So I’m home. The end of three months in Wales, and elsewhere. After three days of traveling and running around London I arrived at PDX late last night, and now surrounded by piles of paper and with an unopened suitcase still in the corner, I’m writing the final entry in my blog of this trip.
It’s been quite a ride. I thought to myself the other day that in some ways, you could describe my experience these last few months as having been one of chasing after buses and trains, eating way too much fish and chips, chatting up British girls, and bonding with housemates and friends over pints at the pubs. Since September, I’ve had the chance to travel all around the British Isles, study international politics in the oldest department of its kind in the world (some would also consider it one of the best), and see some of the best sunsets of my life. And through it all, I’ve made the kind of memories that will stay with me for a long time, meeting people and seeing places that I know I’ll never forget.
When a friend of mine returned from studying in India last spring, she wrote in her last entry online that although it was the end of her blog, it was by no means the end of the conversation on her experiences abroad. So again, if you want to hear more, let me know. Many of you are already more than familiar with my storytelling ways, and I have a lot of stories left to share that didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another.
Thanks for reading, and best of luck to you all in the future.
Monday, December 17, 2007
So I’m home. The end of three months in Wales, and elsewhere. After three days of traveling and running around London I arrived at PDX late last night, and now surrounded by piles of paper and with an unopened suitcase still in the corner, I’m writing the final entry in my blog of this trip.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Another beautiful afternoon in Aberystwyth. I had my last lecture this morning in the international politics department, and now I’m sitting in my flat with less than forty-eight hours to go before I leave, reflecting on the events of the last few days.
Saturday morning, I found a ride out to the town of Pontrhydfendigaid (or Bont, if you’re a local), and the ancient ruins of the Strata Florida abbey. Strata Florida was built as a Cisterian monastery in the 13th century, and was the setting of many important events in Welsh history until about a hundred years later, when, recognizing the significance of the location, the invading armies of King Edward I destroyed the abbey as part of their campaign to conquer the region. Little remains of it today, aside from fragments of the once-mighty stone-and-mortar walls, a large, fifty-foot high archway at the entrance, and a series of ceramic tiles from the original monastery floor. Walking amidst the ruins on the well-manicured grass, I thought about all those who had been there before. This was the place where the next-to-last Welsh king, Llywelyn the Great, held several of his meetings, where the great Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym and eleven of the original “Princes of Wales” were buried, and where according to the traditions of some (though admittedly, not many), the Holy Grail was kept at one time. Following its destruction, it lay forgotten for several centuries until the mid-1800s, when a main railway line was built nearby and several important individuals took an interest in uncovering the remains of what was once the “Westminster Abbey” of Wales, and promoting it to tourists. During the Second World War, it was used as a playground by British schoolchildren who had been evacuated to nearby towns, and today it attracts a considerable amount of visitors for its great significance – at least, when the weather is better.
The abbey is located in the middle of a small valley in the mountains near the headwaters of the river Teifi, and adjacent to the ruins there is a large cemetery and church of the same name. I hopped the fence and walked past endless rows of gravestones bearing the typical Welsh names of Jones, Edwards, Davies, etc., and looking behind myself, suddenly felt very far away. The clouds had settled in by that point, and gusts of wind blew sheets of mist across the valley floor. I looked around myself at the nearby hills and the random clusters of sheep, and realizing where I was, standing in the middle of a field in rural mid-Wales, felt about as remote and isolated from the rest of the world as I had ever felt before. Soon it began to rain heavily, and I walked back to the entrance and, huddled inside a small phone booth, waited for my ride to return.
The following morning, I went to a service at the local Presbyterian church of St. David’s. It reminded me a lot of a small Welsh church that I went to a few times this past summer, and the people there were very nice and welcoming – surprised, I’m sure, to see a college student in their midst. One noteworthy, and unfortunate, thing happened while I was there, though. Shortly after the sermon we were all standing to sing a hymn when I noticed some activity out of the corner of my eye. An elderly man was having a heart attack, and a few members of the congregation were helping to get him to the back of the sanctuary. Realizing what was happening, the minister asked for someone to dial 999 (the local emergency line) and cut the service short with a blessing, and most of the attendees began to slowly file out of the sanctuary. “That’s Mr. Williams,” I heard someone say to another, “his wife died recently.”
I had my final seminars on Monday, and on Tuesday morning I went back to Cardiff, the capital city, retracing my steps from several weeks earlier. I had wanted to see more of the city before I left Wales, and I spent the afternoon walking through museums and historic buildings, even doing a bit of Christmas shopping while I was there. Late in the day, I walked into a shop across the street from the castle that housed the world’s largest wooden love-spoon (a traditional Welsh gift), and when I got to the front to pay for my gifts the cashier pointed out the window to a site just across the street, and told me that they were working on carving an even larger one. Once evening set in, I hopped a train from Cardiff Central to Shrewsbury, and then traveled down the now-familiar Cambrian line back to Aber.
