31 May 2009

I return to the US tomorrow. My parents (Mum and Dad - look! I've mentioned you in my blog in a positive context!) are ecstatic (or so they tell me). As for myself, I am significantly less ecstatic.

29 May 2009

'The hardest part was letting go, not taking part' (Reflections on a Year Abroad)

(Originally posted on Facebook for my friends.)

This note has been several days in the making as I have found it unexpectedly difficult to express in words my feelings towards this past year: my junior year abroad. I still cannot quite believe that it is coming to an end within the next few days. Indeed, I catch myself thinking 'well, next semester I...' and then it hits me that next semester I will be back at St. Mary's. Back to a school of 1,800 in rural Southern Maryland after having studied at two of the world's top universities. It will take some getting used to, of that I am certain; however, the change is not an unwelcome one. It will be nice to get to relax (sort of) for a year after having pushed myself to the limit over the course of this past year. The purpose of this note is to detail the particulars of the past year (for the craziness of Oxford, see my ‘Memories of Oxford’ note), but rather to show exactly what studying abroad meant to me. It is a life-changing experience for everyone who goes through it and I am no exception.

My Oxford experience was...indescribable. To this day, I am still sorting out what happened to me between September and December. Nothing that I could write here could even come close to describing my experience and so I will not even attempt to do so. I hope that the depth of my appreciation for the experience that I had and for those I met can be adequately conveyed by my silence. Unbeknownst to me until the very last, Oxford managed to subtly and inextricably work its way into my heart. Returning in January was like breathing fresh air for the first time...I had the feeling of coming home more than I have ever had returning to my actual home. It is for this reason (as well as more academic ones that would bore those who are actually normal, well-socialized individuals to tears) that I have to get back for graduate school. It is not a desire, it is a need. Applying to Oxford may be my triumph...or my greatest failure. I have a feeling that it is most likely to be the latter scenario, but will not know for certain until March or April 2010.

In Oxford, I encountered some of my biggest challenges and made some of my closest friends. Despite my failure to maintain an effective balance between working hard and playing hard (I tended to work hard but play harder), I learned a lot from my mistakes. I've learned that it is alright to ask for help (and that others will not look down upon you for doing so), that you can spend eight weeks alone simply arguing about the definition of terms to be used, that I quite like the British spellings more than our 'bastardized' English (although I am using US spellings for the purposes of this note), and that I need to be more analytical in my essays. While these realizations came after the fact, I put them to good use in Edinburgh, where I finally got a hang of the UK university system. A bit belated, to be sure.

In Oxford, I had not received a single grade for the entire four months. So it came as something of a surprise when I received back my first essay for Medieval European history and got a 65. Still thinking in terms of the American grading system where a 65 is a solid D, I had a good three hours of panicking before I mustered up the courage to go to my tutor. The poor man looked at me as if I were crazy as I stood shaking in his office asking how I might improve my essay. The situation was only made worse by the fact that he had very few comments to offer me other than that it was a 'good essay, though you could have acknowledged the counterargument a bit more'. It took us a bit before we realized that it was a misunderstanding on my part that was the result of my stress.

It is strange to think that I worked harder in Edinburgh than I did in Oxford. Not only did I have more class time, but the constant preparation of essays and presentations (all of which seemed to be scheduled in the same weeks) meant that I was in a constant state of stress. However, I feel that my major achievement in Edinburgh was admitting when I needed help and seeking it out from my professors (a huge change from Oxford, where I was usually too intimidated to even ask). My time in Edinburgh was also notable for my involvement with Retrospect, the History journal, which provided me with the opportunity to get away from Warrender Park Road once a week and work with some amazing people. I am eager to see what the future holds for both the journal and those involved.

