Six Days in Fire and Ice (Minus the Fire)

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I’m taking a stab at penning a travel blog for the first time in like, four years.

It hasn’t been by any means four years since I’ve last traveled, but a weird combination of stress and laziness has kept me from writing about one of my favorite topics — escaping (a.k.a. travel. But I call it escape from the big, scary adult life).

Since 2013, the same year the Ben Stiller movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” came out, I’d been mentally planning an itinerary to Iceland. (It’s a great film, by the way. It’s one of those funny, but not too-funny movies).

In January of this year, a time-lapse clip of an aurora borealis posted on CNN’s Facebook page sealed the deal. I quickly rounded up three other females for a quick but eventful six days in the Nordic alpine (or arctic?) tundra.

Here’s a recap of where we went and how we went about our planning. 

Prior to our trip, I researched numerous travel blogs to see how we could make the most of our time while still getting to visit the must-see’s. I also checked travel sites and various Icelandic tour sites quite religiously to see where we could get the most bang for our krona.

Flight: It was my first time flying with the relatively new airline, WOW Air. Popular for their staggeringly low flight deals from LAX, San Francisco, Boston, NY, etc. airports to Europe, we took advantage of their deals. Think of WOW as the non-American version of Spirit Airlines or Jet Blue (except I haven’t had a good experience with Spirit, but WOW was very painless–though I know some people have had issues with WOW in the past). You do have to pay for everything (carry-on or checked bags, in-flight food and entertainment, etc.), so consolidate everything you need into your personal bag and carry-on suitcase. And bring an audiobook for the loooong flight.

Season: Though it was springtime, it was much colder than any North American winter I’ve ever experienced. I generally wore triple layers up top and leggings under snow pants or jeans. It wasn’t really the time to be fashion forward; but I think I pull off the whole Patagonia-employee-on-vacation look better than what I actually wear every day in SoCal.

Timing: We took our trip in early April, towards the end of the Northern Lights season (and unfortunately, just a few weeks before the arctic puffins were supposed to return to the mainland). I would’ve loved to spend a month there, but you know, we’re all working lasses. Instead of taking a road trip around the whole island (which would’ve been amazing), we settled for the South Coast.

Wifi: Everywhere we went that had free wifi had excellent internet connectivity. Though three of us opted not to use international phone service, it helped that we had one person who had an unlimited phone plan. Super helpful for mapping out directions and scoping out the nearest restaurant/pit stop.

Budgeting: Everything in Iceland is more expensive, due to the fact that most things have to be imported. BYONP (Bring Your Own Non-Perishables). And for those who’ve been asking, I spent less than $1,200 on this trip, including flights. It helps a lot to split your car rental and Air BnBs with three other people and to not have a huge appetite.

Day 1: LAX to Keflavik International Airport & Blue Lagoon

After an 8ish-hour flight, we arrived in Keflavik at the beautiful hour of 4:30am. (Note: Keflavik is the island’s only international airport and is about a 45-minute drive to Reykjavik.). Since nothing opened until around 6am or 7am, we took our sweet time procuring our rental car (4/4 would recommend getting a 4 x 4) and then popping into a local bakery run by a nice Icelandic lady.

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We were so jet-lagged!

By the way, everyone here is either an English-speaking Icelandic native, or a tourist, so language barrier was nonexistent for us (even though I could pronounce literally nothing). And everyone was super nice. Fun fact: the country’s jail only houses about 10 prisoners currently.

Just a 30-minute drive away from the airport is the Blue Lagoon. Though the entry fee was 90 USD (yikes), it was well worth the hours-long swim in the geothermal spa. I describe it to friends as a Jacuzzi the size of a pool, with a swim-up bar.

Pro tip: Don’t dip your hair in the water, unless you like having hard hair.

Day 2: Exploring Reykjavik: Hallgrimskirkja, downtown, Sun Voyager, Harpa Concert Hall, Northern Lights Tour

Our Reykjavik Air B&B was me-sized and minimalist. It had a kitchen, laundry facilities, Netflix (holla) and was a leisurely 5-minute walk from the giant Lutheran church, Hallgrimskirkja.

It’s a fairly modern church building built in 1945 and named after Icelandic poet, Hallgrímur Pétursson. If you go up to the third story in the bell tower, you can get awesome panoramic views of the city.

But I loved the main sanctuary. Whatever level of spirituality you’re at (if any), one can’t help but resonate with the below poem that was placed next to the candle-lighting station:

“Do not let the darkness prevent you from seeking the light! And when you have found it let other people see, rethink and be convinced. If you want the light to live then give rise to the same yearning in other people.

Light the light of frankness in the darkness of fear, light the light of justice in the darkness of corruption, light the light of faith in the darkness of denial, light the light of hope in the darkness of despair, light the light of love in the darkness of death. Light the Light!”

– Bo Setterlind

Downtown is an easy walk. We frequented a couple different coffee shops, including Reykjavik Roasters and Cafe Babalu (which had a Star Wars-themed bathroom for some reason…)

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Such millennials!

Here is the artsy Sun Voyager Sculpture built in homage to the vikings, the island’s first human inhabitants:

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And here’s the Harpa Concert Hall. We didn’t see any concerts, but thought the architecture was neat.