For several days now, people have been asking me if I’m ready to leave. Until yesterday rolled around, I usually prevaricated and gave different answers to different people, mainly because I didn’t want to give the impression that I was anxious to go but also because, in the back of my mind, there were still things I wanted to do. Sitting in the near-empty car of the train last night as it rattled and swayed and made its way through the Welsh countryside, however, I realized that I was, in fact, finally ready to go. I didn’t know exactly what made me feel that way, other than that I knew my time was up, and that like it or not, I would be leaving in a matter of days. In my almost-three months in Wales, I’ve had the chance to see more or less every part of the country that I’ve wanted to, and as I sit here in my room and look out over Cardigan Bay at another beautiful sunset, I know that pretty much the only thing left for me to do here is say my goodbyes, pack up my things, drop off my key, and go. I’m having a going-away party here in “No. 10 Ceredigion” tonight (yes, that was a reference to 10 Downing Street, for all you non-politicos out there), and on Friday morning I’m taking the train to London via Birmingham, staying with a friend from high school who is studying at a university on the south bank that evening, meeting up with a fellow Willamette student the following day, and flying out of Gatwick airport early Sunday afternoon, bound at last for home.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
I have a little over a week left in this place, and now that I'm more or less free of my obligations, I'm going to make the most of it. Which probably includes making another journey to Cardiff, and elsewhere. Stay tuned.
Friday, November 30, 2007
I’ve been taking inventory of things lately. You know, things having to do with my life. For a lot of people, going abroad is an opportunity to really grow as a person, and for me it’s no different.
At the risk of turning this into a journal entry, I want to air a few thoughts. As much as I have been able to change certain aspects of who I am in my time here in Wales, there are things about myself that I just have to accept. One of them is that I like politics more than I probably should, as evidenced by my involvement in campaigns and such over the years (exhibit A, my time at George Mason in the fall of 2004). Another is that I am a pretty good writer (yeah, that’s right, I’m confident enough about it to say it). Oh, and I tend to romanticize the past quite a bit too, making things generally seem rosier and experiences seem a lot better and more enjoyable in hindsight and with the benefit of some time having gone by.
Something else about myself that I have come to realize I must learn to (or at least try to) accept is that I can be an awkward person to be around. Honestly, I lack confidence at times, and fail to always project the kind of image that I want to. I don’t really know why. As much as I try, I can’t just be a badass who lives in the moment and lets things slide off his shoulders; life is hard, and shoulders are broad enough that things pile up on them from time to time.
I have also come to understand just how important it is for me to be in an environment that is at least somewhat familiar to me. I’ve never been one to adjust to great changes in the smoothest manner, and after the “honeymoon period” of my time here (see some of my earliest entries) wore off and I started to see this place for what it really is (in many ways, a somewhat typical college town where, despite all of its scenery and “quaintness” and such, there’s hardly anything to do after nightfall except study or go out to the pubs), suddenly things became a bit more difficult and less endearing. The whole walking-everywhere-I-had-to-go thing became less of a novelty, and I started to get irritated when people would look at me differently for my American accent. I began to reach out to my friends back home a bit more, with a sense of longing for what was familiar.
Despite the fact that I’ve met some great people, had many great experiences (many of which I’ve dutifully documented here) and seen some incredible things in my time here in the British Isles, I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t at times wished I was back at WU, in the capital city of Salem, generally living the life of convenience that I’ve become used to over the past few years of undergraduate life and being around the people I most enjoy. I read an e-mail just now from the great university president Marvin (aka M. Lee) Pelton – he never uses his first name, but sooner or later everyone finds out what it is anyway – about the annual Star Tree lighting ceremony on campus this Saturday, and it made me nostalgic for some of the Beta events we’ve done in the past (including the annual pennycoat drive, to raise money for the Salem homeless population -- if you're in the area, stop by the house tomorrow night and drop off a spare coat). Seriously, my friends at Willamette (who haven’t studied abroad, that is) have no idea how good we have it, when all is said and done, on our small, relatively isolated bubble of a campus.
Anyways, I figure that’s probably enough touchy-feely goodness for now. I think that what inspired me the most to write this was reading a note that a friend of mine posted online a while back, and thinking that you know, if he has the guts to admit these things in a forum as public as his Facebook account, it wouldn’t be too bad of a thing for me to own up to some of my failings as well. Let me know what you think.
Oh, and by the way, Gordon Brown is in (even more) trouble: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7116866.stm
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Annie, the bichon frise that our family had owned for over five years, was dying of cancer. My parents decided to put her down on Sunday afternoon.
Losing a pet, while not quite the same as losing a “regular” family member or friend, hits many of the same emotional chords. It’s because you’ve spent so much time with them over the years, and because whenever you’re home, they’re there too.
Having Annie around helped me through a lot of hard times growing up. We adopted her when I was still a sophomore in high school, so she saw a lot of changes in my life, just as a saw a lot of changes in her. Towards the end, she began losing her hair, and became a lot less active (which is saying a lot, considering she was never that energetic to begin with). Small things that we had always overlooked before, like the way she would drink water out of her bowl for maybe a minute at a time, became more noticeable once we realized she had serious health problems. Supposedly, things deteriorated a lot more rapidly after I left for Wales, and they weren’t able to keep her around long enough for me to return home.
I will miss Annie just as much as I miss the other people that I’ve lost in my life. When I go home, she won’t be there to jump up and down and bat her paws in the air in what soon became her signature gesture. She won’t be there to chase after flies in the air, or have Chloe (our other dog) jump on top of her as she waddles around the house.
