How Has the Semester Gone by so Fast?

It’s hard to believe that it has already been six weeks into the term and seven weeks since I’ve flown from JFK to Edinburgh. It’s a very surreal experience to think about that I’m living in such a beautiful city for my third year of college. With that said, I can’t think of a better way to be spending my third than by being at the University of Edinburgh. Now that I’ve gotten a handle on my schedule, and made a solid routine things have become very normal. Though the UK school system is very different to what I’m accustomed to in Connecticut, I do think that I’ve learned a lot in this new learning environment. Getting used to a 300 person lecture for a literature course was a little daunting at first (since my largest English class has been 30 students ever), but now it’s totally normal and easy to follow with my tutorial. It definitely makes me feel like there’s a solid and healthy balance between academic and social life here. There’s always work to be done and the work is difficult, but it’s never extenuating. Beyond academics I have to say I’ve been blessed with a very lovely flat with amazing flat mates. Living with six people can be daunting but between the four British students and one other American, it all works out. We even do communal dinners six days a week and hangout all the time. In short, it’s the best living situation I’ve ever had, having attended two different universities in the past and have now lived in three different housing arrangements.

The peek-a-boo view of the city from my kitchen.

Having so much to do in the city, Edinburgh is the perfect place to go to university. Though my dream city is London where I’ve lived for a semester in the past, Edinburgh has so much going for it and really tailors to students. Whether it is coffee with friends, to clubbing any day of the week, there’s just enough to do to so there’s never a dull moment. Having had seven weeks to be here so far I’ve definitely had enough time to explore the restaurant scene here. Elephant and Bagels is the best place to get a great bagel sandwich and makes me feel like I’m home when I miss Manhattan. The best place for latte and a solid two to three hour chat is Black Medicine Coffee and Co. I’ve spent at least three hours in there just hanging out with friends and studying every week. For pints though I’m a bit split. Brew Dogs has great craft beer and is located centrally on Cowgate. But for a more upbeat atmosphere for a bar, Pilgrim is also fun for a Thursday evening. The nightlife here is vivid and readily accessible to students, which is excellent.

My friend Vernon walking on the pier of Loch Lomond.

Living in Scotland’s capital though can feel a little isolating in the sense that there’s so much to see outside of the city. Last weekend I had the opportunity to go the countryside with family friends who are on holiday. They took their son and I to Rosslyn Chapel, which is where the end of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown takes place. After that, we headed to Stirling to see Stirling Castle and the National Wallace Monument (so many stairs, so little time). The views from both places were breathtaking. Not to get totally cliché and sound like a literature nerd, but from the top of both landmarks it looked like the scenes in the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice film when she walks to collect her sister from Mr. Bingley. Seeing the countryside of Scotland it is only now that I understand how the Romantic poets could be so easily inspired by Nature. The day was topped off with a stop at Loch Lomond, which is a cute lakeside preserved village. The views of the mountains paired with the water made me really feel like I was in the Scotland that I imagined. Scotland has such a versatile and green landscape it’s almost hard to conceptualize. I honestly could not think of a better place to spend my third year, this has been the best semester of my life.

Views from Stirling Castle. Elizabeth Bennett where are you?

246 steps later at the National Wallace Monument.

 

Well I’ve been everywhere now…

October:

My experience in Edinburgh so far has been nothing short of incredible. I have met so many amazing people in this past month, and seen so many places too beautiful to exist. I have been to the highlands and the sea, all without traveling too far from this fantastic city.

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I had no idea there were swans here.

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Classes have been extremely interesting. As a History of Art major, this is certainly an excellent place to study. And so far I have mainly learned that education isn’t as much about the grade here, it is about learning for the sake of learning, and that is a very important thing to recognize and apply to life. I hope I keep that thought with me after this experience is over.

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So far the most memorable experience of this past month was visiting the highlands. I went on a group tour with my study abroad programme. We traveled to castles, and distilleries, and Loch Ness, and the beautiful Glencoe that looked like something out of a fairy tale or a dream. But the highlight of my trip was visiting a working sheepdog farm. This experience included a very opinionated shepherd that seemed to have been taken out of a novel, about twenty Border Collies, thousands of sheep (though I only saw fifteen or so), two lambs, and twelve puppies.