Studying abroad in the UK is not for everyone. If you want a relaxed experience then I would not suggest attending a British university. Cultural, it can be. Pubbing, kebab stands, ceilidhs, bops: all of these are part of the UK study abroad experience. Relaxing, on the other hand, is a concept seemingly unknown in the world of the UK university student. Between tutorials, seminars, lectures, essays, and exam revision there is very little free time. You will be forced to re-evaluate the concept of the weekend and mould it to fit your class schedule. Granted, you will spend much less time in the actual classroom (less than 8 hours a week for those in the humanities), but your out-of-class workload will be much higher. During presentation weeks at Edinburgh, I literally spent every spare hour that I had in the library. This is the major difference between the US and the UK educational system. In the US, you may be assigned pages or chapters in a book to read. In the UK, they expect you to read entire books (hence the term ‘reading’ for your degree). In fact, I had only one week where my reading list for my seminars was less than ten books. You are expected to come into seminar already knowing a large amount about the subject at hand. At the same time, you leave class feeling as if you’ve actually learned something.

Despite my struggle to achieve good marks in the UK and the stress that I subsequently endured, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Both Oxford and Edinburgh required me to push myself beyond what I thought was possible. Although it took me into my term at Edinburgh to get the hang of things, I learned to develop a more critical approach to history. I've become more of an academic, which is a rather frightening thought in itself, and my desire to go to graduate school has become stronger than ever. If nothing else, I can confidently say that no class at St. Mary's will be as hard as my tutorials and seminars over the past year. My workload may be unpleasant in the autumn, but it will be nowhere as intense as in the UK.

I had hoped to conclude with a bit of practical advice for those who may wish to study in the UK at some point in the near future. Unfortunately, I realized that most of my advice was location specific to either Oxford or Edinburgh (as in 'don't go to the big Sainsbury's near Westgate between 4:30-5:30pm if you do not wish to queue for the better part of an hour’ or ‘the kebab stand off Broad is rubbish’) and therefore inapplicable to the vast majority of the UK. Instead, I would like to thank everyone who I've met in this past year: the students and tutors at Oxford and Edinburgh universities, my fellow CMRSers, my flatmates, my parents and family, and, most of all, the friends that I've made. Thank you for walking down mountains with me in the rainy Italian night and initiating dramatic readings whilst cruising the Bosporus. Thank you for accompanying me to St. Peter's bar for a pint and then heading to the library to write an essay all night. Thank you for letting me sleep on your couch/bed/floor when I couldn't or didn't want to make it to my own. Thank you for crazy nights at Opium and Strongbows on the rare sunny days in the Meadows. As sad as I am to leave the UK, at least I have the benefit of knowing that it is not forever. I will be back in September/October 2010. Mark my words.

27 May 2009

A few weeks ago I mentioned that grand and exciting things were in the works. I can now reveal what these 'things' are: from June 15th to August 23rd I will be interning at the United States Department of States' Foreign Service Institute. It is a great honour and I am incredibly excited!

For the record, 'honour' is not misspelled. I have just gotten into the habit of using the UK spelling and am too lazy at the moment to make a conscience effort to revert back to 'bastardised' (another UK spelling) English (as the British refer to American english, an opinion with which I readily agree).

25 May 2009

So my flat was broken into last night. It's rather funny how the last week of each term always brings such trouble. In Oxford, my purse was stolen the weekend of 8th week. Here, we have a break-in. Luckily, only Allison's keg was stolen and some assorted food products. The only major casualty was my can of lentil soup, which the intruders decided would be funny to smear all over the counters. Bastards.

24 May 2009

Today, I made the 3 1/2 mile trek to Craigmillar Castle. I will post a write-up of my trip in the near future, but in the meantime, here are some pictures to tide you over.

23 May 2009

Summertime and the living's easy

Exam number three is done and I am finally free for the summer. In fact, this is the first time since August 2007 that I do not have to go to class at any point within the coming week. Amazing! In theory. I will admit that now I have absolutely no idea what to do with myself. The euphoria that I felt on Friday at 11:30 when I emerged from Adams House after having written two essays on the Black Death and popular religion has since evaporated. The end is here. I've said goodbye to several friends, the most recent on Thursday night. Some of them I will definitely see again as they like a half hour away from me in the States. Others...it will be a year or more.

