Friday, January 31, 2014

Day 152: Back in St. A!

 I’m back “home” in St. Andrew’s. Back at classes. Back walking the familiar three streets. Back to seeing friends everywhere and back to looking forward to hanging out at G&S and CU events.

The John Lennon wall in Prague
I’m loving it. The first few hours felt so deliciously fresh and new—I could see the familiar town with new eyes, appreciate the cobbled streets and the stone buildings. I could walk around without constantly checking a map, but the town still felt just a tad untouched after I had been away for so long.

It feels normal now, after I’ve been back for about three days. I've seen almost everyone, restocked my cupboards, and done most of my unpacking. The initial strangeness has past and normal life has begun.

Now comes the time to blog properly about my trip. I’ve been writing blog posts as I went along, so I actually only have two more posts to complete before I have a whole 11-post series to share with you.

The major holdup will be the photos. I took nearly 2000 pictures over the forty days, so I’m a little swamped with sorting and editing. Right now I don’t even know where to begin. Kayla already has her photos and blog posts up- no idea how she did it!

To be fair, she didn’t have a large scholarship application to complete the weekend after getting back. I’ve just finalized my application for the Ontario Graduate Scholarship, worth $15,000 for a year. If I get it, then that’ll give me enough to be financially worry-free next year. If not, well, I’ll still have enough to survive, but I may not be able to afford a car, or going to see plays, or travelling to see my family, or going out to dinner, or youth conferences… all those ‘extra’ things. Strange, how an academic scholarship will finance all the non-academic aspects of my life! I guess all the academic things are sort of non-negotiable, so I’ll be paying for them no matter what.

At any rate, I’ve submitted my application, so I can now stop thinking about my MA next year and concentrate on my modules this semester: Scottish Literature and T. S. Eliot. Both my professors seem friendly, knowledgeable, and comfortable in front of a class, and both have fantastic Scottish accents. It seems it’ll be an intense semester (T. S. Eliot is going to require so much work!) but I’m looking forward to it.

On that note, time for me to stop blogging and start reading T. S. Eliot’s biography… fun times…

And maybe tomorrow... York!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Day 146: Back in the UK... and Queuing

(The proper British experience- a queue)

I'm currently sitting in the Barbican theatre in a queue of far too many people, waiting for tickets to David Tennant's Richard II. My friends Hannah and Molly are probably at the Domar Warehouse (a smaller theatre in the West End) queuing for tickets for Tom Hiddleston's Coriolanus. If all goes well, I should get to see both today, one matinee and one evening. At very least I'll get to see Richard II, since I'm currently person forty in the queue, and they have sixty day seats.

All this theatre madness means, of course, that I'm back in the UK. London, specifically. It's fantastic to be back here, to have all the signs in English, to hear the British accents, and to be in a semi-familiar city. I may not have spent much time in London, but I definitely know it better than Budapest!

The strangest thing, actually, has been the language. It's been almost as jolting as when I got home from my Quebec trip- I was so used to hearing another language all around me, to not being able to read signs, and to speaking slowly when asking for directions from a local. Getting back to all-English was an unexpected shock. 

It's also funny how London feels so homey. As soon as I got off the plane, almost literally as my toe hit the tarmack, I felt like I was back where I belonged. The little happy voice started chattering in my head, and I immediately began talking in a British accent. I picked up a bit of an accent over Christmas, lost it while travelling, but as soon as I got back to England, even before talking to a single British person, my accent was back. 

I'm in London until Monday afternoon, hanging out with Hannah and Molly at this really posh flat in Chelsea, a nice area in west London. It's been great to see my friends again and I love getting to visit London with some other people. Hannah is also into rather different things than I am, so we're going to a lot of different places than where I went last time. If this was my first time in London I'd be disappointed that we weren't going to the famous sights, like Big Ben and the London Eye, but since I've been here before it's nice to see new stuff. 

This queue is ridiculous. It's now 9:30, which means I've been here for over two and a half hours. There are likely about twice as many people behind me as ahead, meaning that there are about 120 people waiting for day seats... about twice as many as there are seats. I have no idea why people near the end are still here. I suppose it is the last day the play is showing, so they're probably just holding on to the vain hope that someone will return a ticket. Still, it's another hour until the box office opens, meaning they'll probably be waiting for nearly two hours still only to be disappointed.

(Later note: I got tickets to Richard II! Unfortunately, we didn't get Coriolanus tickets, but I probably would have picked David Tennant over Tom Hiddleston, if push really came to shove. As I post this, it's the interval between the two acts of Richard II, so I have seen David Tennant! So much excitement!)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Day 137: Gotta Keep on Moving

(view of Budapest from the top of a mountain-thing)

I'm currently in country number five since leaving Saint Andrews (six, if you count driving through France in the middle of the night) and I've got two more to go before heading off to the UK in a week. Kayla and I just arrived in Bratislava (the capital of Slovakia) this morning, and we're already leaving tomorrow morning. All throughout our walking tour today I kept thinking 'We should take a better look at that tomorrow' only to realize that tomorrow I'll be heading off to Vienna.