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Around 10pm, we trekked back to Hallgrimskirkja, where the tour bus for our Northern Lights Tour excursion was taking off. Although we tragically did not see any lights, it was a fun tour that I definitely do not regret doing. Honestly, the tour guide makes at least 50% of the experience. Ours was very knowledgeable and engaging, and fed us some Icelandic donuts (delish) and fermented shark bits (not so delish) while we hunted for lights.

We proceeded to look for the aurora borealis on our own throughout the week, but to no avail. The Northern Lights are fickle and wholly dependent on weather conditions.

Day 3: Golden Circle ~ Thingvellir, Gulfoss Falls, Geysir and Strokkur geysers, and Kerid Volcanic Crater

Given our limited schedule, we took the “Sparknotes version” of the Golden Circle self-drive tour. If you take this route, you can simply drive back to Reykjavik for the night.

The first stop, Thingvellir National Park, is the site of Iceland’s earliest Parliament meetings and a tectonic plate fissure. Apparently, it’s also a film spot for Game of Thrones. Not a GoT watcher, but that was a cool little surprise.

Gulfoss Falls translates to “Golden Falls.” It reminded me a lot of Niagra Falls and was one of my favorite waterfalls that we saw.

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Geysir and Strokkur are two geysers located adjacent to each other. Geysir is inactive, but Strokkur sets off about every 10 minutes. The word “geyser” is actually Icelandic; everything that we refer to as geysers is because of the Geysir here.

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Pro tip: It smells very sulfuric…because it is. Be forewarned!

Kerid Crater Lake looks down into a body of water (or ice, in our case) from a high-up perching spot.

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We also got to meet some four-legged friends on the side of the road throughout our drive 🙂 Icelandic horses are the only type of breed allowed onto the island. And the ones we met were very sweet and docile.

Getting to know the locals.

Day 4: En route to the small town of Vik ~ Seljalandsfoss Falls, Skogafoss Falls, Dyrholaey Arch, Reynisfjara Columns, and Black Sand Beach

After checking out of our Air BnB in Reykjavik, we made our way to the tiny town of Vik (halfway point between Reykjavik and Jokulsarlon).

We stopped at a couple more waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, and battled the heaviest winds I’ve ever encountered to see Dyrholaey Arch.

Near our second BnB, we ventured to the Black Sand Beach, the location of the strangest rock columns that are nevertheless fun to climb.

Nature is our playground!

Day 5: Hof Turf Church & Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

En route to the east end of the lower half of the island, we stopped by Hof Turf Church, the last turf church in Iceland. It reminded me of a house of worship I imagine Hobbits might go to. If you’re like me and enjoy a quiet walk through old graveyards, there is a small cemetery next to the church.

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Finally, we reached Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, which was totally something out of a National Geographic magazine. Apparently some other tourists thought so too, and took advantage of the gorgeous background and used it for a wedding photoshoot.

Pro tip: From Vik to Jokulsarlon and back, it is about six hours total. Plan your road trip snacks accordingly and don’t forget to gas up before you go!

Day 6: Horseback riding along the beach, and returning to Keflavik Airport

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On our last day in Iceland, we decided to do something that wasn’t on the itinerary — horseback riding. Feeling somewhat bummed about not having spotted any Northern Lights or puffins, we were excited to see some of Iceland’s cutest residents again.

Of course when it comes to excursions that involve animals, it’s important to know that the business you’re dealing with is ethical and treats their animals with the utmost care. The horses housed at Vik Horse Adventure (about a 2 minute walk from our Air BnB) seemed very well cared for and happy (which is important to me…especially as a person who doesn’t like seeing animals used in circuses). I was pleased by our guide’s knowledge about the horses and the business’s plan to relocate to a larger property down the road.

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The most disappointing parts of the trip have completely to do with two external factors: 1) not having had more vacation time to spend more days in Iceland and b) missing out on the aurora borealis (shortly after we returned home, we saw reports of Northern Light activity in the places we’d just been!). But what that means is I’ll definitely be back someday to play some more 😉

If any readers would like more trip details, my itinerary, or a suggested packing list, please let me know in the comments!

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Backpacking Blogger, Part III: Venice, Florence, Rome

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When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s Italy.

If Prague had greeted us with fairly Mediterranean weather, we got the actual Mediterranean weather in Italy, forcing us to shed our warmer Oxford-ready layers.

We spent about six days in Italy in total, spending two days each in Venice, Florence and Rome. Venice was our first stop. Central Venice (or Venezia) is a city built on water, and encompassed basically every stereotype of Italy that I’d ever received from films and photographs. Romantic lights, gondolas, gelato, pasta, accordion music, Venetian masks – it was all there.

Rather than bore you with listing all the landmarks, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:

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Out of the three Italian cities we saw, Venice was my favorite. I guess there’s something about reflecting on the waters, away from the crowded parts.

In Florence, we got to take it pretty easy since we did all that we wanted to do in one day rather than the two that we booked, which ended up being for the best since it rained the second day.

Florence, although pretty, didn’t live quite up to what I’d envisioned – except for maybe the speedy little Vespa drivers. Seriously, watch out for traffic. What we did see was of course beautiful, but I couldn’t have imagined us staying there for longer than we did.

