Monday, March 31, 2014

Day 123-126: Friesland

After the Overnight Bus of Death dropped me off in Amsterdam, I immediately caught the train up to Friesland, the area in the north of the Netherlands where my mom's parents are from. I stayed with my mom's cousin and family in a village just outside Drachten and spent a fairly relaxing weekend walking around the countryside and accompanying my relatives on a few trips to local towns.

What I enjoyed most about Friesland was meeting my mom's cousin (Linda) and her family, and experiencing normal life with them for a few days. We went to a soccer match one night, watched Dutch TV most evenings, and shopped at IKEA in Groningen. I liked the traditional Dutch food, some of which I had eaten before and other kinds that I hadn't (I'm not going to list any, because I can't even begin to spell the names!) I'm so used to Dutch-Canadian culture back home, so it was interesting to see what normal life with a real Dutch family was like. 

Friesland is a really odd place. Like most of the Netherlands it's fairly compact, and half an hour by car can get you to a city in the next province over. It's not that much different from Prince Edward Island, in a way, with farmland everywhere and everything within easy driving distance.

However, there's something about it that feels completely detached from the rest of the world. It's a weird mix of idyllic and desolate, isolated yet cared for. It feels so far away from everything, but Amsterdam is only two hours by train, and less by car. Compared to the huge spaces of nothingness in Canada, Friesland is hardly in the middle of nowhere. 

It's definitely a place I need to come back to. While I enjoyed my stay, meeting my relatives, experiencing daily life in the Netherlands, and walking through the countryside, I really want to see Friesland in the summer and dig a little deeper into my roots. I want to see the place where my great-grandparents were buried. I want to see where my grandfather fired a single shot at a German soldier during World War Two. I want see the church where my grandparents were hurriedly married during the war. 

In June, hopefully, mum will come out and we'll travel Europe together, focusing on the Netherlands and Germany. Mum can introduce me to even more relatives (although it'll be really nice that I already know some of them from this past trip) and we can re-live family history together. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Day 118-122: Newmarket, Cambridge, and Ely

After the Great Train Fiasco leaving Nottingham, I ended up at my friend's house in Newmarket without farther mishaps. My friend (Kirsty) has two older siblings and some family friends were over for the day, so the house was definitely busy compared to my great aunt and uncle's! That afternoon we took a walk up a bit of a hill (basically the only hill, as the whole area is very flat) where they exercise horses, since Newmarket is a racing town. It was bright and sunny and we had a beautiful view over the town.... but I forgot my camera, so I'm afraid I can't share it with you.

Aside from spending time with Kirsty in Newmarket, we also took day trips to Cambridge and Ely, which are both only around 20 minutes drive away. In Cambridge we got to park at one of the university's colleges because Kirsty's sister was an alumna. Kirsty and I walked around a bit, took photos by a row of four red telephone booths, went shopping, and visited another one of the colleges. Since the college wasn't open to tourists, we just pretended to be students and walked right on in. 

Ely was also a nice town, built on fenlands. We went to visit Oliver Cromwell's house, which was fascinating, since Milton (who I intend to write my MA thesis on) was a chief propagandist for him. Embarrassingly, our favourite part of the house was the children's fancy-dress bin, where we got to try on some period costumes. Afterwards, we attended evening prayers (we were hoping for evensong, but since it was New Year's Eve the choir boys were on holiday) at Ely Cathedral.

New Year's Eve was spent with friends of friends, which I think was a sort of perfect way to end/begin a year full of meeting new people. We played a bunch of games, lit fireworks at midnight, and sang Auld Lang Syng in proper Scottish style (despite being in England.)

The next day it was time to leave and catch the overnight bus from London to Amsterdam. As I wrote about here, the trip wasn't exactly a lot of fun, but it did get me safely to continental Europe, where the adventures truly began.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Day 202: Summer Plans

(I visited Stonehenge the other day-- so cool! Blog with more pics coming soon)

I was planning a big post on day 200, but since I was rather busy that day and I had just made a big deal of the halfway mark on day 187, there was really no need to go on again about how it feels like I've been here forever and how I've changed so much and yada yada yada... 