I'm not sure what I think about this nomadic lifestyle. In some ways it's exhilarating, jumping from country to country, always with new places, people, languages, activities, food, sights... etc... It's so cool to hop on a bus knowing it's going to take me to another country in just a few short hours.

At the same time, though, it's tiring. Not just physically- although my feet certainly are sore!- but more mentally and emotionally. Life is so off anything that could be called routine so it's impossible to settle into a comfortable pattern. Every day is different, so it's hard to mentally keep up with what's going on. You know how you forget what day it is during Christmas vacation? Well, it's getting to the point where I forget what country I'm in!

Emotionally, too, it's exhausting to continually meet new people and places only to lose them a few short hours later. I've met so many neat people recently, in hostels, on tours, and in restaurants, and it's quite likely I'll never see any of them again. On Monday, Kayla and I went out for drinks with some guys from the Oxford hockey team who were touring through Europe, and tonight we ate supper with two American exchange students we met on a walking tour. In both cases, we chatted for a few hours, got to know the people, and then hugged them goodbye. Maybe I'll see them again, but most likely they're gone from my life.

The places, also, are gone so quickly. As much as I love the unusual beauty of these Eastern European countries, I have no plans to return. Never say never, of course, but with some much of the world to see, a return to Bratislava is hardly high priority.  It's so fascinating to be here, learning about the history and culture of this area, but in a week, when I'm back in the west, these places will be nothing but a memory. It's weird to leave a place knowing how it's likely I'll never return.

Travel really isn't what I thought it would be. It's not the effortless jetting from place to place that it always seems like in the movies. It's a panorama of sights and sounds and people and places and greetings and goodbyes and hostels and busses and new friends and unfriendly conductors and nights walking down cobbled streets and mornings climbing mountains and sore feet and cold hands and endless photos. It's everything. 

It's like a kaleidoscope, an ever-changing image. And, just like a kaleidoscope, to get to the next pattern you have to lose the last one. And even if the new place isn't any nicer than the old one, that's okay. The point of a kaleidoscope is change, not creating the perfect pattern. That's why travel isn't about finding the perfect destination- it's about experiencing them all.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Day 134: The One-Third Mark

(I'm currently in Budapest- so gorgeous!)

A bit over a week ago, around the time I got to the Netherlands, I passed the four-month mark of my time here in Europe. Since it appears that I'll be over here for a total of around a year, this also means that I've spent just over a third of my time.

It's a little odd that such a sizeable chunk is gone, but what's more odd is that I've only been here for four months, a third of my year in Europe. In many ways, it feels much longer. I've already finished my first semester, with just one more to go, so it seems like I should be half done. However, the second semester is much longer, with more breaks, and then there's the whole summer after that.

The biggest thing, though, is that I feel like I've been an international traveller for longer than four months. Now, sitting in an airport in Brussels, waiting to leave for Budapest, then Bratislava, Vienna, Prague, and finally London, travel has just become part of life. It seems odd that four and a half months ago I hadn't been out of Canada for longer than a week.

My whole mentality towards the world has changed. I guess that's what an exchange is supposed to do-- broaden your perspective. Yes, Canada is a diverse, multicultural country with two official languages and a wide variety of people and landscapes. Still, that's nothing to Europe with its endless variety.

Brussels was a fantastic example of this variety. There are two official languages, French and Flemish (a type of Dutch) and English is also frequently spoken. The friend I stayed with was half Spanish and half Greek, so conversations at their dinner table flowed seamlessly between languages (with the occasional pause to translate something for me-- I could normally follow along, but French puns are still a little beyond me!)

It'll be strange when I go back to Canada and everything will be in English (with a bit of Quebec French). I'll be able to say that I'm from PEI, rather than "Prince Edward Island, an island on the east coast." I won't be able to pop over to another country for a weekend or book a return flight for $50. I'll just have one currency in my wallet, not six, and I won't have to constantly convert everything back to Canadian dollars in my head.

It'll be comforting to go back to Canada. After flying with budget airlines from Brussels to Budapest, AirCanada flights from Charlottetown to Toronto will never seem stressful again! Because, of course, travelling Europe does involve a lot of stress. Constantly meeting new people and being in new places has basically exploded my comfort zone.

And that's a good thing. That's what I wanted this trip to do. And now that it's happened, now that this semi-nomadic life has become the norm, it's weird to think that just four months ago, I was so different. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Day 127: The Upside to being Ignorant

Sometimes it helps to be a small, confused, Canadian girl.