Nevertheless, here are some images for your perusal:

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To end our travel break with a bang, we hit Rome. How a city notorious for gladiator fights and martyring Christians evolves into one of the world’s romantic cities is beyond my explanation. It was also the perfect time for us to make obscene amounts of Lizzie Maguire movie references, as we traipsed through the Coliseum, Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain.

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As a whole, the city culture of Rome was super-overwhelming. The combination of the heat, relentless vendors, secondhand smoke, terrible traffic, crowding and the fact that I was running out of the energy I had had at the beginning of our travels was overpowering, so sadly, this is probably the strongest impressions of what I’m left with when I think about how my time in Rome was.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do – as in don’t be an obvious tourist. Talk quietly, avoid leer-ers, watch your bags, don’t make it evident that you don’t know where you’re going, and don’t fall for any tricks.

I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again – BATHROOM FARES. It usually costs between 1-1.5 euros to do your business in a public toilet. Which sucks, because when it’s hot (which it was), you need to drink water as to not get dehydrated. Water naturally makes you have to “go,” and go shell out those euros in order to do so. Come on, it’s a basic human right that’s being exploited for profitable purposes!

Okay, enough of my ranting.

I think I’ll take the easy way out and again post photos of the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and the other landmarks I mentioned above, since a picture’s worth a thousand words anyway:

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What I learned in Italy was how to appreciate art as a form of religious reverence, especially as I wandered into various cathedrals and basilicas. I also learned that in spite of all of Italy’s artistic beauty, I resonate much more with the natural beauty that I’d been so fortunate to witness in Western Europe. I guess the romantic cities just aren’t for me, but I will be happy to keep visiting them even if that means re-confirming this notion.

I saw and did a lot in Italy, and have memories there which I can look back upon with fondness. But I was ready to go back to jolly England, where I hold greater fondness, by the time I said “Ciao” to my little Italy.

Backpacking Blogger, Part II: Prague

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After nearly missing our train from Berlin to Prague (no thanks to a rather grumpy and unhelpful train station attendant), we did indeed arrive safe and sound in the much warmer land of the Czech Republic.

How to best describe Prague…do you remember those “Once upon a time in a land far, far away” sequences in old-school Disney princess movies like Cinderella? Basically, Prague looks like one of those cute, charming little fairytale land towns. And appropriately, Prague was supplied with many a young couple happily flaunting their perfect happily ever afters.

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Prague is a fairly walkable city…we trekked from the train station in central Prague to our hostel in the more residential area, the aptly named Czech-Inn hostel. Not too bad of a hostel…great wifi, great location, although I was slightly put off by the abundance of young spring breakers in our midst.

Something I wasn’t aware of prior to our arrival was the different form of currency which the Czechs use…rather than the euro, they go by the crown. 25 ck = approximately 1 euro.

I think three days spent in Prague was plenty sufficient time to make a number of “Czeching out Prague” jokes, and to get the essential touristy items squared away…there was the Old Town Square, Astronomical Clock, Charles Bridge, Jewish Quarter, the John Lennon Wall, Petrin Hill/Tower and Prague Castle (as well as some cathedral whose name I forget at the top of Petrin Hill).

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We took a nice hike up to the top of Petrin Hill on Day 2, which gave us awesome panoramic views of the town down below. It was good to get away from the touristy parts for a bit, and just soak in the scenery.

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I can’t speak much about the Czech culture, especially as the country just turned 21 this year. I don’t think I actually ate any Czech food, but I did hit up the local Tesco regularly to get my fill of salad and trail mix! But not to put you under the impression that I’m on a restrictive diet, we found a gelato stand, and a surprisingly cheap Italian restaurant in town.

Like I said, three days was enough – don’t expect to have too much to do if you stay longer than that. As a whole I enjoyed seeing Prague, as it was the closest I’d get to seeing more Eastern European culture on this trip.

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Some words to the wise: Beware of the added fees of things that are commonplace in the States! Using public toilets, asking for a bottle of ketchup, taking your restaurant food in a doggy bag, and getting water all have extra costs! Although the Czech Republic is at a lower cost of living than say, the UK, Prague is hub to hundreds (may thousands?) of tourists, and they intend to profit from it, obviously.

Backpacking Blogger, Part I: Berlin

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Is two weeks after the fact too late to blog about a two-week stint of backpacking in Europe? Regardless, I hope that some of the following stories, accounts, pictures, and occasional advice will be helpful to any readers who might harbor interest in the prospect of going to some of these places.

Let me begin by saying that I and my travel group were backpacking in the sense that all our belongings were in backpacks as we shifted from hostel to hostel, underground station to rail station, airport to bus stops, etc. We were not backpacking in the sense that we had to sleep outside, create our own fires, or use leaves as nature’s toilet paper.

I would also like to add that I write this from the perspective of an amateur and college student, thus a lot of things were fairly budget-friendly to the wallet of a college student. We weren’t on a five-star vacation.

Alrighty then, here goes!

Out of the five cities we managed to cover in thirteen days, Berlin was my favorite. Contrary to what I was led to believe, Germany was surprisingly quite affordable. Other added bonuses: EXCELLENT public rail system, most everyone knows English (although I did make myself look like an idiot a few times when I would gesture to whatever food item in the café I wanted, and then hold up a number on my hand, just in case they didn’t speak English. You either run the risk of seeming arrogant for assuming that everyone knows your native tongue, or seeming arrogant for assuming that they don’t. Such a Catch 22!), the city is REALLY clean, and – not that I’m biased or anything because of some German roots that run in my family – but the people are rather attractive.

