Monday, October 29, 2007

Storms, natural gas leaks, and fallen students

Even in the midst of the calm, crime-free atmosphere of this small college town in rural Wales, there is occasionally some drama. Here on the seafront, we experienced a good amount of it last night.

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


Some highlights from the last day or two:
  • 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

One month later

It's the end of another day. One month ago tonight, I was moving into my flat and meeting my housemates, and finding my way around Aber for the first time. What a difference such a relatively short period of time can make.

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

36 hours in Dublin

As we crossed the Irish Sea on the appropriately-named "Jonathan Swift," the seas were stormy and waves broke over the deck. From my seat beside the window, I could see the horizon rise and fall above the churning waters below.

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

More pictures

In Caernarfon

The castle, from the river

A meadow just outside of town

The Menai Straits

Hiking back to town
The countryside around our hostel (Pentre Bach)

Hiking up to Snowdon

Views from the top

Back in Caernarfon, inside the castle

“You were the future once”

Another week, another blog posting. The sun is setting over Cardigan Bay as I sit here writing this, reflected in the waves as they crash onto the beach below.

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.

Again, thanks for taking the time to read this. As I said earlier, it helps to know that people back home are reading about my adventures, and sharing to some extent in the experiences that I’m having over here. Best of luck to you in your journeys over the next few days. -1104- out.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Wales vs Fiji

“So Mr. Brown, what's it going to be? Why don't you go ahead and call that election. Let the people pass judgment on 10 years of broken promises. Let people decide who's really making the arguments about the future of our country; let people decide who can make the changes that we need in our country. Call that election. We will fight, Britain will win.”

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!