I've spent the past two days of my new found freedom sleeping in late (or as late as someone who gets 3-5 hours of sleep a night can) and researching the intricate details surrounding my grad school applications (deadlines, where references need to be sent, whether they use paper or online applications, etc.). All of this is just proves what I've suspected all along: Oxford has ruined me for life. No longer can I truly 'relax'. I must always be doing something. Also, I think I am becoming something of an academic. Reading through the graduate course handbooks for the various schools that I am applying to is something of a thrill. It makes me just want to skip over the next year entirely. 30,000 word dissertation? Bring it on! In fact, I think one of the highlights of my summer may not be turning 21 (the fact that I've been able to drink legally here in the UK for the entire year has ruined the excitement that traditionally accompanies this 'landmark' birthday), but going to Elysa's graduation party in SoMD the weekend after I get home and having our 'grad school day' where we are taking over career services at St. Mary's. Terrifying, I know.

The main goal for the next week is to keep myself busy so that I don't go absolutely crazy. I am anxious to get home to see my parents, of course, but I also am extremely excited at seeing most of my Oxford friends at Elysa's on the 5th-7th. I haven't seen them in ages and the anticipation is all but killing me.

Sunday: Walking to Craigmillar Castle, a perfectly preserved medieval castle 3 miles SE of the city centre.
Monday: Taking the bus to Roslinn Chapel, made famous in Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code'
Tuesday: Train to Dunfermline, ancient burial grounds of the Scottish kings
Wednesday: Maybe going to Linlithgow Palace or Blackness Castle on the Firth of Forth. Haven't decided yet.
Thursday-Sunday: My friend Marlise from Oxford is visiting friends in Glasgow. So I will probably meet up with her at some point during the latter half of the week.

22 May 2009

Tristan is graduating from Oxford today. It is a wonder that they put up with him long enough for him to earn a degree. Still, if I didn't have my exam, I would be down at the Sheldonian celebrating with him.

21 May 2009

Photos from the GReat Run


18 May 2009

The hardest part was letting go, not taking part.

My 'Blessed Union' exam came and went. It went as well as could be expected, aside from a slight moment of panic upon seeing the list of questions and realising that I had no idea as to the first two. Still, I found two questions that I could answer with confidence and left the test at 4:30pm with a right hand that has still not fully recovered from the ordeal. Afterward, Kelly and I met for lunch at Quizno's and then went to see 'Angels & Demons' at the cinema. Oh man. Ewan McGregor in priest's clothing. Epic. He simply gets better with age.

Friday was an absolutely horrible day in terms of weather. It had dropped to about 50 degrees and flooded us with a torrential downpour. It would figure that the weather would be so hideous on the one day that I did not have an exam. As a result, I left Warrender Park Road only to get lunch and go running. On Saturday, I woke up incredibly early to walk with Kelly to her exam and to go to the library. Of course, only after getting to the library did I realize that there was absolutely no need for me to have woken so early. Perhaps such a measure would have been necessary during the first few weeks of exams when seats in the library were a hot commodity. However, now that we have entered the final week and most people are completely finished, there are plenty of spaces to be had. Sunday was actually sunny, so I sat out on the Meadows for a while. That night was Kelly's last in Edinburgh, so Katie, Kelly, and I made chips (French fries) and sat in the flat kitchen for a while. It was quite nice.

Yesterday, Katie and I accompanied Kelly to the airport. It is strange to think that the end has finally come and people are leaving. I remember last semster at Oxford when the first of my friends began to leave. Becky left on the Thursday of 9th week and that is when I realizd that it was all coming to an end. That Friday night, when the everybody was in varying states of sadness and chaos, was one of the most difficult of my life. The pain that I felt...well, I can safetly say that it won't be bad this time around, but still...saying goodbye is difficult. Standing at the airport, waving goodbye, was made even more surreal by the fact that I will be in her position in two weeks time. My flight to London from Edinburgh leaves at (or around) 11:45am. I should be back in the States by 9pm (after a 4pm flight from London). I will admit that I am ready to come home. I am exhausted. I want to see my friends (those who actually took the time and effort to keep in touch, that is. As for those who 'couldn't be bothered' - we will be having words) and parents.