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There’s only so much you can do in Berlin in three days, but I’m pleased with what we were able to manage – Brandenburger Tor (which is stunning at nighttime), Berliner Cathedral, Charlottenburg Palace, the Jewish Memorial, the Reichstag and of course, the Berlin Wall.

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We also got to see the site where Hitler committed suicide, which is currently a parking lot. I give a lot of credit to whoever’s idea this was – thank you for not making the place a memorial for him.

Perhaps the most important part of the Berlin experience was visiting Sachsenhausen Memorial. One “must” item on my lifetime “must-see/do” list was visiting a former Holocaust concentration camp. A sharp contrast to our other, more fun Berlin excursions, seeing Sachsenhausen was what I most wanted to do. I would agree with my dad, who believes that if given the chance, remembering one of history’s most devastating atrocities on the grounds where it happened is something everyone needs to do. Sachsenhausen gave me a lot to think about – how the role of faith plays in such a circumstance, how easily the mind can be manipulated into carrying out such terrible deeds and the importance of remembering the past. As I treaded through Sachsenhausen, all I could see were the images of past prisoners.

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Despite how heavy that day was, I love Berlin because of its acknowledgment of its dark past. Germans don’t try to sweep any of it under the rug – rather, they admit to what happened and use reminders of its mistakes in history to keep from repeating those mistakes again. This resonated with me as a sort of phoenix metaphor; a city that could rise from the ashes and become something beautiful.

Perhaps another reason why I enjoyed my time in Berlin so well was because we coincidentally ran into about half our APU study abroad cohort – which made exploring the city and trying out the bratwurst all that much more enjoyable.

As a sidenote, I’ve heard many people say that German is not a pretty language; that it sounds angry. I would like to counter this. Obviously any language will sound angry if it’s said in an angry tone. I found Deutsch to sound very fluid – simultaneously strong yet fluid.

The dos and don’ts: DO take advantage of the public “bahn” system in Berlin – Berlin is the size of some small countries, so you will definitely be getting around this way. DO experience both the fun, touristy aspects of Berlin as well as places like the Berlin Wall that force you to think. DO try the bratwurst. DON’T take out more euros than you need – especially if your bank charges international fees. DON’T be that person who takes selfies on sacred memorial grounds. DO enjoy yourself. It’s “der” fun!

Homeward Bound

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After two straight weeks of backpacking, I now sit in one of my favorite Oxford bookstore/cafes mulling over the fact that a) I still have to sort out a few errands before departing for London tomorrow, and b) my time here is sadly nearing its end.
I’ll write another blog posting about my short backpacking stint, but now’s not the time. I will say, however, that shortly after my time in Berlin and Prague, I found myself missing Mother England more than ever even while traipsing through various bridges, basilicas, and old Roman monuments in Italy. Yes, I realize how terrible that sounds.
But I missed the cold. I missed my face getting chapped by the freezing winds, and happily layering up in my black puffy jacket. I missed hearing the English accents that have become more familiar than my own, and using currency with the queen on it. I missed drinking tea, instead of coffee (which I drank to keep myself awake whilst traveling). I missed stumbling into a picturesque park on my own and watching the sun start to set. I missed the familiar habit of wandering aimlessly into a vintage shop or bookshop with no intention of buying anything, but being intrigued by the prospect of owning an old-school hardcover of Sherlock Holmes or some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. I missed sitting in the “Harry Potter corridor” of New College listening to the wind rustle through the tree branches. Perhaps most of all, I missed the quiet pleasure I had in an environment that forced me to dwell in my own thoughts, away from the chaotic normalcy.
I’ve never been the sort of person who absolutely NEEDS to be surrounded by people 24/7 in order to be happy or to function properly. I get my energy both from good company and solo reflection time, in healthy amounts. Fortunately, Oxford provided this healthy balance. I wouldn’t say that I learned the MOST about myself while here, but some of the self-doubts I did harbor have been diffused the longer I was confronted with my own thoughts, values, and beliefs.
For example, being in such an academically-invigorating environment could be mentally and emotionally exhausting. I may never be as smart as some of the native Oxford students here. I may never be able to force myself to like political debates. I may never understand economic news headlines. I may never find interest in devouring an entire book list of philosophy writers. But what I do know is that no one can compete with what I can do for other people. There will always be someone smarter, stronger, more attractive and witty, but no one will dare be able to compare my contribution to another human, or deem it not “good enough.” I don’t need to impress anyone – okay, so that might not be completely true, but I don’t need to impress EVERYONE…but if anyone ever gives me the impression that I need to, this person is obviously not worth a moment in my thoughts.
While at college in California, I’m careful to differentiate between my on-campus apartment and my actual home in my lazy beach hometown. But on our flight from Rome to London last night, I caught myself saying, “I’m going home to England!

