It was kind of ironic because we talked about personal safety and theft at orientation earlier that day.

The following day we had hop on, hop off tour bus tickets that takes you all over London.  We went past Baker Street and Burberry, and we eventually got off at Trafalgar Square.  We took great pictures of the lions and of the National Gallery behind it.  We split off into 2 groups and had lunch.  My group walked our way to Picadilly Circus and around Chinatown.  Chinatown was decorated for the Chinese New Year that day (Year of the Dragon), and it looked stunning with gold and red lanterns hung up everywhere.  We eventually found a pub and had fish and chips, with a half pint of beer (it was only lunch after all).  I found that it does not matter what time of day it is, beer is accepted at all hours.  We met back up with the rest of the girls and walked to Parliament, running into the royal horses’ museum.  We saw some horse riders in red coats and pointy metal helmets.  After Parliament, we walked through St. James Park and made our way to Buckingham Palace.  The Union Jack was flying at Buckingham, and that usually means the Queen is there.  We took our tour bus from Buckingham to Hyde Park, and that’s where I visited Speaker’s Corner.  It was full of soapbox orators, which are people standing at least 6 inches from the ground, and they are able to say (or yell) anything they want.  The audience can choose to listen to whomever they want.  All the ranters that day were ranting about religion; what an unoriginal topic.  Close to Hyde Park was Marble Arch, a giant arch that was used for public hangings back in the day.  It was actually very pretty, despite the context it was used.  We took the Underground from Marble Arch to Notting Hill where we relaxed at our hotel until 6 pm.

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Girls from my orientation on top of the lions at Trafalgar

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Piccadilly Circus

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Chinatown getting ready for the Chinese New Year

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Fish and chips, with a beer

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A horse at the Royal Horse Museum

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Royal Horse Museum with the London Eye in the background

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I love the telephone booths, but I don’t think I would ever make a call in one

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At St. James Park

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The statue in front of Buckingham Palace

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Buckingham Palace

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Listening while at Speaker’s Corner

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Marble Arch, the site for public hangings

We had the opportunity to take a ferry along the River Thames from Parliament and the London Eye all the way down to Tower Hill.  It was beautiful at night.  The London Eye was lit up in blue and Big Ben was lit up in green.  On the river, we passed the OXO building, a Shakespearean theater, the Savoy Hotel, Millennium Bridge, London Bridge, and we finally came to our destination at Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.  We were on the ferry for maybe 20 minutes, but it was a beautiful and breath taking view of the waterfront.  After the ferry, I had to meet up with Jonathan at the Savoy Hotel.  It was an extravagant hotel that had people in the bathroom give you a towel to dry your hands, and you had to give them a tip.  It was extremely fancy, and definitely not for most people’s bank account.  The girls from my orientation and I were way underdressed; most people were wearing elegant gowns and tuxedos.  It honestly reminded me of a James Bond film.  007 always got put in these elaborate hotels with beautiful people.

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London Eye along the Thames

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Parliament and Big Ben, from a distance on the river

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Tower Bridge (not the London Bridge!)

The next morning was Monday, January 23, and we were on our way from London Paddington Station to Cardiff Central Station.  The two hour train ride in first class was wonderful, and this is where my life as a Cardiff University student began….

British word of the entry: Fancy dress.  It does not mean wear fancy clothes, it means dress up in costumes.  I learned that the hard way.

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I found my favourite pub: the Sherlock Holmes pub

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I Have Arrived!

Time January 17th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

Hello from…Muswell Hill, London!!

It has been a long and tiring journey since I departed Chicago, and the United States.  My flight was ok at times, but 8 hours in those small coach seats aren’t particularly comfortable.  I sat next to a 17-year-old British girl who has the craziest life story I’ve ever heard.  Let’s just say she was talking about herself for at least an hour and a half, and I was still baffled by her story.  Across the aisle from me was a young English mom going home with her 6-month-old daughter.  I quickly became instant friends with the baby.  I have never seen a baby that smiles and laughs as much as this baby did.  According to her mom, she was born laughing!  This baby had the biggest eyes and was a model for a lot of parenting magazines.  My flight wasn’t dull to say the least, but I wish I would have been able to sleep for more than an hour.

I touched down at London’s Heathrow at 11 am local time, and it was hard keeping my heart rate down from all the excitement.  Once I got a lovely stamp on my passport and cleared immigration, and I was on my way to the baggage claim and freedom.

I took the London Underground, Picadilly Line from Heathrow to Bounds Green.  About halfway through the tube ride through central London, my tube car was jam packed with people.  Luckily I had a seat!  After arriving at Bounds Green, I walked a short distance to the bus stop.  I had to cross the street, but I got much needed help from the sidewalk, which said to “Look Right” (I still looked left first of course).  Having the cars drive on the opposite side of the street is something I’m going to have to get used too.  Something I noticed that is different from the States is their parking.  Cars can park on both sides of the street and not have to face in the direction of travel.  Sometimes cars are facing each other on the same side of the street!  By this point, it was already 1 pm and I couldn’t wait to just sit down arrive at my cousins’ house.  A red double decker bus was approaching and I stepped on the bus, only to find out my Oyster card (the tube and bus fare card) was out of money!  Of course I looked like a tourist by getting off the bus with all my luggage and asking the driver where I could “top off” my card (topping off means putting money in the card).  I had to go back to the tube station and insert more money.  After adding £5, I went back to the bus stop where another bus was approaching (at least I didn’t have to wait long).  I got off at “St. Andrew’s Church,” walked 2 blocks, and finally arrived at the Alpert house!