We saw a demonstration and the dogs were just amazing! The shepherd would whistle a note and the dogs would go left, another and they would go right. Even the blind old ones were able to listen to the whistled directions, and herd the sheep. it was something I never thought that I would get a chance to see, and I am very lucky that I have. I also got to cuddle with the lambs and puppies, which made my day, as I love animals, especially baby ones.

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This first month has just been a whirlwind, and I cannot wait to see what the next few months have in store for me. I hope to fit as many adventures as I possibly can into the time I have here in this wonderful place.

 

Until next time.


Holley

“Good Afternoon. My name is Russell and I’m a Wilderness Explorer”

So tomorrow will mark my four-week move to Edinburgh, so I feel this is the perfect time for some reflection, as I sit in my cold room looking out at the rain falling from a wall of completely grey that is supposedly the sky (and I mean completely – there’s not even a hint of blue, or even a different shade of grey in there!).

Snax brunch

As the old saying goes: ‘time flies’ and I’ve only come to really understand that saying since my move here. As one of my flatmates informed us as we sat in Snax for brunch this morning: the two American girls in our flat are going home in two months. Man, that’s not long at all. It’s gonna be tough saying bye, we’re like a little family.

I love my dad

This past month has been filled with so many memories and adventures already. And, of course, so many emotions. Most of those emotions are happy ones though of course there have been the few days of homesickness (more like few hours, but don’t tell my family that – they might be offended!). Though I will admit, the copious amounts of letters, birthday cards, and birthday cupcakes from my dad (yes, I turned 21 last week!) have made all the difference.

Looking Glass BooksOnce I got over the exhaustion that is attempting to make friends with everyone you come across during Fresher’s Week and the first week of class, things have settled down a bit and I’ve gotten into somewhat of a routine. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m incredibly organised, and so: Routine. Is. Everything. But I’m attempting to be slightly more adventurous, so the spontaneous trips to coffee shops over the past few weeks have been great. And because I have an undying love of hot chocolate, I’ve decided to make it my mission to find the best hot chocolate I can while I’m here over the year. It may be ambitious, but I’m going to try. My favourite (so far, mind!) has been the lavender hot chocolate in Looking Glass Books – though that may have been due to how completely relaxed I was after it. But tomorrow’s another day, and I think I’ll be spending it (or at least an hour or two) sipping hot chocolate somewhere in the city. Ooh, and another gem I’ve found near Uni has got to be The Potting Shed. £3 for a hot drink and a piece of (fabulous) cake, while you sit in a bar-come-cafe that has gardening pots as lampshades? Yes please!

Needless to say, my sort-of spontaneity doesn’t stop at coffee shops, oh no. A few weekends ago, my flatmate Sam and I decided to go to St Andrew’s for the day. The panic of nearly missing the train (don’t ever forget your ticket reservation number, it’s important!) soon turned to excitement as we whizzed through the countryside, and were dumped at a little train station about an hour outisde the city. A short bus ride later (made all the more entertaining by the other tourists on the bus), and we were in the tiny village (or town? I don’t know what to call it) of St Andrew’s. After a walk along the pier and the harbour, we climbed up stairs, stairs…and more stairs to the top of St Rule’s tower. And even though I nearly died from the climb (that I was totally unprepared for), the view was spectacular. The best part though was the big plate of fresh fish and chips that we tucked into afterwards. And then, to make things even more exciting, we went to the old castle. ‘Old castle?’ you say, ‘that can’t be very exciting.’ But you’re wrong there. The ruins itself were cool, and the views pretty, but around the back there’s a mine and countermine, and that’s the exciting part. (Or maybe we’re just über nerdy and that’s why it’s cool?!) Yes, it did feel like a bit of a trap when we went down by ourselves and almost resorted to crawling along the passageway, but it was definitely the highlight of the trip – so unexpected! We (well, I, at least) felt like an explorer, just like Russell the Wilderness Explorer from Up. Ok, that was a terrible analogy, if even an analogy, but I’m sure you get what I mean…hopefully.

…And I think on that note I best stop rambling, it’s getting embarrassing. But yeah, so far so good here. It’s only been a month, but I already feel at home in the city. I’ll be off on loads more adventures (I hope!), starting with Sterling Castle this weekend. And so to end this blog post, can I just make a plea: please don’t judge me on my blogging skills (or lack therof!), this is the first blog I’ve ever written for. It will get better!

A Leisurely Hike Up Ben Lomond

WARNING: Extreme sarcasm and/or sass ahead. Proceed with caution.