What does my return to the States mean for me? A return to normalcy, perhaps. A return to driving on the right, watching television, going to the mall, riding the Metro. It will be odd after so long a time away. Returning to St. Mary's in August will be even weirder after having attended Oxford and then Edinburgh, both of which are in cities and have student populations near 20,000. Luckily, I will be living with people that I like and taking classes that seem interesting. (They had better be - if I have any hope at all for Cambridge, I have to get a 4.0 both semesters.) In the end, it is only a year of my life and then I will be back in the UK for grad school.

What does all of this mean for this blog? I have not decided yet. Viaggiatory - On the move, given to traveling around: that is the theme of this blog. It was established so that others could join in my experiences as I lived in the UK. I doubt that I will be doing much traveling over this next year. Still, the thought of retiring it completely is a bit sad. Perhaps I shall write in it and record the 'St. Mary's experience'. We shall see.

17 May 2009

Class of 09 graduated from St. Mary's yesterday. 2010 is next.

I am next. Wow.

13 May 2009

Exam number one is done!!!! I have to admit that it was rough. I didn't get to sleep until 5:30am (not by my own fault, believe me) and was awoken at 10am by a man coming to measure my window for a new pane of glass. I spent two hours recording important addendums from my class notes onto my revision notes, ate lunch, and then spent an hour and a half reviewing my notes one last time. My exam was held in the Richard Verney Health Centre underneath Potterow. It was a bit daunting to see how they hold exams at a big university. My Popular Religion class was the second one called into the room. We had to sign several forms to mark our presence at the exam and keep our matriculation cards out at all times.

The exam itself was not too hard. We had to answer two questions (out of 8) in two hours, which is not terrible. However, I've pushed myself to the breaking point over the past year and a half, and my hand started cramping up two minutes in. Not a good sign at all. My first question was to discuss whether or not paganism and superstition existed only in the minds of churchmen in the late middle ages. I argued that yes, it did, as by the late middle ages most formerly pagan practices had been christianized and incorporated into the church. Indeed, this was how the church eased the path towards conversion. By taking pagan practices, re-modelling them to fit christian beliefs, and then incorporating them into popular christian practices, they would provide the laity with familiar traditions with which to follow and, hopefully, reconcile them to christianity. My examples included wells and springs (delving a bit into saints' cults and St. Guinefort), ghost and vampire stories, usage of charms, and festivals (Rogationtide).

My second essay argued that fewer women were attracted to Lollardy since the late medieval parish community provided them with roles which Lollardy denied them. Examples included fundraising opportunities (women often arranged festivals, brewed church ales), leadership positions (guilds, alewoman, etc.), domestic (they contributed in domestic ways to the parish community), and devotional (pilgrimages, devotion to images, veneration of saints). All of this was not possible under Lollardy which reinforced gender and familial roles, placing women under the male head of household. I had hoped to get six examples for each question, but this proved to be impossible. I barely finished my second essay in time, anyways. 13 A4 pages in the exam booklet. Ugh, ugh.

Afterward, I joined Kelly and Katie for lunch at Tasty Tatee's, a jacket potato joint. It has been ages since I've had a potato (in stark contrast to last semester at St. Peter's), so it was heaven. I then sat out on the Meadows enjoying the sun for two hours and am now preparing to force myself to get friendly with James VI and I. Oh yeah.

12 May 2009

Exam numero uno tomorrow. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500. I have over 100 pages of notes, which theoretically means that I should be prepared. Still...