Instead, as I sit in the Southampton airport waiting for my flight to Belfast, I'll briefly describe my plans for the summer.

My exams end the second last week of May, leaving me a few days to pack up and start saying goodbye to friends before my mum comes out, hopefully in the last week of May. We'll then travel around Scotland, Germany, and the Netherlands together (my mum's side of the family is Dutch, and mum did an exchange in Germany) for a few weeks.

I'll be back in St. Andrews for a few weeks mid June, possibly doing some acting, watching my friends graduate, or climbing mountains (I'd love to climb Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK-- anyone up for it?)

At the very end of June I head off to Romania, where I'll spend a month teaching English in the city of Suceava. Suceava is right in the northeast corner of Romania, putting it only about half an hour drive from the Ukraine border... so let's pray that the situation doesn't escalate while I'm out there.

After Romania, I have a week before I can return to the UK, since my visa expires on my birthday, July 31st. After that date I'll re-enter the UK as a visitor, but before then I'll probably travel around a bit, possibly spending my birthday in Rome (which is one of my top places in the world to visit.)

August will find me in Harrogate, a city in northern England which hosts (this year) the International Gilbert and Sullivan festival. St. Andrews will be sending our production of The Sorcerer down, and I hope to get involved with a couple other shows as a chorus member.  I also plan to travel a bit during August, maybe finally making my long-warranted trip down to Wales. 

As of yet, I don't know when I'm going back to Canada. What I'd absolutely love is if I could stay until the second week of September and meet up with my friend Sharon, my former roommate and BFF who is coming to St. Andrews on exchange next year. I also might spend a day or two at St. Andrews during fresher's week, which would be so much fun. All this depends on when my MA program starts, however, so it's a bit up in the air. 

And that's my summer! A lot of fun things planned, a lot more possibilities... It's really fun to look forward and see how many things I could do. Obviously many of my plans won't work out-- I don't have time to do everything I want to do, sadly-- but whatever happens, this summer will be full of new and exciting experiences. My time at St. Andrews may be drawing to a close, but the adventure is nowhere near over. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Day 197: Spring In (and out of) St. Andrew's

Spring has come to St. Andrew’s!

The sun is shining, daffodils are sprouting, the summer dresses are emerging from the backs of closets… and all I can think of is ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs of the dead land…’ T. S. Eliot does have a way of dampening beautiful spring mornings.

Spring means long walks and campfires on the beach and walking around without my coat. It means doing readings on the shore rather than in the library, or meeting a friend for a picnic rather than in a coffee shop.

The most significant spring event in St. Andrew’s, however, is our two week Spring Break, beginning next week. You could say that I’m actually already on break, since my last class of the month was yesterday. Weird to think that I won’t be back in Castle House until April…

My friends’ plans for spring break vary, from simply going home and studying to visiting Rome or Marrakesh. I was considering a trip to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco with some other exchange students, but eventually ended up saying no because of the money. Since I’ll be staying in Europe all summer and not getting a job, I need to make my funds last.

Instead, I’m sticking around in the UK and visiting a number of friends. On Monday I head down to Southampton, on the very south coast of England, where I’ll stay with a postgrad friend for a week. Then I head up to Belfast, visiting a few more friends, before finally flying back to Scotland and staying in Kirkcaldy for a couple days.

In a way I’m jealous of my friends with more exotic travel plans. Who wouldn’t want a Mediterranean vacation in March? On the other hand, though, I’m completely content. I’m more interested in the UK than in the rest of Europe, and I’m thrilled to get the chance to see more of it over the break. All I need is a little perspective: if someone had told me last year I’d be spending Spring Break in England, Ireland, and Scotland, would I have complained?