After my mother told me the news about an hour ago, I went and dug up an old blog entry I wrote in the spring of last year, just after we lost our first dog, Maddy. In it, I wrote about how Annie had just gone through knee surgery at the time, and how much we knew she was hurting, both from the pain and from the loss of her companion. Now it’s another dog that’s feeling the loss, as Chloe is having to adjust to a world in which she really does “rule the roost.”
Friday, November 23, 2007
Three essays due in the span of two days next week, including one I'm working on right now, in which I do the whole "compare and contrast" thing with the major political parties in Great Britain and the US. Not my cup of Welsh cream tea, surprisingly enough, and not the easiest thing in the world to do either -- as one of the authors I'm citing describes it, "to search for a single consistent Conservative Party ideology this century is a pointless exercise." I'll have to write a couple more by the end of the semester, in place of the exams that I won't be around to take in January. Brings back good memories of IB senior year ..... (not).
Sunday, November 18, 2007
I took an early-morning bus to Carmarthen, a small town in southwest Wales, and then a train to Cardiff via Swansea. On the train there was a group of guys about my age, all graduates of a prep school in the area, all headed to the Wales v. Ireland football (soccer) match in the capital city. Cracking open cans of Strongbow and Carling, they serenaded their fellow passengers with Welsh national songs, and when a group of Ireland fans got on the train at Swansea, they mockingly sang the national anthem to them. Kind of a preview of things to come.
Hi Casse if I spelt your name right, my name is Matthew McCabe or Muff if u really know me. I love the american way of life I would love 2 experience ur way of life and live in america. u are an ambition for my life and i would like 2 live my life as freely as u do. All my luck and success in the future
Muff or Matthew McCabe
Friday, November 16, 2007
Get ready. One month from today, I'm heading home.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
It was just for the day, and I went to see the small town of Hay-on-Wye, known for having the greatest number of books per square mile of any place in the world. My advisor at WU had recommended it to me when I told him I would be coming to Wales this fall, and it was definitely worth the trip.
I took the morning train from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury, and then another train from Shrewsbury south to Hereford. While having lunch, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two older men at the table next to mine, one of whom was saying that “they need to just get all the young people together and figure out the problems in this country.” I also noticed, even in my short time there, a significant difference in how people acted around each other. There was less of the genuine kindness that I’ve gotten used to in my time in Wales; people seemed to walk around with neutral, inquisitive expressions, as if to ask who you were and what you were doing there. I tried some of their famous brown sauce on my chips – not what I had hoped it would be.
From there, I caught a bus out to Hay-on-Wye, a remote village on the border of Wales and England, situated just above the River Wye, considered by many Britain’s most scenic river. On the way there, I wound up talking to two students from Biola (small conservative college in LA), and I mentioned to them that not only had my stepmom gone there, but my cousin (and his fiancée) were students there at the moment, as well. They were studying abroad too, one at Oxford and the other at Roehampton, in London.
I spent a few hours in the town, walking around to many of the bookstores and shops, one of which was inside an old castle, and had many books lined on metal shelves outside, some under tin roofs and others completely exposed to the weather. There was an “honesty policy” in place, where you were asked to pay for the books you wanted by placing money inside a metal receptacle. It was kind of an odd setup, but somehow it just made sense. Another bookstore was housed in what used to be a cinema. I found a first-edition copy of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned for only ten quid, and bought a couple postcards as well, mailing one of them to Prof. Ellis (sort of a “hey, I took your advice” kind of gesture).
On the way back, I met a lady from Tasmania (yes, that Tasmania) who lives in London. It was interesting meeting her – another one of those chance encounters between two people from entirely different corners of the globe, whose paths in any other era would probably have never crossed. I took the train from Hereford station back to Shrewsbury, and then back to Aber, sharing the car on the last leg of the journey with a large group of Welsh teenagers, obviously well into their Saturday-night celebration.
Today is Remembrance Day in Great Britain, the 89th anniversary of the ending of World War I, and the armistice that fell on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of that year. There was a short ceremony at the war memorial this morning, with a two-minute period of silence at eleven o’clock marked by the firing of two small fireworks shells into the November air. Two groups of people in uniforms – one made up of scouts, I assumed, and another of soldiers – stood around the base of the memorial, wearing red poppy emblems. A crowd of people gathered together for several minutes, and then dissolved, everyone falling back into their usual weekend routines.
The sun is setting once again over the bay, and seagulls are flying around my window. About ten minutes ago, three people strolled down the promenade below, one playing a Mexican tune on an accordion and another keeping the beat on a small drum. It’s weird to think that I've long since passed the halfway mark in my time here in Wales, and that I only have a little over a month left before I take the train back to London and fly out of Gatwick on the 16th. I can’t decide if the last month and a half-plus has gone by quickly, or if it seems like just yesterday I was stepping off the train on that Saturday afternoon in late September. Either way, I know that I still have a good amount of time left in this place, and as much as it sounds like a cliché, I really am going to make the most of it.
Monday, November 5, 2007
Saturday, November 3, 2007
You may not see, my son,
King of your blue eyes
In the blinding country of youth,
That all is undone,
Under the unminding skies,
Of innocence and guilt
Before you move to make
One gesture of the heart or head,
Is gathered and spilt
Into the winding dark
Like the dust of the dead.
Like the sun's tears,
Like the moon's seed, rubbish
And fire, the flying rant
Of the sky, king of your six years.