At least the weather has been nice here the last few days. Last week, it was absolutely miserable. The tree outside my leftmost bedroom window actually punched a hole in the window. I came home from my trip to the gigantic Murrayfield Sainsbury's (a grocery store chain in the UK) only to find glass on the window ledge, a golf ball-sized hole in the window, and numerous cracks. It took me ages to get a hold of an RA in order to file a maintenance request and, since I live on the first floor (ground floor is zero here) and, therefore, am not in danger of a burglary due to said hole, was told to place cardboard over the window until a glass repairman can be brought in. Well, that was on Wednesday. It is now Tuesday of the following week and the only change that has been made is that a large plywood board has been nailed to the window. Of course, this is better than it had been. I did not have access to cardboard on Wednesday as most of the stores were closed and I went to dinner with friends at the World's End. It was incredibly windy on Thursday morning and, when I woke up, I had glass shards all over me from where the window had broken further. (My bed is right next to the window.) Luckily, while I was outside with a friend, a repairman came in and nailed the board to the window. So I can now sleep without fear of being impaled by glass. On the other hand, I feel just a wee bit like I am in prison/an abandoned building.

Back to the weather. Last week it was so windy that any trip outside was made quite perilous indeed. I literally went outside twice a day: once to get lunch and once to go running. I no longer even attempt to go to the library as it is impossible to find a seat. Instead, I've been bringing the books home with me. Less is accomplished, but my emotional health is preserved (for now). Coupled with the rain was the weather's inability to decide what season it wanted to be. One moment it would be bright and sunny. The next, it would drop ten degrees and start pouring. Miserable. The past two days have revealed bright, cloudless blue skies. Despite the fact that I should be chained to my desk chair in the midst of heavy revision for exams, I have allowed myself to be coaxed outside to sit on the Meadows for an hour or two. It has been wonderful, save for the damn wind. Still...I will take sunshine and wind over rain any day.

As for exams...I have two this week. Popular Religion is from 2:30-4:30 tomorrow whilst The Blessed Union is on Thursday at the same time. The pile of notes for Popular Religion is quite daunting indeed but I have yet to actually read over them as I've been finishing my reading for The Blessed Union. I literally have to know everything about Elizabethan and early Stuart politics, religion, patronage, foreign policy, interactions with Ireland...everything. This is one of the key differences between US and UK university education. In the US, you learn background knowledge in your lectures or seminars. You are not expected to come with extensive previous knowledge of the subject. In the UK, you are. Since my classes are seminars, I should have come in already knowing most of what we were going to discuss. Unfortunately, I did not get this memo (neither did most of the kids in my Blessed Union seminar, so I don't feel too bad), so I am having to do loads of work now to make sure that I have the necessary foundations upon which to write my essays. It is exhausting work and has left me physically ill. Still, I manage to go running each day in addition to my little Meadows excursions, so I do take some breaks.

Ah, well. We shall see how I do tomorrow. At least I have 'Angels & Demons' to look forward to this weekend!

09 May 2009

I am burned out. I can't do anymore. My inability to push myself further when it comes to revising is raising anxieties over my own suitability for grad school. This has manifested itself in a fear of asking one of my professors here at Edinburgh for a recommendation.

My exams are on Wednesday and Thursday. I think tomorrow I am going to have to take the day off if I have any hope at succeeding in the exams. Otherwise, I may not survive until Wednesday.

06 May 2009

Amazing things are in the works!!! I don't want to reveal them just yet, but just be assured that this may turn out to be the best summer of my life.

In other news, today I:
1. Walked 4 miles round trip to the big Sainsbury's in Murrayfield to use the Coinstar. 36 pounds in change is nothing to laugh at and the trip was worth it.
2. A tree broke one of my bedroom windows. Not cool.
The official results from the Great Edinburgh Run were published today in The Evening News. I finished at 57:12 (a minute longer than I thought I had) and was 3992 out of 8000 or so runners. Not too bad considering that it was my first race ever.