Spring break should hopefully be a great mix of friends, travel, and relaxation. Hopefully I’ll take lots of photos and manage to blog a bit, so I’ll try to keep the updates coming… but don’t expect me to be any faster than I was with the January travel posts!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Day 195: This Breathing World

It’s been over a week now since we performed This Breathing World, a student-written play which sets Shakespeare’s Richard III in a dystopian (almost Orwellian) future.

"Don't think of it as murder. Think of it as Political Removal."
I was cast before Christmas, auditioning with a few scraps of the script that the writer/director (a friend of mine) had pieced together. I admit I was a little wary of the project at first—would it be worth it to invest so much of my time and effort into such an odd play, especially when the script didn’t exist yet?

Then callbacks happened, and the script we read from (parts of which had been written just the night before) was fantastic. I immediately got a great sense of character from the script and chemistry from the other actors I auditioned with. I left the callbacks desperate for a part… and was absolutely thrilled when I was offered the role of Lieutenant Brackenbury in an email at about 1am that night.

"I may not be the one that makes the laws, but
I'm the one who enforces them."
Lieutenant Brackenbury was a fascinating character to play. She’s by far the strongest character I’ve ever portrayed—a sassy, gender-bent, powerful version of the conflicted character in Richard III. She’s important yet respectful, upholds justice but loves mercy, professional yet emotional… The writer, Catriona, really expanded on Richard III and made Brackenbury a proper character, not just a figurehead for the law.

The play itself was intriguing, concentrating on Harriet, Duchess of Buckingham (a gender-bent version of Henry Buckingham) and her reasons for helping Richard seize the crown. Together, they murder and manipulate their way into power… until Richard’s decision to kill the princes in the tower (his own nephews and the rightful heirs to the throne) convinces Harriet that what she’s doing is wrong. The play was an interesting look at doing the wrong thing for the right reasons and the disastrous consequences of “simply following orders.”

My character was the embodiment of the famous phrase: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” As the Lieutenant of the Tower, I had some authority, yet I used it almost unquestioningly to help Richard. I was the one who oversaw the execution of all of his political enemies, many of whom were innocent. I felt bad about it, I tried to help people, I nearly cried… but I never actually had the courage to stand up and say that it was wrong.

"My Lords and Ladies of Albion, on behalf of His Imperial Majesty,
Emperor Richard III, I would like to remind you that the Tower
complex is a secure area."
It was a hard play to perform, emotionally. When I act I try to get deeply into the character, to feel everything they’re feeling. In Brackenbury’s case, by the end of the play, this was complete and utter brokenness, a loss of faith in the empire, humanity, and herself. It was so hard to perform the execution scenes, acting as if I was allowing my friend to die behind me. After the act one finale, a particularly distressing execution, I had to run offstage and literally sob against the wall because that was the sort of emotion Brackenbury (and thus, I) was feeling.

I’m sad This Breathing World is over. I miss running around with my leather jacket and my space gun and my snazzy All-Seer jewellery. Still, I don’t mind leaving that dystopian future and returning to the significantly happier present. I loved taking over Brackenbury’s life for the rehearsals and performances, but the fact remains that I’d far rather be a student at St. Andrew’s than a lieutenant on the planet Albion. Acting is a wonderful escape, an adventure, but, after the last light fades, it’s time to live my life.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Day 193: I'm Going to Be a Master's Student!

I’ve been accepted to the MA in English Literature program at Western University!

For those of you who don’t know me IRL (or who haven’t taken the time to memorize every detail of my endlessly fascinating existence) Western is the university that I attend back in Canada when I’m not gallivanting off to different continents on exchange. Though I attend King’s College (a smaller campus about ten minutes’ walk from Western) I’m still a Western student, and it’ll be nice to return to a familiar university for my first graduate degree.