The whole rest of the day was a challenge not to fall asleep.  I drank a lot of coffee on the plane before we arrived, so I was somewhat zombiefied on coffee.  It felt like finals week all over: tons of coffee and caffeine without sleep.  My younger cousins Caitlin, 5, and Sophie, 3, made sure I was wide-awake; they needed a playmate of course.

I finally fell asleep about 10 pm GMT (fyi I’m 6 hours ahead of Chicago’s central time).  I did pretty well for myself waking up at around 7 am.  I got to see a wonderful London sunrise that will jump start my fantastic adventure here in the United Kingdom.  Today’s plan: getting a cell phone and buying an electric toothbrush and blow dryer.  I might have another family day, and tomorrow will be designed for 100% sight-seeing.

Till then!! :-)

British word of the entry: Chav.  It’s trashy people that knows they’re trash, but they still try to present themselves as better than others.  Big puffy silver coats and tracksuits are some examples that person is a chav.  Apparently they’re easy to spot (if you’re a local Brit), but I’m still having a hard time distinguishing a chav in a crowd of people. Jenni and Jon are helping me through this process.

 

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New Year, New Opportunities, New Experiences

Time January 5th, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Happy 2012!!  Well I finally can’t procrastinate on packing anymore, I leave for London in 10 days!  Seriously, where has the time gone?  I feel like I have so much to do in so little time.  This winter break has been anything but dull: catching up with friends, gaining 10 lbs of holiday food, having all four wisdom teeth out, and now I finally have the rest of my time off to get ready for the biggest adventure of my life!  I had a very enlightening visit with my British cousins who were in town a few days ago, and now I am able to figure out what I need and what I don’t need for my trip.  Obviously we talked about the UK and what I should expect, what I should pack, money related issues, and insurance (specifically health insurance).  When I arrive in London on January 16, I will most likely take the tube up to my cousin’s house in north London where I will be spending a few days before the Butler orientation on the 21st.  They gave me their Oyster card, which is London’s pass to ride the tube and bus (essentially a CTA card for all you Chicagoans).  The thought of riding the tube is very exciting, and slightly nerve-wracking.  I remember the tube from when I visited London in 2005, and it can’t be much different from the L I’m used to at home.  Money is another thing we talked about.  Surprisingly, the current exchange rate of the US Dollar to British Pound is very favorable to Americans (yey!).  It’s about $1.56 to £1, which is remarkably lower than 7 years ago when it was $1.82 to £1 (though it’s still expensive). But what I still have to keep in mind are the ridiculous exchange fees my bank will have for the exchange rate.  That is still another thing I have to figure out: how should I use my money. Not how to spend my money (that’s easy), but how should I use debit/credit cards without it costing me a fortune in ridiculous fees. Over the next few days, I’ll be in contact with my bank so I know the ins and outs of all foreign exchange about my cards. I’m also going to learn the British money before I leave so I don’t look like the stereotypical dumb American who can’t count money.

What I need to get in the States: Clothes.  I thought I would go shopping in Cardiff and try to “wear their style,” but apparently I’ll be spending much more money on the same pair of jeans as if I just bought them in the States.  What kind of clothes?  Not sure yet, but a few new things.  How can I go on a huge trip like this and not go shopping for it??  It’s also not as cold in Wales as it is in Chicago, so I won’t need heavy jackets (which means more space in my suitcase!).

What I need once I’m in the UK: Electrical appliances.  I am not going to go through the hassle of blowing fuses every day for a hair dryer that’s on a different voltage.  I’m not even going to bring my electrical toothbrush (don’t worry, I’ll still brush my teeth).  The only electrical items I’ll bother bringing is my laptop and camera/camera charger.  Everything else I’ll buy cheap once I’m there.  Obviously I’ll need a cell phone, but I’ll just get a pay-as-you-go phone.  Thank god I live in a technological age where the phone isn’t the only way to get in touch with people.  Email, Facebook, and Skype will be my main ways of getting in touch with family and friends overseas.  That will also help keep the phone costs down.

So…how does it feel to leave in 10 days, you ask??  Well, let me just tell you I’m writing this blog at 2:22 a.m. because I can’t sleep from excitement.  Or maybe it’s also because I am in a little pain from my wisdom teeth extraction, but either way, there’s not a minute that goes by when I don’t think about London or Cardiff.

Welcome aboard to my crazy life as I write about my experiences as an American student living the dream in the United Kingdom.

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