 

 

Of course I’ll be happy to roll up into the driveway of my brick-orange house. There are definitely aspects of American/California living that I have been separated from for far too long – like to-go coffee cups that AREN’T the size of Dixie cups, NOT having to use the public buses to get from place to place and NOT having to pay a whole extra pound for “eating in.” And obviously there are people like my dad and close friends whom I haven’t seen in ages whom I greatly look forward to seeing again.
But the fact that I let the word “home” slip while casually talking about Oxford/England/United Kingdom means quite a lot to me. I have indeed felt at home – maybe not in a familial sort of way – and I cannot resonate with the idea of my United Kingdom chapter being over once I step foot into Heathrow Airport. I’m not totally sure if this is just another case of juvenile-ish post-study abroad mentality, or if this seemingly insuppressible feeling that I’ll be back is indeed valid.
If home is where the heart is, my heart has been divided multiple times and set in the places that have me counting down the minutes until I can go back. I would say I’m soon to be homeward bound, but I think I’m leaving one for the other.

When Monday Comes

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At the risk of sounding like a long-winded yearbook signing, I devote this particular blog post to the end of the Oxford era.
In a few short hours, my fellow cohorts and myself will be venturing our separate ways for travel break. Though most of us will (hopefully!) be meeting up in Berlin this week, there will come a time when we must part yet again for our respective homes. And though [most] of us will be back at APU come fall, it won’t be in the intimate setting of a pub, café, or kebab van, nor with the same community of people.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me if I thought I would continue my friendships with the people I’ve resonated with in Oxford, back at my home uni. At the time, I responded with the somewhat elusive “I don’t see why not,” partly out of fear of being one of those phantom “yearbook friends.”
And by that, I mean one of those people that either a) say something along the lines of “OMG we NEEEEED to hang out this summerrrrrrrrr and in falllllll!” but suddenly go AWOL, or b) are on the receiving end of the previous sentiment, but ultimately find that the sentiment was probably half-baked.
But as I look back, I hope Monday doesn’t come. And by THAT, I’m referring to the cult classic Breakfast Club film.
I pride myself in honesty – or at least maintaining polite quietness when necessary. I won’t ask you to stay in touch if I don’t mean it, and wouldn’t expect any differently from you. But as I’ve been pondering over the prospective, metaphorical Monday, I’m not afraid to say that I genuinely hope that the genuine friendships and connections I’ve made abroad will carry over back onto our home continent.
Now to directly address my Oxford cohorts: It’s been an honor, pleasure, and the bee’s knees doing life together Oxford-style with such an array of people. Whether we spoke or interacted regularly or rarely, I think we’re bound at least by the fact that we did this together, even when apart on our separate schedules. THAT we have in common, despite what other differences we may have.
For privacy’s sake, I’m leaving out names, but the people who I most resonated with – I hope you know who you are. I sincerely thank you for unconsciously challenging me to better myself spiritually, academically, and otherwise. For traveling with me to various regions, and absorbing the panoramic views in peaceful silence. For the random, warm embrace that was totally unexpected at first, but needed, and for listening to my late-night philosophical-type ramblings. For encouraging me to venture down a different side of town than I was used to, walking with me all the way to Botley and telling me you liked a particular blog I penned. And perhaps most importantly, I must express gratitude for being your good, wonderful selves, as that is the best gift you can offer the world.
Referencing yet another classic 80’s movie, I hope that we can effectively avoid a “case of the Mondays,” skip straight to Tuesday, and occasionally endure our Oxfordian withdrawals over afternoon tea. Or drown our sorrows at the closest thing to an authentic pub we can find (since I’ll be 21 by the time fall semester rolls in), haha.
I’ve never been great with drawn out goodbyes, even as the occasions call for it. I like to do everything, whether I’m having my last stint in the New College corridors, downing my last Café Nero Americano, or strolling past the little grocer’s shop towards my flat, with perhaps a false sort of mentality that I will do these things again shortly. I could close this with a beautifully-crafted, Shakespearean “Parting is such sweet sorrow” sort of goodbye, but I think a simple but well-intentioned “Cheers!” will suffice for now.
Now, how to pack for two weeks of backpacking…

Braveheart

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If you keep up with my blogs, first of all, a massive THANK YOU to you, and secondly, you’ll know that in between finalizing travel break plans, preparing for both a new tutorial and the end of term, and hosting family here for a bit, things have gotten a bit hectic (hence my 2+ week hiatus from blog entries). On top of all that, a friend and I took a ten-hour overnight bus ride from Oxford up to Edinburgh, Scotland last Friday night. Take that, Katy Perry.

The title for this entry is not only applicable due to the fact that I was in beautiful, bonnie Scotland this past weekend, but for what I’ll eventually reveal. Stay with me, now.

Aside from a not-so-stellar bus ride and an even more unpleasant hostel situation (thank you mid-20s tourists for having the decency to ask us if we were “disturbed” by your having the lights on late at night while popping bottles of what was definitely not apple juice), Edinburgh itself was incredible. “Incredible” is actually not a sufficient enough word…I’m an English major, and finding a word accurate enough to describe the whole experience is a challenge.

In a similar style as my Dublin post, I’ll start off with the touristy aspects of our Edinburgh weekend:

Sleep deprivation was no deterrent to our desire to explore the city. Our hostel was located in the heart of the Royal Mile, where we explored St. Gile’s Cathedral (which is absolutely breathtaking; unfortunately no photography was allowed inside), Edinburgh Castle, and other equally important-looking buildings.

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I also discovered that I quite like cemeteries. I apologize if that sounds dark, creepy, or morbid or all of the above, but I think there’s something wonderful about being in the presence of the most peaceful souls you’ll ever encounter. They’re good listeners.