I'm on a train from Heerenveen, in Friesland (a northern province of the Netherlands)  and I'm heading down to Amsterdam for a few days. While I love the holland train system (fast, comfortable, understandable) I don't like their method of buying tickets. To buy a ticket online or at a ticket machine at the station, you have to have a Dutch bank card.

Obviously, I don't have a Dutch bank card, and neither my British nor my Canadian Visa cards work in the machines. So that means I have to buy tickets at the office and pay an extra 50 cents fee.

That's fine with me, except... the Heerenveen train station doesn't have an office. There're just ticket machines, which my cards don't work in, and which don't accept cash.

So there I was, in Heerenveen, with a bundle of cash in my pocket and no way to convert it into a train ticket. I asked the lady at the convenience store what I could do, and she said to buy a ticket on the train. This worried me, because I had heard that you couldn't buy tickets on Dutch trains like you can on British ones. However, I really had no option, other than accosting someone at the station and asking them to buy me a ticket. 

I got on the train and waited nervously. In fact, I even considered sitting in the bathroom the entire 1.5 hour train ride to avoid the conductor... 

Soon enough, he showed up. I was closest to the door, so he walked right up to me.  I asked straightaway "Can I buy a ticket?" He just looked concerned, said he'd come back to me, then went and collected tickets from all the other passengers in the car.

I sat there and prayed until the conductor came back and sat across from me. He asked me why I was in holland, then explained that in the Dutch system, to buy tickets on the train costs an extra fine of €35 (approximately $50). Certainly not what I wanted to hear!

However, he then said that, since I hadn't known about the rule, he would get me my ticket and waive the fee! So I paid him in cash (he even managed to give me change) and thanked him profusely.

And that is reason #10987 why it pays to be a small, confused, Canadian girl. Because train conductors take pity on you and don't fine you. 

Dank u wel, Mr. Train Conductor. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Days 122-123: Travel Live-Blog

Entry 1: 15:27h, England, East Anglia Trains

I'm on the road again. Or, in this particular case, I'm on the train, but I'll be hitting the road soon enough. I'm currently on a train from Cambridge to London, where I'll catch an overnight bus that will take me to Amsterdam. From Amsterdam, another train will get me to Friesland, a northern province of holland, where my mum's side of the family is from.

I'm a little tired, since the past few weeks have been so busy. Christmas in Nottingham was just wonderful- I reconnected with my great aunt and uncle, met their kids and grand kids, and visited so many historical sites (like lord Byron's house, Sherwood Forest, and Nottingham castle). I'll post a full account of my adventures once I get back to St. Andrews and can load all my photos on to my laptop. For now, just know that I had a lovely first Christmas away from home.

For the past weekend I've been in Newmarket, visiting a friend I met in St. Andrews. I got to see a bit of Newmarket, Cambridge, and Ely, as well as just spending some time with my friend's family. For New Years, we went to another friend's house where we rang in 2014 with some fireworks and a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne.

Ah! I'm in London! The train is moving rather slowly now, and in the distance I can see the Shard and the Gherkin. It's rather cloudy here, so I may take the tube to the bus stop rather than the hour long walk. Either way, it's time to start packing up my stuff and prepare for a few brief hours in London.

Entry 2:18:17h, London, Victoria coach station

I walked here. In the dark. And the rain. And it took me an hour and a half.

And I enjoyed it.

Alright, I admit that I wasn't having the greatest time toward the end, when I was walking through non-descript streets with soaking feet, a growling stomach, and a heavy bag. But until then, when I was strolling along the riverside walk, with Big Ben and the London Eye lit up against the sky... I enjoyed it despite the rain.

I'm not sure quite why I decided to walk. The tube station was right there and would have gotten me here so quickly and fairly cheaply. But instead I walked, and got cold and wet... and saw London.

I'm glad I walked.

Entry 3: 11:44h, Friesland, Drachten Bus Station

Well then. That was not exactly the most enjoyable of nights. But, then again, I didn't choose the overnight bus because I thought it would be fun. I didn't properly sleep at all, and, since it was dark, I didn't really see any of the three countries that we passed through. We stopped for half an hour at a service station in France and I was too tired to get out of the bus.

An unexpected addition to the journey was a ferry ride from Dover to Calais. I had assumed we'd be taking the tunnel, so I was a little surprised when we turned up at the ferry terminal. I really wish it had been daytime, because I caught some tantalizing glimpses of the white cliffs of Dover and I would have loved to see them properly. Also, a ferry ride to France could have been really exciting, but since it was 1am the day after New Year's, I just sort of half-slept and didn't see much.

But I'm here now. In Friesland. Waiting for my mom's cousin to pick me up. It's more than a little odd being here, in a country where English isn't an official language. What's even weirder is the fact that my family comes from here. Around the same time that my dad's parents emigrated from England, my mom's parents came over from Holland. I belong here in the same way as I belong in England. We'll see if, by the end of my stay, it starts to feel like home.