And the wicked wish,
Down the beginning of plants
And animals and birds,
Water and Light, the earth and sky,
Is cast before you move,
And all your deeds and words,
Each truth, each lie,
Die in unjudging love."
- from Dylan Thomas' This Side of the Truth
A belated entry. As you can imagine, I've been a little busy lately. Last Tuesday my father and stepmother arrived in town, and on Wednesday we went down to Swansea for the day for the annual Dylan Thomas Festival. My father is somewhat of a Dylan Thomas fan, and it was interesting to see another part of the country. One noteworthy thing that happened while we were there: as we were having dinner, a woman approached my dad and told him that his voice was just like the announcer on the BBC’s radio broadcasts of the “Met,” the New York City Metropolitan Opera. You just never know.
Speaking of radio, last Tuesday was also the day that I went “on the air” for the first time with Aberystwyth’s student station, Bay Radio. The radio show that I mentioned here at an earlier point in time is now a reality, and my co-host Raj and I broadcast two days a week from the student union building. We’re calling it “Across the Pond,” and the show features the usual amount of music, news, trivia, etc., from a dual perspective (that of an American and a Brit). I thought it would be a good way of getting involved in student life on campus for the short amount of time I’m here, and I’m really enjoying it.
Last night I went out with a few friends, and ended up having a good conversation at one point with a classmate of mine from Poland. We talked about the future, which involved me reciting my usual “I want to work on political campaigns because they’re the greatest thing ever” speech, and her admitting (as is the case with so many of us) that she really doesn’t know what she wants to do after she graduates, but that her philosophy is to just take everything one day at a time, and not worry excessively about what is to come. It brought to mind the words of the German author Goethe, when he wrote that a person should live each day as if it were the only one they knew, and that “nothing is worth more than this day.” (relying on memory, here … those probably aren’t his exact words). I mentioned this to her, and she said she had heard the expression at one point, too. A brief moment of common understanding, shared by two people of entirely different backgrounds, whose paths eventually crossed and led to sitting together in a pub, pretending to be philosophers and talking about what life really means.
Today I made a trip up to Harlech Castle, located on the shores of Cardigan Bay to the north. It’s a beautiful place, situated high up on a cliff above endless fields and streams, and the ocean beyond. I spent a few hours there, at one point joining up with a group of senior citizens, one of whom had an information brochure and was pretending to be a tour guide. And that’s about the best way I can think of right now to bring this posting to a close. Vote yes on Measures 49 and 50!
Monday, October 29, 2007
A storm came in yesterday afternoon, with violent winds and driving rain. Waves were crashing against the seawall up and down the promenade, sending sprays of mist into the air and sometimes even cascading out onto the street. After dinner I walked outside and stood at the railing for a while (notice that I didn’t say on the railing), watching the scene unfold around me. “Things are definitely going to get interesting later on,” I said to myself as I headed back in.
Shortly afterwards I walked outside again and noticed a crowd gathered in front of one of the other houses owned by the university, a block or two down. Everyone had been called outside due to an alarm that had been set off indoors, and it was rumoured that there had been a leak in the natural gas heating system. I had taken my laundry down to the basement of this building a short time before, and since the doors were locked and I couldn’t get to it, I walked back to my flat again.
About half an hour later I returned, and again, there was a crowd outside the building, gathered on the promenade. This time, people were out there for a different reason. From what I could gather, shortly after they were given the go-ahead to head back inside – just after I had walked away, before – a guy had stood on top of the railing of the promenade and, losing his balance, fallen into the churning waters below. In the time I had been gone, the police and fire department had been called, and by this point an ambulance had arrived and everything. All of the wardens were out, wearing neon-yellow emergency vests and talking hurriedly among themselves, and a man bundled up in full body gear, wearing a helmet with a light attached to it, was making his way along the base of the seawall below, climbing over the rocks with a life preserver in hand while holding onto the wall for balance.
I stood there for a few minutes with everyone else, taking in everything around me, but once we all realized that there was no hope of rescuing the poor soul, I didn’t see much of a reason to stick around. The whole thing reminded me of a scene from the novel White Noise (Don Delillo), and I immediately began to feel guilty for being there, entertaining myself at the site of another man’s demise. So, I paid my silent respects to the fallen student, and headed back down to the basement to take care of my long-neglected laundry. An hour and thirty pages of British political history later, I opened the dryer and found that my clothes were still wet. The heat had been turned off in the building earlier, in response to the alarm, and I had just wasted a pound. I bundled my clothes back into my laundry hamper, hauled them back up the three flights of stairs to my flat, and hung them on doorknobs and bedposts in my room, reflecting on the events of another day.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
- Listening to a band play Jimi Hendrix in a wine bar (they were insanely good)
- Helping a guy in a wheelchair play Trivial Pursuit (long story)
- Hearing my favorite song from 4th grade in a convenience store at 2 AM
- Spending the better part of a day traveling to and from a little-known cathedral (St. David's) on the southwestern-most point of Wales
- Getting directions from an elderly man who looked strangely like a former pastor from my home church
- Seeing someone call one of my housemates "Jesus" (another long story)
- Realizing that my time in Wales is going by a lot quicker than I thought it would
Monday, October 22, 2007
Today I had lectures in two of my classes, and seminars in two others. I presented my paper on the concept of a “ruling class” in Great Britain and the United States, and the professor was generally impressed, which is saying something considering he (William D. Rubinstein) has written a lot on the topic as part of his research. Small victories in the end, as they say.