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THE HILLS ARE ALIVE…with the sound of bagpipes.

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Day 2, we went on a bus tour through some of the lowlands, particularly the “lochs” (lakes) of Loch Lomond, Loch Katrine, and the Trossachs National Park. See the snow-capped hilltops? We might not have been in the highlands, but it was good enough for me! I’ll definitely have to hit up the highlands next time around, because I do plan on there being a “next time” in Scotland.

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Our last stop was at Stirling Castle, with panoramic views of the city of Stirling and the William Wallace memorial (yes, William Wallace as in Braveheart).

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Our final day, before taking yet another overnight bus, I insisted to my friend Michelle on breakfasting at The Elephant House, which may mean something to you depending on how avid of a Harry Potter fan you are. In short, this swanky little café is where J.K. Rowling began writing the Harry Potter series, back when she was a single mother living with her sister in Edinburgh. Long before her literary success, Rowling was simultaneously rocking her little one to sleep while typing up the magical world of Hogwarts for posterity. Possibly sitting at the same table where one of my literary hero(ines) might have sat was…I actually have no words. But the oatmeal and coffee I do have words for – they were superb.

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As it was St. Patrick’s Day, we wisely avoided the more crowded Irish pubs and settled on The Wee Pub – the smallest pub in Scotland, which was surprising less crowded than the bigger Irish ones.

But before leaving Edinburgh that same night, the view of Scotland that will always remain with me is the one I found at the top of Carlton Hill.

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Just towards the horizon, I captured not with my camera but with my mind the view of the sun’s rays breaking through the fog, shining gold upon Edinburgh, something like El Dorado. To my right, I observed part of a rainbow hovering through the clouds. This – I should mention – was the second rainbow I’d seen that weekend.

In Ireland, I (re)learned the concept of my life having purpose. What this ultimate purpose is, I’m not quite sure. I keep imagining and re-imagining myself back in the United Kingdom within the next year or two because I have this strange, insuppressible feeling that I’ll be back again – perhaps not for just a holiday, I hope.

But as it is now, I don’t know. And that scares the HELL out of me. As the weeks pass, I am being continually reminded just how fast the curtains are drawing closed over this term, and not just because my classes end almost a full month earlier than last than they normally would (thank you English university system!). Despite the cold temps, spring is indeed arriving, soon it will be summer, and then fall, and with that my second-to-last semester at APU.

As I have to keep explaining to people who ask what year of school I’m in, technically speaking, I’m in my second year of college, but will conclude my undergraduate career a year earlier than I initially expected. Which is both good and scary, and convenient time-wise and financially, but a bit of an inconvenience at the same time. It means having to make some major life decisions sooner than I’d prefer, and setting foot into the “real” adult world that much faster.

Eight years ago, I wanted nothing more than to be an author. Soon realizing the improbability of being able to live on that alone, I considered an added career as a publisher or editor. Then columnist. Then public relations specialist. And now, more recently, English teacher/professor/tutor, or teacher at an international high school, or English language teacher at an international level. AND also looking at the slim possibility of continuing my studies via M.A. or English Teaching Assistant position through Fulbright-type scholarship programs.

All of this meaning – I have to keep my grades up, polish my resume, start looking at internships/volunteer opportunities, basically do everything in my power to better myself to prove myself. While I don’t think I’ll be stuck in my first job or first post-grad situation for the rest of my life, I still don’t want to find myself in the wrong place right off the bat. And while I know that one circumstance – be it ideal or not – can lead to multiple, different ones down the line, there’s still this inherent fear in the possibility of starting off “wrong.”

Being abroad for an extended period, I’ve been forced to let go of some of the situations closer to home that I can’t be in control of right now. That’s been one of the harder aspects of studying abroad.

I’ve discussed the topic of bravery in previous blog postings. How it’s not the absence of fear, but rather how it takes into account the anticipated end goal being more important than the fear. Not knowing what exactly my next move is going to be is frightening for me.

Going back to the rainbow, though. I think there’s a reason why I saw it twice in two days. Whether or not you believe in the biblical meaning/symbolism behind the rainbow, just admit – it’s amazing what light can do. But the rainbow also symbolizes a promise. Back in the Noah Arkian days, it entailed God’s promise of NOT flooding the entire world again, but in my case, it remains a mystery to me. Based on some less-than-pleasant matters that I’ve been handling here and from an ocean away that I will not publish, perhaps the promise for me is that eventually – I’ll get to where I need to be. I know not where that is at this moment, but everything will be okay (more than “okay,” I would hope) in the end. And as they say, if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

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An added element of bravery is going forward not just because of the recognition that something is more important than fear, but in spite of maybe not knowing where the path leads. I’ve learned to exercise that first definition of bravery, but need more practice in being at peace with NOT knowing all the steps I have to take going to a destination that I also don’t know much – or anything – about.

Being a “braveheart” is what I would like to be. To not feel the need to rationalize and plan and strategize every move of mine, and simply embrace the unknown.

InTRUDEing Americans

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Because the British have been making an invasion in America within the realm of music, television (DOWNTON ABBEY!), fashion etc., I decided it was high time that my Trude clan return the favor by invading the English shores.