Okay, so, if you know me at all, you know that I’m not exactly the poster girl for physical fitness. Once or twice a decade I get motivated to go for a run, but that’s about as far as it goes. And by that, I mean it stops at the I Should Really Go For A Run stage… I haven’t actually progressed to the Getting Up Off My Ass To Actually Go Run stage in an embarrassingly long time (we’re talking years, people). But the hike(s!) up Arthur’s Seat were so much fun and the view was so rewarding that when my friends found out about an organized trip to Ben Lomond, I didn’t hesitate to sign up with them. A hike up a mountain in the Highlands that, according to my Google Image search, has a view that makes Arthur’s Seat look like Detroit? No-brainer. I will admit that I was unaware of its 3200 ft elevation. Small detail, though, right?! My friends even asked if it was a difficult hike, and were told that it required only a “minimal level of fitness”.

Well, let me tell you something. I have a minimal level of fitness. And they lied. They lied hard.

We arrived at Loch Lomond (a two-hour bus ride from Edinburgh) around noon, and were told that the bus would leave for Edinburgh at 5 PM, giving us “ample time” to hike the mountain. In fact, they (the organizers of the trip) went so far as to tell us that it should take a mere three hours, four if we went slowly. An extremely accurate estimation, that was in no way misleading, as I’m sure you can guess. So we set off at a sprightly pace, excited and blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. And at first, it all seemed to be going so well! The incline was steady, but not terribly steep. Various thoughts ran through my head:

“I can so do this!”

“This isn’t even that hard!”

“Look at me go, I’m practically an adventurer!”

About 45 minutes in, we reached a gate. And on that gate was a sign. And the sign said something along the lines of “Welcome to Ben Lomond”.

That was our first clue.

From then on, the steepness of the mountain increased about 200%, my breathing got about eight times as heavy and I started sweating from pores I didn’t even know I had. Suffice it to say that my moderately asthmatic lungs were less than pleased with me. Death (or at the very least, a coma) seemed imminent.

Okay, I might be exaggerating a little. It wasn’t that bad. Except that it totally was. But if anything could get my shamefully out-of-shape body to keep going, it was the breathtaking view unfolding behind us with each step.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred (Pennyworth, apparently, thank you, IMDB) says: “some men just want to watch the world burn.” Well, if Ben Lomond was a person, it would be one of those men. The next couple hours of hiking revealed three or four fake peaks, testing my sanity in ways it has never been tested before. The final stretch (the real one, not the three teasers before it) actually turned out to be the easiest parts of the hike, and by far the most beautiful (and that’s saying a lot). A nearly flat ridge wound around the mountain, allowing for a stunning view of the loch minus the heavy breathing. Finally, finally, we reached the top, and oh my goodness was it ever worth it. It was 360 degrees of sheer beauty. Just as with Arthur’s Seat, I won’t even bother trying to describe it with some clumsy combination of adjectives and nouns, instead I’ll just leave these pictures here to do the talking for me.

Now, I feel it’s important to mention that getting up to the summit took probably a little over three hours (factoring in about 20 minutes of rest time, including a lunch break). Let me remind you that we were told that the hike would take three hours total. TOTAL. I don’t know what kind of hiking enthusiasts/demi-gods provided that statistic, but I have some questions for them (including – but not limited to – how and where they acquired their superhuman powers). Hiking down was of course much faster than going up, but surprisingly more painful. Turns out rocky terrain and steep inclines don’t get along well with feet, knees, or body parts in general. The walk down also included a strange, wonderful and terrifying encounter with a cow, pictured below. As we were walking, we noticed a cow hanging out just next to the trail. Just as we got within 5 meters of her, she walked directly onto the path in front of us, and she wasn’t exactly in a huge rush to leave. Finally, she crossed over to the other side of the trail, only to turn back and watch us as we walked by. I, being the brilliant soul that I am, tried to pose for a picture with our new bovine friend, but just as I leaned in for the photo, she viciously attacked breathed on me, causing me to jump away in fear (all perfectly captured in the picture below). I’m aware that this post has been 96.4% sarcastic, but I swear with every fibre of my being that the past five sentences are completely serious.

