Sunday, September 30, 2007

Castles, unicycles, and Guinness World Records

The last few days have given me a chance to do a bit more exploring of Aber, seeing as classes and activities are slow to begin and I’m still fairly new to the place. On Friday afternoon after class, I walked down to the ruins of the ancient Aberystwyth castle, one of the castles that King Edward I built along the Welsh coastline in the 1200s to try to keep the fighting Welsh down and subject to English rule. The castle is situated on a hill overlooking the mouth of the rivers Rheidol and Ystwyth, in a picturesque (and strategic) location, and just below it there is a monument to the members of the community who perished in the first and second world wars. It’s a beautiful memorial to those who gave their lives for their country; chiseled into one side of it are the words “Greater love hath no man than this …”, which I recognized as the beginning of a scripture verse.

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 few shots I took on the way here, as well as of my surroundings)

Some things never change

Almost a week into my experience in Wales, and I’m starting to realize that things move much more slowly around here, and life is considerably more laid back than it is at home. I don’t know if this is a reflection on the Welsh culture, an extension of the attitude that I’ve always heard characterizes Europe in general, or if it comes with living in a small, seaside town, but regardless, it seems to be true. Nearly every morning when I wake up, I can look out my window and see couples strolling along the promenade below, a postal worker leisurely delivering the morning mail, and people sitting outside in nearby cafes, reading the local paper or sipping coffee while gazing out into the surf beyond.

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

My address

Ceredigion 10A
Marine Terrace
United Kingdom
SY23 2DB

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

“Is there anybody here who doesn’t speak Welsh?”

"Welcome to the Department of International Politics, the first department of its kind in the world and one of the largest in Europe. We are a top research department, with an international reputation for the very high quality of our work. We provide a dynamic atmosphere in which to study, and a wide range of degree schemes and individual modules. You are now part of one of the best departments in the UK, and indeed the world.”

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

I've arrived!

..... in the United Kingdom, that is. It's currently three o'clock in the afternoon local time, and I'm tapping out this journal entry while staying with a distant relative in Brighton, England, on the southern shores of the British Isles. I flew into London Gatwick Airport (via a brief stop in Minneapolis) this morning, arrived in town via train a little over two hours ago, and tomorrow morning I'm scheduled to take another train back up through London and all the way out to Wales, and Aberystwyth. It's been somewhat of a journey just to get to this point, though, and I'll try to sum it up here as best I can.

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.