One condition of doing my exchange in my fourth year (rather than my third, like most sensible people) was that I have to return to Western next year and do either a fifth year of undergrad or my MA. I really don’t want to do a fifth year, since I feel like I’ve learned pretty much all I can at the undergrad level. However, Western has a great MA program and I’d have wanted to do grad work there anyways, even if I hadn’t been ‘forced’ to because of my exchange.

Receiving the acceptance email completely made my day. While I’m not surprised I was accepted, it’s still a huge relief to actually receive the offer. It’s one thing to be confident that you meet the standards of the program, and quite another to have the acceptance letter from the application committee!

Perhaps the most significant thing to me about this acceptance is that it’s confirmation that I’m on the right path. I didn’t plan on going into academia when I started university—I intended to get a college degree in journalism, get a day job, and write books.

Then I started studying English literature, expecting to hate essays and to find Beowulf and Paradise Lost boring. But I didn’t. I absolutely loved studying literature, even the endless readings, and the rewrites of papers, and the research in the library…

I just loved academics so much, and sometime early in my third year I realized that I didn’t want to stop. The idea that after fourth year I’d be done with readings and writing essays and discussing books in class wasn’t a relief; it sounded awful! I didn’t want to get out of university and enter ‘the real world.’ To me, university was (and is) a big part of the ‘real world.’

Now, as a mere four weeks of class (plus two weeks of break and three of exams) separate me from my undergraduate degree, I still feel the same way. The idea of being a graduate student, of continuing to engage with texts but at a higher level and helping undergrads to do the same, makes me so excited. I’m dreading leaving St. Andrew’s at the end of this year, but having an MA program waiting for me back in Canada makes me so much more enthusiastic about the future.

To those curious few wondering about the program: the MA at Western is composed of two sessions of coursework followed by another semester (the summer) of writing a thesis (at least, this is my plan for the year; there are a number of options.) I plan to take a variety of courses in different areas, but my thesis will likely concentrate on Milton’s court masque Comus and how the masque form serves to both reflect and create reality. This will allow me to read a lot of Renaissance literature, dramatic and otherwise, which is a favourite literary period of mine.

In short, I’m thrilled to be accepted into Western’s MA program, and I almost can’t wait to start… but I still plan to savour my last few weeks of undergrad. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Days 109-118: Christmas in Nottingham

Nottingham as viewed from the castle
I have to admit that I didn't know what to expect from my stay in Nottingham. I was staying with my great aunt and uncle (on my dad's side) who I had only met once before when I was just 12. It was also my first Christmas away from home, and I was worried that homesickness (which hadn't hit that hard so far) might be more of a problem once it finally sunk in that I wouldn't be with my family over Christmas. 

In the end, though, I had an absolutely lovely time. I got along really well with my great aunt and uncle and I enjoyed getting to know them better (I have to say that, since they're probably reading this blog, but it's true!) They took such good care of me-- four course breakfasts, anyone?-- and had new sightseeing plans every day. After the stress of exams, a busy but relaxing Christmas was exactly what I needed. There was plenty to do, but also lots of time for sitting in the living room reading or watching telly (like the Doctor Who Christmas special- so many tears!)

Probably the best way to describe my stay is to go over it day by day:

Auntie Diana and I with Robin Hood
Friday the 20th
Shopping in Nottingham. I was introduced to John Lewis (an upmarket department store) and taken to Waterstones (a bookstore) where Uncle Paul invited me to choose any book I wanted for a Christmas present. In true English-nerd fashion, I choose the facsimile of the original drafts of T. S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland.' We also said hi to my pal Robin Hood where he stands outside Nottingham castle.

Saturday the 21st
Newstead Abbey, the home of Lord Byron
In a day of contrasts, uncle Paul and I first visited D. H. Lawrence's humble birthplace (he was the son of a coal manner) before touring Newstead Abbey, which was originally a 13th century monastery before it was sold to the Byron family, the last of which was the famous poet Lord Byron. It was neat to see two such different sides of Nottingham's literary history.