All in all, the hike up Ben Lomond was anything but leisurely, but it was so, so worth it. Sarcasm aside, it was an incredibly fun and adventurous day, which is exactly what I had hoped for in signing up. Would I have enjoyed it more had I been in better shape? Perhaps, but perhaps not, especially considering that had that been the case, there would have been so much less room for sarcasm in this post, and God knows we couldn’t have that.

Arthur’s Seat (Twice!), The Elephant House, and Other Miscellaneous Activities

So, to pick up where I left off in my last post, I’ll start this entry by telling you about my first hike up Arthur’s Seat, the dormant volcano that overlooks Edinburgh. Hiking it is a must for anyone who visits the city. My dad flew over with me to help me get settled and naturally wanted to get a good taste of Edinburgh before heading back to the Great White North. So, on Wednesday morning of my first week, I strapped on my Converse extremely professional hiking gear and we set off for Arthur’s seat, a whopping 251 m hike (basically a casual stroll in the park for a fitness guru like me). While it’s no Everest, the hike was surprisingly steep and rather precarious near the top, but well worth it for the incredible view of the city. Half the struggle came from forcing myself to look where I was going rather than at the sprawling landscape behind me. While I am many things, a hiking expert is not one of them, but even I can tell you that climbing a steep mountain with your head turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction is a bad idea. Finally, just as my breathing was getting embarrassingly heavy, we reached the peak. Rather than trying and failing to articulately describe the breathtaking view from the top, I’ve included some pictures below:

While the city is beautiful in any conditions, we were definitely blessed with a perfect day weather-wise. All-in-all, a successful hike followed by an even more successful nap.

The next few days consisted of some casual pub nights with new friends (definitely my type of night out, which makes my choice of city an extremely appropriate one), another hike up Arthur’s Seat, this time with the aforementioned friends (yes, I really did it twice in one week, and I’m just as surprised as you are), and a lot of significantly less fun but albeit necessary logistical errands like setting up a UK bank account and phone.

Needless to say my initial nerves had more than worn off by the end of the week. Every day this city feels more and more like home, and the more I explore the more I fall in love with it. Edinburgh has so much to offer, from Princes Street to Calton Hill to Victoria Street (all pictured below!). The Harry Potter nerd in me couldn’t be happier to be living in a city where, not only does every other street look like Diagon Alley, but where J.K. Rowling actually wrote the first novel (in a now famous café called The Elephant House, which of course I visited).

I’ve been writing this post from an equally adorable and similarly named café called Elephants and Bagels (which, as a Montrealer, I was inevitably drawn to), where I think I have far overstayed my welcome. So, I’m signing off for now, but stay tuned for my next entry which will include the trials and tribulations of another (much more challenging) hike, and is therefore guaranteed include far too much sarcasm about my [lack of] fitness and unadulterated hatred love for exercise.

Do They Have Maple Syrup In Scotland?

Hello! If you’re reading this, chances are you’re either a family member or a friend and you’re already well-acquainted with my weirdness, but in case you’re a stranger who somehow stumbled upon this blog, I’ll introduce myself before getting into the nitty gritty details of the blood, sweat and tears I have endured in the first week of my exchange (okay, you caught me, mostly tears). I’m a 20-year-old born-and-raised Montrealer, and yes, everything you’ve heard is true. As a Canadian, I do in fact ride my polar bear from my igloo to school every morning, but not before I drink maple syrup straight from the bottle and eat salmon that I personally ice-fished. Okay, confession time: Canadians don’t actually drink maple syrup straight from the bottle. We pour it into glasses first. We’re not savages.

All kidding aside, I am a proud Canadian, fluent in English, French and Sarcasm, an undeniable nerd (see my Harry Potter book collection and/or superhero-themed suitcase for reference), a foodie, a secret musical theatre junkie, and of course, a hockey fan (as is my birthright).