But in all seriousness, I had the pleasure of hosting my “mum” and sister here for a few short days. Despite the fact that our spring breaks don’t line up, we covered a lot of ground and had a brilliant time “inTRUDEing” what’s been my home for the past few months.

Although I was the “tour guide” for a good chunk of our excursions, I thoroughly enjoyed being that “didn’t-I-tell-you-this-would-be-awesome?” person, as well as admittedly showing off a little bit my tips and tricks for navigating London and avoiding some weirdos.

In light of the fact that I really should be writing a paper instead of blogging, I’ll keep the commentary brief, and insert more photos – I mean, a picture’s worth a thousand words, right?

DAY 1: LONDON

I dragged my poor family through Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, and the London Eye despite the fact that they had just flown in that day. Oops. #iregretnothing

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IMG_3631Photobomb level? Benedict Cumberbatch

DAY 2: LONDON

My sister was particularly enthralled by the Westminster Abbey service we attended Sunday morning, and while  the service was indeed beautiful, I was more captivated by the gruesome yet fascinating history of the Tower of London. Having seen many a documentary about King Henry VIII and his numerous wives as well as having read a fictional adaptation of the story of Lady Jane Grey, I was floored to have walked the same grounds and stroll through the same prison rooms as Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and others.

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If you know me well, the subject of BBC’s Sherlock has probably come up, and in enthusiastic tones. The Speedy’s café and 221B Baker Street setting is actually in the most obscure location – quite easy to miss. And while I thought we would look rather silly to passer-byers who don’t understand the significance of this spot, I was happy to find a few other tourists doing little photo shoots there as well. Also, the reason why I look crazed in the second photo is because I had just realized that while posing with the door handle, I accidentally let go of it, knocking on the door. People do live there…but no one answered. They’re probably used to ding-dong ditching Sherlock fans.

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And no trip to London is complete without a stop at Platform 9 ¾ at the real-life King’s Cross Station.

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DAY 3: PARIS

Fully expecting to be written off as ignorant, non-French speaking American tourists, I was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality by which we were received in Paris. With less than 24 hours to spend in Paris, we hit the essentials – Eiffel Tower, River Seine, Arc d’ Triomphe, Bastille, and passed by the Notre Dame Cathedral on our river cruise. Oh, and ate some cheese. I would definitely need to spend more time in France to a) better appreciate the culture, and b) see the sights we didn’t have time to see, but it was a jolly good time. I prefer London, though.

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The rest of the week was spent showing my family just snippets of Oxford, and leaving them to their own devices while I slaved away in the Bodleian in preparation for my new British history tutorial (which is proving to be a helluva lot harder than my previous tutorials). Everything was so new to them, so I had to remember to slow my pace down, and forget the itinerary. I’ve had the privilege of living – yes, LIVING – here for well over two months now, and wouldn’t admit this to them at the time, but found renewed joy in watching them be amazed by all that is Oxford.

Just Another Day

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I’ve noticed that I’ve spent a good portion of my Oxford blogging to the more reflective side of things – make no mistake, I will continue to do so, but it occurs to me that I should also like to engage my readers to the visuals of my Oxford journey as well.

View it as a shameless “Go study abroad!” advert if you will, but this has been – for the past two, going on three months – my life. I can scarcely believe it myself – often times I forget that I’m not on an extended winter holiday, but an actual school term. It’s unbelievable.

Like I said, it’s been rather easy to think of this as a sort of vacation with required reading and papers, of course. I’ve had, for the most part, no reason to wake up very early, so I’ve miraculously never been lacking in the sleep department. And most mornings, I wake up smiling. As I have my two tutorials on every other Monday and every Tuesday, I’m essentially left to my own devices for the remainder of the week. I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritties of my studies, only to say that I am given an allotted time in which to complete my weekly/biweekly readings and assignments, so obviously it’s not a total holiday. Oh yeah, and both my tutors are both brilliant and engaging (My poetry tutor and I had a bonding moment over the subject of Sherlock last week).

I’m an associate student of New College – but be not mistaken, the only time I really spend here is to exchange my library books as necessary, and admire the Harry Potter scenery. Below is the hall where Harry and Cedric converse in The Goblet of Fire:

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The Bodleian Library – it’s like the VIP of libraries in Oxford. Even as a student of Oxford, I can’t check out books from here, but I am granted access until mid-March…meaning that I can get access to the Radcliffe Camera via underground library entrance:

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Depending on the day, I get the opportunity to attend either an English Faculty lecture, or Union speaker event. Yesterday I listened to a lecture on feminist literary theory, and the night before got to see F.W. De Klerk speak at the Oxford Union (BTW, he’s responsible for much of the improvements made in South Africa during Nelson Mandela’s time). Below is a poor-quality iPhone photo of him:

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Speaking of the Union, some of us who went to the Moroccan Mystique Union Ball last Friday were pleased as punch with the event festivities! Which should have been the case anyway, since it cost an arm and a leg:

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On one of the non-rainy days, a walk around Christchurch Meadow proves to be one of the highlights of my day. It’s quiet and serene, and the ducks are always pleasant company.

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In my case, studying Jane Austen and the Brontes is a source of joy for me, so I consider it both leisure and academic-related reading for which I am responsible. An avid tea-drinker, I’ve found Café Nero to be my favorite place to enjoy a pot of English breakfast tea while mulling over that week’s reading.