Sunday the 22nd
I got to meet my dad's two cousins and their kids (my second cousins? My cousins once removed? I dunno...) on a family trip to Calke Abbey, a stately home out in the countryside. While I preferred Newstead Abbey, it was lovely to meet my extended family, and we all had a great time shepherding the kids around.

Monday the 23rd 
Lincoln Cathedral
After picking up the Christmas turkey from Mark's and Spencer's (which was a proper British experience, involving queuing for nearly an hour) we took off for Lincoln cathedral to meet some friends of mine from back home. These friends are British originally, but they've been living in Canada, ten minutes from my parent's house, for the past five years. Back in Britain for Christmas, they had brought some presents from my family (TIM HORTON'S CAPPUCCINO POWDER!!!!) and had offered to take some gifts back from me for my family.
Aside from the gift exchange, it was really nice to see some familiar faces and to spend some time together exploring the cathedral. The sheer oldness of these English buildings never ceases to amaze me; I just don't understand how buildings as absolutely magnificent as those cathedrals could have been built almost 800 years ago.

Tuesday the 24th
Uncle Paul and aunty Diana took me on a family tour of Nottingham, stopping at all the places that they had lived, and showing me where my great grandmother lived for a few years. It was fascinating to hear about family history and to see how long Uncle Paul's family had been in Nottingham. 
We also went to the local church to see the bells and ended up staying for the Christingle service. To anyone who doesn't know what a Christingle is: google it. I'm not even going to try to explain. 
My Christingle and hymnal

Wednesday the 25th
Christmas was a relatively quiet day. We went to church in the morning and I got to bell-ring! My great aunt and uncle are bell-ringers at their parish church, so they took me up with them to watch. Then the head bell-ringer asked me if I'd like to try, so he helped me ring the fourth bell in a few 'rounds.' Definitely a Christmas highlight!
For the rest of the day, we ate excessive amounts of food, drank good wine, and watched what Britain had to offer in the way of Christmas telly (Call the Midwife, Doctor Who, and Downton Abbey). 

Thursday the 26th
Christmas Day Bell-Ringing
Boxing Day was similarly quiet, with one of my second cousins + family coming over for dinner. We are more food, drank more wine, and watched more telly. This time, we also had my very amusing second-cousin-once-removed (I'm gonna go with that) for entertainment. At 18 months, he was far more interested in his toy vacuum than in opening any new presents.

Friday the 27th
Since it was my final day in Nottingham, we had to pack in all the big things I hadn't seen yet, which, crucially, included Sherwood Forest. Had I been expecting the greenwood, with Robin Hood and his Merry Men feasting beneath, I would have been sorely disappointed. These days, after most of the huge trees were cut down for shipbuilding, the Forest is just like any other. However, a number of ancient trees do remain, including the Major Oak, which is supposedly 1000 years old.
We then went back to Nottingham (stopping at yet another country house for lunch and detouring through a 3 mile long road double-lined with lime trees) to visit the Castle, and, more importantly, the caves beneath. Nottingham rests on sandstone, so underneath the city is a complex network of caves, none more important than the ones beneath the castle keep, which allowed food to come in during sieges, or soldiers to sneak in intent on kidnapping a king. Nowadays they have a small section of these tunnels open on a guided tour, which was fascinating.