Life goes on, around town. Last Saturday night the English rugby team played in the Rugby World Cup final, but lost to South Africa, their former colonial subjects. I was in a pub called The Scholars during the match, and the atmosphere among the fans who were watching it there was everything I imagined it would be, with a large group of England fans singing songs all throughout the second half of the game for the benefit of the standing-room-only crowd. Most of the students who attend university here are from England (if you don't know specifically where someone is from, I've learned, it's always a good guess to say they're from the Midlands), but a few of my friends who were there that night are Welsh, which meant that they were, of course, rooting against the English. When the national anthem played at the beginning, though, nearly everyone around us joined in “God Save the Queen,” and there were tears in the eyes of some of the players on screen. The Welsh may never fully forgive the English for letting the Normans conquer their land, but in the end, at least they have something in common.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
I’m sitting here back in my room at Uni, reflecting on the journey I took to Ireland earlier this week – including the ferry ride to Dublin on Monday evening. What an incredible experience. It all started on Sunday, when I retraced my steps from the weekend before to the town of Caernarfon, and the Snowdonia region of north Wales. It was an opportunity for my parents to see the area for the first time, and for me to do some further exploring, including hopping onto a bus and traveling out to Conwy Castle. Conwy is a beautiful place, situated on a hill overlooking the bay of the same name with bridges extending outward in several directions. I was glad to have finally seen it, even if it meant having to catch a taxi back to the hotel once I returned to Caernarfon, owing to the traffic jam on the motorway that the bus ran into on the way there.
The following morning, we traveled up to the port city of Holyhead, and by nightfall we were sailing (through not-so-calm waters) into Dublin harbor. The lights of the city were around us as our ship approached, and before long we had landed on Irish soil. Our taxi driver was a Dublin native, and he soon directed us to a perfect place to stay, and gave me some tips on where to go to get the full experience of the city. Later on that evening I went on a stroll through downtown, including an area around the university known as Temple Bar. For a Monday night, the atmosphere was incredible, and I soon realized what sets Dublin apart from so many other European cities (it might just be an Ireland thing, though).
The next day I embarked on what can only be described as a self-guided, make-it-up-as-you-go walking tour of the city. And before the day was over I had, among other things:
- Walked through the campus of Trinity College Dublin, a fascinating school that calls to mind some of our most prestigious universities back home
- Visited St. Stephen’s Green, two cathedrals (St. Patrick’s and Christchurch), and an Irish church (I think it was called St. George’s – it was located in a beautiful little square, set apart from the streets above)
- Been to Ireland’s oldest pub (recommended to me by a friend)
- Visited the world-famous Guinness storehouse. I basically got to see the whole thing for free (I don’t know how that happened), and eventually made my way to the top, where an incredible 360-degree view of Dublin could be had. Needless to say, despite the Michael Jackson music playing from the bar, it was pretty great.
- Seen the sites of many historic events, including that of the Easter Uprising (the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, surrounded by many statues of heroes of Irish nationalism)
That evening, we returned to the Temple Bar district for dinner, and as close to authentic Irish food and drink as we could find. And the following day, I got up early, caught a taxi back to the ferry port, and wound up back in Wales by the middle of the day. As I was waiting to leave Holyhead once again, I found myself talking to an Irishman sitting beside me who told me that he was a "citizen of destiny," and the phrase stuck in my mind. It took an entire afternoon to get back to Aberystwyth, but I finally did, and by the end of the day I was slipping back into the routines of university life, thinking ahead to what I knew I would have to do today.
One thing I realized lately is that among other things, I’m happiest when I’m traveling. The opportunity to escape from the everyday routine, discover a new place, immerse yourself in new and distant surroundings, and even to just be “on the road” is something that’s always appealed to me, and it’s a form of adventure I’ve always sought over the years. When I was quite a bit younger, my father would take me on a road trip with him at the end of every summer, and I always looked forward to the experience of seeing the country with him, whether it meant exploring the national parks of the west or traveling to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which we did during my sophomore year of high school (another time when my parents provided me with a good excuse to miss class).
As I grew older, and my vacation periods became more burdened with responsibility, I learned to seize those opportunities to get away whenever I could, and at the tail end of the summer before this past one I embarked on an epic ten-day solo road trip around the northwest, one that took me as far away as Canada and as close as I had come before then to a feeling of pure freedom. As I remarked to someone last summer, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The choice to study abroad this semester, and experience a different approach to higher education while having the chance to travel around the British Isles (albeit via different modes of transportation), was another one of them. By the end of my time here, I hope to have been able to see more of Wales, and even to have made my way up to Scotland, where I have a few contacts that I might be able to arrange to stay with.
The hour is getting late, and I’m about to bring this day to a close. The recent events in the British political arena that I described last week have started to fade into memory, and now that Gordon Brown is out of town and on the continent for a EU summit, the attention of the public has moved on to other things. Last Sunday provided one noteworthy headline, though: the Conservatives are now seven points ahead in the polls, meaning that if Brown were to call an election after all, his seat as prime minister and parliamentary majority would be in real danger.