03 May 2009

(Note: The picture is not mine)

As it has been several days since I have last updated, I felt that a post was in order. Not because my life is particularly all that interesting, but more because if I don't post, people get antsy. April 30th was, of course, May Day Eve. In Edinburgh, this meant making the trek up to Calton Hill to watch the Beltane Fire Festival. The events of the night are rather hazy, considering that it was quite dark on top of the hill (which has a bunch of monuments on top of it), but I can honestly say that it was fun. Calton Hill provided amazing views of the city while the sounds of drums, naked dancers, and loads of fire (torches, bonfires, and miscellaneous things burning) created a buzzing atmosphere. The only downsides to the night were the large crowd (11,000 strong) and the general lack of lighting (which, combined with large rocks and dips in the ground, made for almost continuous tripping on my part). I awoke back at WPR on Friday morning bruised and sprained, but otherwise in good working order. A good thing, as I had my final training run for my 10k on Friday. Saturday was spent revising on the meadows (or attempting to...peoplewatching ended up being much more interesting than reading about the political theories of James VI/I).

The other major event that has taken place was the Bupa Great Edinburgh Run. It was my first 10k race and it couldn't have gone better. I was able to leave my flat about 30 minutes before the start and join the small crowd heading towards George IV bridge where the race was to begin. 10,000 people were scheduled to run in the race, with the elite women (Olympians and internationally classed runners) starting at 10:15am. The race route encompassed most of Edinburgh's city centre, so it was odd to see many of the major roads closed to traffic. George IV bridge was almost unrecognizable due to the large crowds of runners, Bupa marshalls, and supporters. I must admit, I think it would have been a bit more enjoyable at the beginning had I been accompanied by someone I knew. Still, the general buzz of the crowds generated an excitement and, during the mass warmup following the elite women's start, I lost any residual nervousness about the race. The starting process was divided into four sections depending on anticipated ending-time. The elite men went off at 10:25, followed by the orange wave (mine), then white, green, and pink. I wish I could describe the feeling of hearing the gun go off, running across the starting mat, and knowing that I had 10km to go before I could stop.

The weather was as perfect as anyone could hope for. Sunshine, mild temperatures, a few clouds. Beautiful. The fact that the race route passed by the castle, Holyrood Palace, Parliament, and the crags (the most beautiful locations in the city) helped to ease some of the distance. Overall, the run was not that difficult. The hill going up past the crags was a pain in the ass and marked the first time that I had to walk a bit in order to save my knees from completely giving out. The only other snag came at kilometer 6 along Cowgate/Grassmarket when I had an asthma attack. I had opted not to bring my inhaler, which proved to be a bit of a mistake, as the attack meant that I had to alternate a bit of walking every half kilometer or so. (So frustrating! I hope to remedy this situation sometime this summer because I have decided to enter a few more races while back in the States for the next year or so.) I crossed the finish at 55:36, almost collapsed while trying to take the timing chip off my sneakers, and then joined the procession to collect my t-shirt/participants medal. I think the only downside to the event was that, despite feeling fine for most of the day, my knees decided that they hated me about 7pm and made it impossible to walk for the rest of the night. Would I do the 10k again? Absolutely. (Note to Edinburgh Uni: If you want to require me to have a grad school interview in early May 2010, I would not be opposed.)

Plans for this week:
* Revisions. (I spent all day in the library and currently have 'Tudor Economic Documents' opened in front of me. Exam time makes me hate my life. At SMCM, it would only one week. Sure, I might have three exams in one day, but at least it would be over. Oh well, next week is exam time.)
* Dunfermline (To satisfy Dad's desire for me to take pictures of graves. Oh, it shall be thrilling.)

Note: As I've mentioned above, it is exam time. In fact, I am entering week three (or is it four?) of revisions. As a result, my brain is slightly addled from the long hours spent reading and taking notes. Writing, in particular, has been quite difficult as of late. As such, please forgive the elementary and increasingly senile nature of these (and future) posts. I shall probably be recovered by the end of June. Of course, by that time, this blog will have become unnecessary as I will be back in the States. Ah, such is life.