Climbing a tree in Sherwood Forest
Saturday the 28th
We all woke up bright and early so I could catch the 7:45 train to Newmarket, where I was staying with a friend from St. Andrews. On our way, uncle Paul recounted an amusing story where my uncle Mark had been staying with them some years earlier and had missed his train to London, meaning that uncle Paul ended up driving him half way to London to catch the train at the transfer. We had a good laugh over the story, but arrived at Nottingham station in a bit of a rush, just a few minutes before my train was scheduled to leave.
Now, I don't know if it was my fault, or the train station's fault, but we ended up waiting for my train at platform four, when we should have been at platform 3b. About two minutes before departure, we realized we were at the wrong platform. 30 seconds before departure we saw my train at platform 3b, which was about twenty feet away from us... across two sets of tracks. So we ran down the platform, climbed the stairs to cross over the tracks... and watched my train chug cheerfully away without me.
Auntie Diana and my little cousin
The most economical thing to do at this point would have been to wait for the next train (40 minutes later) and tell the conductor my sob story and hope he wouldn't make me buy another ticket. Instead, uncle Paul was wonderful and offered to drive me to Newmarket, an hour and a half away. I gratefully accepted his offer (thanks again, Uncle Paul!) and we set off for Newmarket, where we met my St. Andrew's friend, and a new chapter of my adventures began.

So. That was Nottingham. I really enjoyed my time there, both the company and the places we went, and I look forward to visiting again. My great aunt and uncle love gardening, so I plan to return in the summer, when everything will be in full bloom.

But for now, this post is long enough. I hope you've enjoyed the small selection of photos-- I have so many more, but no time to go through and edit them all!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Day 187: Halfway (and What Six Months has Taught Me)

Day 187. This past Monday, Day 183, was the halfway point of my time in Europe, exactly six months after my arrival in Scotland.

It’s odd to be halfway done (or two-thirds, if you’re only considering my time in St. Andrew’s, and not the three summer months I’ll spend in Europe.) It feels like I’ve always been here. I can’t imagine not knowing my way around St. Andrew’s, not using the word ‘biscuit’ correctly, not hanging out with all the amazing people I’ve met… St. Andrew’s has become home.

Sunset at Caulk Abbey, near Nottingham.
When I attempted to write this post yesterday, it descended into a sort of mope-fest about how I didn’t want to leave. So, today, I decided to take a more positive direction, and share five things I’ve always known, but that my time here has really cemented in my mind.  

1- The world is a big place
Canada may be a big country, but there’s just so much more out there in the world. There’s more to life than travelling back and forth between PEI and Ontario, more to do than sitting in my room writing essays. I used to love the idea of the ivory tower academic, sitting alone amidst books and papers, but after seeing more of the world I could never cut myself off from it.
Phone booths in Cambridge

2- Everyone’s got a story
My favourite thing about travel is meeting people, whether that’s a friend I’ve become super close to here in St. Andrew’s, or a random guy I chatted with on the bus. Everyone has such unique experiences and I can learn so much from them. Meeting so many new people has helped me to stop talking about myself and to really listen to other people.

3- People are worth investing in
Amidst the craziness of essays and shows and exams and events, people have to come first. I can’t let myself get too busy to chat for an hour on the streetcorner, or to pick up a family’s children from school, or to ask a friend “How are you?” and mean it. I’ve been really privileged recently to have some close friends share difficult aspects of their lives with me, and taking the time to listen and pray with them was 110% worth it.

4- I can be a friend
Too often I’ve been afraid to get close to people because I thought they wouldn’t want my friendship. I’ve waited for them to ‘make the first move,’ and, if that didn’t happen, I just let them drift away. This year I’ve been much more confident in my abilities to be a friend—I’ll ask people over for tea, or go up to new circles at church, or give random hugs. Sometimes people don’t reciprocate, and that’s alright, but most of the time I’ve gained new friends.
Overlooking the Danube, Budapest.

5- Say Yes
My drama coach taught me this years ago, and it’s finally starting to take hold in my life. Saying Yes means taking advantage of the opportunities that life gives you. It means visiting an ill friend when you should be writing an essay. It means waking up at dawn to dance on the pier. It means bussing all the way to London to see Coriolanus. Saying Yes isn’t an excuse for being irresponsible, but it means not missing out on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

That’s what I’ve learned in six months on exchange. Maybe my list is a little sentimentalized, but it’s all true. My time in St. Andrew’s has been (and will continue to be) a life-changing experience, in so many ways.