Thanks for the comments, everyone. Knowing that people are following along with my adventures makes the weekly routine of updating the blog (since that’s what it’s become lately) less of a chore, and more of a chance to share some of what’s been on my mind and happening in my life lately. I hope you’re all doing well, as always. As the chapter advisor of my fraternity, back at Willamette, taught me to say: Nos da.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
The other day I was asked what adventures I had been on lately. Last weekend, a group of us international students made a trip up to north Wales, spending the better part of three days exploring Snowdonia National Park and the town of Caernarfon, home of Caernarfon Castle. All things said, it was a great experience.
The trip began with our arrival in Caernarfon by bus early Friday afternoon. Along with two other guys from my flat, I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the area around the castle walls, and the town itself. It was a perfect day weatherwise, and it made for some excellent pictures, some of which I’ve posted here (I also created an album on Facebook).
The others arrived a few hours later, and we met up at a hostel that we had reserved for the weekend in the countryside, about twenty minutes out of town near the small village of Waunfawr. It’s a beautiful area, and it made for a great place to stay. On that first night we were there, the sky was perfectly clear, and as we were returning from a stroll down to the pub that first night, I remember looking up at the stars and thinking that it had been a long time since I had seen so many at once.
The following morning, we took a bus to a trailhead leading up to Snowdon, the highest peak in England and Wales, and spent the rest of the day hiking up the mountain and back. It was a three-hour hike each way, but there were a bunch of us, so it made for quite the experience along the way. Standing on the top of the mountain with the others, with incredible views all around us, made it all worth it. The next day we found our way back into town, and after some more sightseeing, reluctantly climbed onto the bus to take us back to Aberystwyth, and our lives as college students for the time being (regardless of how far we are from home).
One thing that I’m realizing more and more these days is just how far I am from home. The distance is something that’s on my mind more these days, and I’m starting to feel really removed from what I imagine is going on back home, both literally (of course) and in a figurative sense. Aside from trying to stay in touch with people through e-mail, Facebook, instant messenger, the random phone call, etc., I think that keeping this blog is my way of trying to make sure that I retain some links to the world I’ve known for so long. As much as I tell myself I’ll only be here for a few more months, a sense of longing to be around what’s become familiar to me over the years (call it homesickness, or whatever) does come up from time to time, and it helps to know that people are reading what I’m taking the time to write down and reflect upon during my time here.
In other news – to follow up on what I wrote last week – things are really getting interesting in the British Parliament. Today’s Prime Minister’s Questions session had some real zingers on both sides, with Gordon Brown struggling to defend his policies (and decision not to call an election in November) and Conservative leader David Cameron labeling him a “phony” and advising him to “find a bit of courage, get a bit of bottle, get into your car, go down to Buckingham Palace and call that election.” “You were the future once,” he said to Brown, in a roundabout reference to Tony Blair, whom he served under for a decade. It’s all over the headlines here in Britain, and it makes me wonder how much of it is actually being covered by the media at home. You can read more about it here, if you’re curious.
I don’t want this to turn into a blog on British politics, though, so I’ll finish up with a few more observations on what exactly I’m doing over here. Right now, my housemates are cooking dinner in our flat, and by now the sun has made its way completely below the horizon, and dusk is settling in. One thing I should mention is that in a couple of days, (surprise surprise) my mom and her partner are coming here. They’ve been touring around England for the last few days, arriving in London last Saturday after a week-long tour of New England “to see the fall colors,” as I remember them describing it. They’re coming to see the sights around here, and either on Saturday night or Sunday morning, we’re going to head over to Ireland for a couple of days. From what I’ve gathered, we’re going to catch a ferry to Dublin and tour around for a day or two, before coming back on Tuesday. One of the only times in my life that my parents have actually encouraged me to skip class (I’ll miss two lectures and a seminar on Monday). It’s going to be great.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Anybody who’s known me for any length of time can tell you that I’ve long had an interest in politics. This was taken from a speech that David Cameron, Conservative party leader in the British Parliament, gave at the party’s convention yesterday. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in office only a few months now, is faced with a decision on whether to have a referendum on his party’s leadership, and risk giving up the office he recently inherited from Blair. Last weekend, as a bit of background reading for one of my classes, I found myself reading a book on British politics that was written just over ten years ago, the last time the Conservatives held power in Great Britain. “We are at a time when there is a great choice to be made about our political system,” the author wrote, “and we live in a country which needs to keep its nerve and think clearly about the opportunities and dangers ahead.” Much of the same can be said about the political situation today, and it will be interesting to see how things turn out.
It’s a cold, foggy night in Aberystwyth. A short time ago, I returned from a lecture given by Peter Jackson, a professor in the international politics department, on British intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq. He described the process by which it was gathered, analyzed, and eventually misconstrued in the attempt to justify the administration’s policies. It was interesting at times, and it called to mind the events of four years ago, when our two countries went to war in the face of worldwide protests. It also reminded me of a conversation I had the other night with a PhD student from India (random, I know) who made the point of how undemocratic it was for us to invade Iraq under such conditions. I think it was part of his attempt to poke holes in the Democratic Peace Theory that we learn about as interpol students, but I’m not sure.
As everyday life becomes more of the same college routine that I’ve gotten used to over the last three years, I’m noticing more differences between university life here and at home. One major difference is in how courses are structured. Here, it’s mainly lectures and seminars, with long reading lists to be completed by the end of the semester. There are no reading schedules, and most students choose to simply check the books they need out of the library instead of buying them on their own. Lectures can be intense, but at the same time there is very much a casual attitude around campus, much like I described last week. Students seem to be a lot less stressed out about things, and there are a lot more events during the week than I’m used to. During the lecture tonight, I glanced out the window at one point and saw a gigantic disco ball spinning in the student union building, where they were having a “pound party” with one-pound drinks (roughly two dollars each) offered at the bar.