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Weekends…twice have I been to London. Public transport to and from London from Oxford is relatively cheap and flexible. Below are just a few snapshots from one Saturday excursion:

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Towards the beginning of the term I didn’t dedicate my weekends to much other than studying and walking the Oxford grounds, but the OPUS study abroad program did sanction for the group to visit Stratford, Shakespeare’s hometown, included in the program cost. Again, some photos for your perusal:

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I went to Southern Ireland about two weeks ago, so for some photos from that brilliant weekend, refer to my previous posting. Or add me on Facebook.

It’s been a fulfilling adventure thus far…I’d recommend it to anyone with a heart for the Motherland and an insatiable need to “get more” out of the university experience. Some days are harder than others. And some days contain less excitement than the day preceding it. But as a whole, I’m sorry to see my term come to a close in just a few short weeks.

Thoughts from the Edge of the World

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Chances are that if you keep at least some tabs on my life, you’ll know that I got to hit up Dublin last weekend with one of my closest friends. And if you’ve asked me about it in person, you’ll know that a) it was hands-down one of the best and most enlightening experiences I’ve had, b) I certainly plan on going to Ireland again one day, and c) I probably learned more about myself in those four days then I have in these last seven weeks in Oxford. That’s not to say that I haven’t learned ANYTHING about myself in good old mother England, but the changes that have happened within me became much more prominent while in Ireland.

So for the necessary excursion portion of this entry…

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The first two nights were spent exploring and diving into the Irish atmosphere. Our hostel (staying in a 12-bed mixed dorm hostel was a new experience on my end) was located in Temple Bar and conveniently within walking distance of the quintessential touristy places, like Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and yes, the Guinness Brewery.

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We had no trouble making friends while in Dublin – I don’t mean that in a creepy way. For whatever reason, the people we met there seemed fascinated by our SoCal lives while we were in turn charmed by their accents and livelihoods. Literally, they could have been reading from a phone book, and I would have gladly listened to them speak for hours on end.

But for the final full day of our Dublin weekend, we hauled ourselves onto a Dublin Tour Company bus after about five hours of sleep the night prior, bracing ourselves for the 12+ hour day tour.

*FYI, as a seasoned traveler-in-training, I highly recommend experiencing both sides of a region’s culture – the social and the historical – when booking your trips.*

We basically rode across the expanse of Southern Ireland all the way to Galway, stopping at some scenic spots – Corcomroe Abbey, Dunguaire Castle, Doolin, and the main attraction – CLIFFS OF MOHER (not to be confused with the Cliffs of Moor from Wuthering Heights).

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Thus we began the trek to the top. It was like a movie – but better, since it was my reality. I couldn’t believe that I was present, standing before the scene of my childhood/teenage daydreams.

Once there, my friend Emma (sorry Em, hope you’ll forgive me for publishing this) amused me with these first words: “I wonder how many people have killed themselves up here…”

Initially I responded with something along the lines of, “Haha, that’s your first thought?”

But as I looked over the awesome cliffs (I use the word “awesome” in the most literal sense of the term) where the waves struck boldly and majestically against the boulders down below, I thought about the ghosts of doomed lovers who threw themselves over the edge, the unfortunate souls whose horse might have led them too close to the edge, and the daring yet stupid tourist who tried taking a jumping photo there, only to be blown away by a strong gust of wind (I did take a jumping photo there, but at a safe distance). Even where we were at, the ocean spray reached us across a great distance. I mused to myself the contrast between the beauty of the Cliffs, and the danger they could pose as well.

A voice, in the manner of a gentle whisper said to me, “This life isn’t your own.” It continued, “You’re on this earth for a purpose; may your actions be wise so that you can carry out this purpose.”

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For me that voice is God, but whatever deity you resonate with (or none), I think it’s safe to say that this piece of philosophy which was carried to me through the wind gusts is nonetheless valid.

I’ve made some mistakes – who hasn’t? None that I wish I could use a time machine to go back and change though, because I believe both my good and less-than-pleasant experiences have and will continue to allow me to grow. Yet I also know that some mistakes have longer lasting repercussions than others. I should hate to think of what might happen if I were to take a left when I was supposed to go right; my chosen destination guiding me in the wrong direction.

I don’t want to ignore the lady at the bus station without knowing the reason behind the hurt in her eyes. Nor do I want to make one day’s vulnerability the basis behind a sporadic decision. Each moment I’m consumed by the thought that I’m not “good enough” or seem to have no impact on the world, I must will myself to remember that still, small voice from the Cliffs.

I have no idea what my ultimate purpose is. The more positive side of me says, “Not knowing is part of the fun!” Sometimes that’s a frightful concept. The idea that this life isn’t my own can be a daunting thought. For me, my life is not only mine and God’s, but it’s also my family’s, my friends’, and the future people I meet whom I will later impact. I don’t want to fall short of whatever purpose I have to them by following my own selfish whims instead of my wiser inner voice.

This is not an echo of the reverse YOLO concept; that I should live life so cautiously that I will never run into any perilous situations. I will continue to live life on the edge…meaning that I will live with the yearning and practice of living compassionately, graciously, and boldly. Not necessarily fearlessly, but with the boldness that brought many a wanderer to – but not over – the Cliffs’ edges.