For the sake of being honest, I have to say that this week has been overwhelming, particularly the first few days. In the months leading up to my departure, I had experienced increasingly frequent bouts of anxiety over matters that ranged in importance from “what if they don’t have maple syrup in Scotland?” to “what if I don’t make any friends?” Despite the nerves, I was obviously excited beyond belief for my year abroad, but I left Montreal stuck in a weird and exhausting middle ground between the two emotions. The terrifying reality of moving halfway across the world to a new country of which I had no knowledge and in which I had no friends only truly hit me about four steps into my new dorm room. I won’t say I cried, but I also won’t say that I didn’t. Needless to say, nearly a day of travelling takes a toll on you, and arriving late in the evening on Saturday, hearing dozens of kids in the halls who seemed to already be best friends certainly didn’t help. My mom may have been 5000 kilometers, 5 times zones, and one ocean away, but her voice rang clear in my head telling me to get a good night’s sleep and start fresh in the morning. And of course, even the imagined version of my mother was right. I woke up the next morning ready to move in and start meeting people. My lack of life skills worked in my favour here, as I made my first friends due to my inability to put a duvet inside a duvet cover. Once I had met a few people, my anxiety subsided and excitement took it’s place instead. After a night out with the first-years in my dorm, I decided that I needed to make some sort of effort to orient myself in this beautiful but confusing city. I’m not shy to admit that I have a comedically bad sense of direction, which, combined with far too much self-confidence and/or pride in my ability to get around has made for some very interesting (and incredibly embarrassing) detours in the past. As fate would have it, I happen to have chosen a city that is not only full of winding roads and a plethora of tiny side streets, but where even the main streets change names four or five times along the way (I almost believe that the city planners have done it on purpose to confuse tourists… Almost). In fact, if it weren’t for Google Maps, I have no doubt that I’d be in Glasgow by now, if not further. So on Monday morning I joined a tour of the city organized by the university, on which I learned nothing but more importantly met some fellow exchange students who’ve become my closest friends thus far.

As overwhelmed I was by the daunting move overseas, I was equally if not more overwhelmed by how beautiful this city is. Between the old intricate architecture that lines the city, the castle that sits in the city’s centre, and Arthur’s Seat overlooking it all, every angle offers a unique and equally stunning view. Princes Street in particular offers a gorgeous combination of old and new, with a range of modern stores and shops on one side of the street, and the castle on the other. I have so much exploring left to do but what little I’ve seen of the city thus far has already made me begin to fall in love with it.

I haven’t even gotten to my hike up Arthur’s Seat yet, but I think that’s more than enough rambling for my first post, so I’ll leave you here for now (on the edge of your seat, I have no doubt) and pick back up in a few days.

From Beaches to Bagpipes

Well, I’m here! A hop across the pond and I’m in the sitting room of some old family friends in Edinburgh. The weather is a little gloomy, as expected, but not bad at all. I’ve been informed it’s actually rather warm today, which is just slightly frightening, but I’m sure I’ll adjust.

The flight wasn’t as awful as it could’ve been– the packing, however, is a whole other story. The flurried madness increased in velocity until we were up to our ears in clothes and had both bags teetering on the brim of the weight restrictions. Fifty pounds, contrary to popular belief, is not quite as large a number as it initially seemed. But after some shuffling around, a few tears, and several last-minute eliminations, the suitcase was thrown into the car along with my family and we were off to SFO.

My dog was more focused on his peanut butter treats than his bawling owner (me) during a heartbreaking good-bye, but I’m sure I’ll recover from that trauma some day. An endless stream of photos and farewells saw me through security and soon, boarding the plane, where everything was terribly, wonderfully British. “Flavour” and “colour” were no longer what they once were. I’ll add those (and “pants”) to the list of things I need to get used to.

The flight was smooth, or as smooth as a 12-hour transatlantic flight can be. I had to awkwardly inform a non-English speaking couple that they were sitting in my reserved seat, a decision I regretted as soon as the little boy sitting behind me starting kicking. Ten minutes into the flight, the person in front reclined their seat into my lap. The lady to my left kept me alert with gentle snores. Despite all of this, I was optimistic– the flight to Heathrow would only last so long, and then a second one would take me to Edinburgh.

Upon landing, the stomach of the little boy behind me seemed to reject the plane food– all over the back of my seat. My equally disturbed neighbors made quick work of unloading and then I was free! Well, kind of.

If you have never been to Heathrow airport, you don’t understand just how terribly confusing it is. Amidst loading zones and upstairs departures and oddly-ordered gates I wandered until I racked up the nerve to ask another woman for directions. I scraped into the gate with fifteen minutes to spare and managed to order a latte (with only a little difficulty with the new currency). I sat next to a spare seat on the flight and was met by family friends, Imogen and Trona, on the other side.

Which brings us back to me in their living room.

Tomorrow I’m hopping on a train to Darlington to see my cousins and their 6-year-old son and will be moving between relatives once in England. I was only here in Edinburgh for a day, but considering I have the whole upcoming year I’m not too torn up.

Till next time!