In other news, Wales lost to Fiji in the Rugby World Cup last Saturday night. It was a sad event – rugby is, for many people, a way of life around here – but all was soon forgotten, as there are a lot of other things on the minds of the British people these days. Also, on a completely unrelated note, I might have a radio show here on campus soon. Being a part of a college radio station is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I figured this would be a good opportunity. I also figured they might need an American accent on the air. It probably won’t happen for another week or so at the earliest, though, so stay tuned for further details.
Tomorrow morning (after classes), a group of us international students are heading up to Snowdonia National Park for a good part of the weekend, hiking to the summit of the highest mountain in England and Wales and seeing some of the sights in the region, including Caernarfon Castle. I’ll be sure to post more pictures when I return. To everyone who’s still reading this, thanks for making it this far, and I promise to try to make these shorter in the future (I’ve already heard from a few of you about this). I hope things are going well for all of you back home in the states. Cheers!
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Yesterday afternoon, I went up to the university to witness history taking place. A third-year computer science student was going around the track on a unicycle, cheered on by fans, trying to beat the world record of the longest distance traveled on a unicycle in twenty-four hours. He was cycling with another person when I got there, trying to keep a steady pace, and had been on the track since ten in the morning. I stayed for about half an hour, long enough to see him pass the 100-mile mark. And from what I can gather, by the time ten o’clock rolled around this morning, he had broken the record, traveling the equivalent of over 280 miles in the process.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
A lot of this is reflected in life on campus this week. Back home, the beginning of any semester is usually a very busy time, with the usual first-day-of-class excitement, and the events that accompany them, be they fraternity rush events or post-Opening Days socials. What I found today when I made my way up Penglais Hill, though, was that there wasn’t much going on after all. Today was supposed to be the first day of lectures in the politics department, but when I went to one of them (my class on Cooperation and Conflict in International Relations), I waited around for about twenty minutes with a handful of other students before we came to the conclusion that Monday must be the day when the class actually starts.
I don’t know if this is due to the fact that Freshers’ Week is slowly coming to a close, or even that it’s a somewhat dismal day outside weather-wise, but it seems to me as though the UWA student body is just going through the motions of starting another year. And yet, there are a lot of things about life on campus that I noticed today that could be said for any university, even good old Willamette. Walking into the computer lab in the library this afternoon, I was greeted with the familiar sight of students checking their Facebook accounts, posting on MySpace blogs, and reading the news online. Even when you leave the country and travel halfway around the world, I suppose, some things never change.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
It’s the end of my third day here in Aber, and things are becoming more and more familiar all the time. Yesterday was a day of a lot of walking, and generally exploring this new city that I find myself in. I got to know several of my housemates a bit better, and I’m starting to bond more with the people on other flats. Being as most of us are international students, we have something in common to begin with, and we have each other for support when needed. Quite the cliché, I know, but it’s true.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been here for just over forty-eight hours. But then, when I look back at the last few days of traveling and orienteering in general, it “boggles the mind,” as a friend of mine would say. Staying with Meg and Kelvin in Brighton on Friday was a pleasant experience, and provided me with the kind of downtime that I needed. Friday afternoon, after finishing up the last blog entry, I took a walk through the downtown core of Brighton, down to the boardwalk beside the shores of the English Channel. When they returned from work we went out to a pub for dinner, and then returned to the flat for some intense Nintendo Wii action.
The following morning I was back on a train, heading up north to London. When I arrived at Victoria Station the scene was much as my friend David had described it, the station being by far the busiest of the London public-transit system. It took a good amount of time to get to the Underground, but once I was there, I took the “tube” to another area of town, where I hopped onto a train bound for Birmingham. The ride was a long one, but it gave me the chance to talk a bit with a young woman from Australia who happened to have a seat right across the table from mine. As the train zipped through the English countryside, we talked about our plans for the future, among other things, and wished each other the best of luck when we reached our destination.
I spent an hour or two in Birmingham, walking through the city center and soaking up as much of the atmosphere as I could before boarding the train to Aberystwyth. It was Saturday afternoon, and it seemed as though the entire population was out on the streets, shopping, or sitting in cafes as I strolled by. Before long I was on my way once again, heading west to Wales. The valleys of the west Midlands became hills, and eventually mountains, and soon we were crossing the border. By late-afternoon, we were pulling into the station at Aberystwyth, and I stepped off the train with my backpack and suitcase in hand, suddenly wondering what exactly I had gotten myself into.
Some of the best interactions I’ve had with people in the last few days came in the first few hours after I got here. After I finally made my way to the seafront residences to check in, I was greeted by one of the head wardens, who helped me with my bags as I climbed the stairs of the Ceredigion residence to my flat, up on the fourth floor. "This is no Oregon territory," he told me as he opened the doors to my room, and the view of Cardigan Bay opened up before me. Soon I was meeting my housemates, as well as the people in other flats in the building, and before long we were out on the town.
The last two days have been a blur in many ways, a whirlwind tour of information sessions, department meetings, planned (and spontaneous) social events, and everything else that comes with being “inducted” into a major university in Great Britain (or anywhere in the world, for that matter). There are a lot of things about it that are familiar to me from my experiences in going through orientations at Willamette and at George Mason, before that, but there are other things that simply cannot compare with anything I’ve been through before. The Welsh pub scene on a typical Saturday night is something that’s hard to describe, as is the feeling of sitting in the student union building among hundreds of other students, watching rugby on a giant projection screen while keeping an eye on a monitor that lists the prices of drinks being sold at the bar in real-time, waiting for the price of one to drop to a pound and a crowd of thirsty college students to rush the counter.
There are a lot of things about living in Aberystwyth that are easy to describe, however, and I’ll try to list a few of them before signing off once more. More than anything else, people are genuinely nice here, and very accommodating. Probably the only time I’ve felt out of place in my time here so far happened yesterday, when I walked into an information session that was being given in Welsh, and the lecturer asked at the beginning of his presentation if there was anybody in the audience who didn’t speak the language. There are also the minor inconveniences that come with getting used to any new place. One of them is that you have to walk a lot to get where you’re going, but there is also the benefit of a pretty good public transit system.
Walking through town, I’ve noticed that every street seems to have its own character, like the different colors of its row houses (terraces, I hear they’re called), and shops. Everything has a name, it seems, even the houses. And yes, there are over fifty pubs in town. Earlier tonight I found myself at one of them with a few of my housemates, and the BBC was airing a speech by the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. "Look at that guy," my friend Phil said, "he’s got that smug Scottish grin. I don’t trust him." And it’s in this kind of environment that I find I’m starting to feel like I really belong.
Friday, September 21, 2007
After several days of packing, running last-minute errands, seeing family and friends, and generally tying up loose ends, I finally left Portland around midday on Thursday (hard to believe it was actually yesterday). My dad came by the house just before I left for the airport to wish me safe travels, and it really meant a lot to me to have him there. Just the day before he had undergone an operation for kidney stones, a problem that has plagued him in the past. Seeing him made me realize just how much he cares about my success in this new adventure in my life, and how excited he is for everything that is to come for me. And as I finally stepped into the car, my mom bid me an emotional farewell as well. Each of them will be heading out to visit me in the next couple of months, at different times. For my mom and her partner, their visit will come in the midst of a somewhat lengthy European tour next month, and they'll be taking me to Ireland with them for a long weekend as part of their trip. For my dad and stepmom, they're going to be spending about a week roughly in the same area I'll be in, touring the Welsh countryside and all. It will be interesting, playing host to my parents in a setting unfamiliar to all of us, but I'm definitely looking forward to it. A fraternity brother of mine, currently traveling around the world, might even join me at some point as well.
Nothing too noteworthy happened on the way to Minneapolis, aside from the fact that I saw Prof. Robert Trapp (Willamette rhetoric department) waiting in line to board first-class shortly before I got on the plane at PDX. When we arrived in the land of 10,000 lakes (or whatever it is they call it) we found ourselves in the midst of a brief storm, complete with a tornado warning siren in the terminal. The storm passed soon enough, though, and before long I was bound for London on another Northwest Airlines jet. It was a long flight over the Atlantic, but I had some reading to keep me company, as well as a fellow (male) passenger named Lindsay, an engineer from Kent, England who had been in the Minneapolis area on business. When I first introduced myself and explained why I was traveling to the UK, he asked me what I had done to deserve the semester abroad in Wales. "I was just a good student, I guess," I replied.
It was an overnight flight, and I had the chance to sleep a bit, which is something I've always had a hard time doing on a plane. I woke up just in time to see the first rays of dawn streaming through the windows of the 747, as we flew over northern Ireland on our way. Just a few short hours later, we were touching down at the Gatwick airport, and I made my way through customs, herded along with everyone else. One unfortunate thing that did happen in the midst of all this, however, is the airline misplaced one of my bags, and I was only able to pick up one of the two that I had checked in, way back in Portland. The lady I spoke to about the matter explained that it must have had to do with the short layover time in Minneapolis, and that they just didn't have time to transfer that other bag to the second plane. Fortunately for me under the circumstances, though, the bag that I was able to retrieve has most of my clothes and other important items, so I should be able to survive until the airline gets around to shipping my other bag to Aberystwyth.
From the airport terminal, I had to make my way to the train station, buy what they call a "Young Persons Rail Card" (basically a card that provides discount fares for college students on train tickets), and figure out which train to catch to Brighton. And from there, it was smooth sailing most of the way. The train definitely seems to be the best way to get around here; they're much like the old MAX trains I had become accustomed to this past summer, working in northeast Portland, only they move at probably four-times the normal speed (as well as make their way through much more interesting terrain). The rolling hills and valleys I saw along the way were only a preview of the scenery that awaits me in the days to come, I imagine, and I can't wait for what tomorrow might bring.
For now, though, it's off to have dinner with Megan (my mother's cousin's daughter -- I figure that makes us cousins, to some degree) and her husband Kelvin in a few hours, and see some of the town along the way. Jet-lagged and all, I'm probably going to crash for a little bit here, and since there isn't a whole lot more to report at this point anyway, I think I'll sign off for now. I hope this reaches all of you well, and I look forward to hearing from (hopefully some of) you soon and sharing with you many of the experiences that await.