Monday, November 18, 2013

Emotional cliffs and the actual Cliffs (of Moher)

They tell you in orientation that there are highs and lows psychologically and emotionally when you're studying abroad. And you think "yeah, of course. That makes perfect sense. Obviously there are going to be low points." But then you assume the "lows" are mostly going to be in the very beginning, when you're frustrated because everything is unfamiliar and every little thing frustrates you and your emotions are firing on all cylinders because you're EXCITED but you're also completely on edge due to the unfamiliarity. I have gone into these deep slumps where I miss home so badly I can feel it in my bones. And that's largely what the last month and a half have been for me, if I'm being honest. But then I go on a tour, like the Cliffs of Moher one I did yesterday, and I remember why I came here. Because there is NOTHING like Ireland back home. I mean, even just seeing the scenery on the drive TO the Cliffs was worth it. It's so distinct and quintessentially Irish. And for as much as I have felt very down the past few weeks, I also know that this is one of the few times where I'm going to be able to see things and explore like this. And it's worth it, though the last month in particular has been hard. I don't why, but I expected the "low periods" to mostly be in the beginning, and let me tell you the first week (maybe two weeks) were up there with the absolute hardest things I have had to go through and I've been through some difficult stuff over the last 21 years. It wasn't so much the unfamiliarity as it was THAT and the combination of a loneliness that I hadn't felt for years. It pulled me back to the first two months of freshman year at W&J. Those first two months were a nightmare because I am painfully shy and don't like talking much (until you get to know me, then I don't shut up). I didn't really have friends for the first few months of freshman year, at least not friends that were like ME in any sort of way. I actually contemplated transferring to Waynesburg. But eventually, I got very lucky and made the friend (now roommate and one of my best friends) that I needed in order to meet the people I now consider to some of my other best friends. This took awhile and it hurt and I hated it and I hated how quiet I was, how hard it was (and still is) for me to actually speak to people I don't know. The point is, the first few weeks in Cork were like the first few months at W&J. And I don't know why, once I got past that (for the most part), I didn't think there would be anymore real low points. But the month of October, right after I got back from London, that was a low. And I'm just now starting to get past it, the Cliffs of Moher tour helped and so does the fact that I'll be home in Pittsburgh in less than a month.

Anyway, so I took a tour to the Cliffs of Moher yesterday. The Cliffs of Moher is one of the top tourist attractions in all of Ireland. It was one of the last major attractions that I hadn't seen yet. So, I decided to do that tour yesterday. Our first stop was Limerick, which apparently has a reputation that has led to it being referred to as "stab city" so, yeah. But as our tour bus driver pointed out, the city only has about 90,000 residents and supposedly most of the violence is because two families have gotten into a nasty feud that's resulted in around 60 deaths or something.

Then we drove to the Burren. Which is rock, all rock. Supposedly, the British commander Oliver Cromwell hated this area of Ireland in particular, saying something along the lines of there were "not enough trees to hang an Irishman, not enough water to drown an Irishman and not enough soil to bury an Irishman." In case you couldn't tell, Cromwell didn't like Ireland or the Irish AT ALL. But really, the place is literally almost ALL rock. We stopped at Poulnabrone, which is a rock formation (kind of looks like Stonehenge, I guess).

Again, all the pictures are my doing:

It takes awhile to get to the Cliffs, probably about 3 or 4 hours. Eventually, we got there. Unfortunately, it was raining and the fog was extremely thick. So my photographs weren't that great because it was hard to see. But, I COULD tell that the Cliffs were incredible.

 Also, we stopped at Bunratty Castle on the way back:

Overall, it was a pretty cool trip, even though the bus actually had to stop for awhile because we needed a new one (the door wouldn't shut), so we got back late. And then there was the rain and fog... But that's okay, you could still kind of see the Cliffs, which was cool.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

In defense of the American college/university system...

One of the more intriguing conversations that I had last week was with another American student. She mentioned that in one of her classes, the American students were saying how much more laid-back UCC seemed to be when compared to the American colleges. The (Irish) professor in the class then mentioned that they thought it was more because they do a lot less "hand-holding" in European/overseas colleges than the U.S and that the students are more grown-up when they first come to university. Anyway, I was talking to the other American girl about this and honestly, I'm not sure I agree with the assessment of that professor. Initially, I DID agree, but the more I thought about it (and continue to think about it), I'm not sure I totally agree with that assessment.

First, I think it REALLY depends on your definition of "hand-holding." Are students perhaps more "guided" back in the U.S? To a certain extent, yes. But I would almost argue that's due to the nature of our education system before we even enter college, and also, it has to do with our society. Also, I'm just not sure the European students are any more "grown up" when the enter college than American students are.

I mean, here at UCC, the Irish students do go home on the weekends. Granted, I think that's partially because they might have jobs back home, but they are still home. I'm not saying that in itself makes American students "mature" (because they stay on campus), but it ISN'T like the European (Irish, in this case), are going MONTHS without any direct family interaction. They tend to stay in apartments, rather than dorms. Granted, there isn't TOO much difference, but there isn't a meal plan, for example. You have to cook and clean for yourself. At W&J, you have to have a meal plan (you could theoretically cook for yourself in the kitchen of the dorm, but nobody ever really does that because we have meal plans). Dorms in the United States are suited more for interaction among students as well, at least I think so. Anyway, all this begs the question: are the European students perhaps slightly more independent? Yes. But I wouldn't go as far to say that they are more "mature." I think maturity is a difficult concept to measure, particularly during the college years.

I think one of the reasons why American students studying abroad get the impression that UCC is more laid back is that there is less day to day work. The concept of continuous assessment isn't a thing in European universities, at least not at UCC. It SEEMS like a good idea to not have to deal with exams every few weeks, until you realize that you're being graded basically on ONE exam or essay. That's IT. And there are no points for participation or attendance. Honestly, I'm not sure that I could handle going through college like that. I like knowing how I'm doing in classes at any given point during the semester. Also, for as annoying as it is to have to read for classes and study constantly, there's something to be said for it. I would argue there's more motivation when you have to study or read for a class every day. There's more investment on the part of the student. I think here at UCC, students take year-long classes, then take a massive exam in the spring. And I THINK it's possible to re-take the exam. I think back home, there's more incentive to continuously try. In terms of work, American students definitely have more daily work to do for their classes.

There is a different view of this concept of continuous assessment. In my 3 years at W&J, I've known quite a few international students. The one thing that they have to say about college in the United States is that they are surprised by the amount of work that is assigned. So it really isn't just the American students studying abroad who perceive the workload as different.

American students take a greater variety of classes. The European students seem to take classes that are specific to their major, that's it. In contrast, I've never had a semester at W&J where I didn't take at least 2 classes that were unrelated to my major. I mean, freshman year, I took a political science class, a history class, economics and Spanish all in one semester. Four completely unrelated classes. I'm not saying that this translates to more work necessarily, but it does mean studying broader.

So, how does this relate to being more or less "grown up" than European students? It doesn't necessarily DIRECTLY relate, but it does make the case that, for as "guided" as the United States college students may be, we still put in a lot of work. So, what did the Irish professor mean by "hand-holding"? I'm thinking that he/she meant that back in the United States, colleges and universities definitely take steps to ensure that students know what's expected of them, where to go, what to do etc. They do that here at UCC as well, but it seems to be on a much more general scale. Back home, we get syllabi that outline exactly what goes on week to week, class to class. And American students DO need to know exactly what the professor wants in an essay, test etc. That's true. However, I would argue that this need for reassurance or definitive answers is partially due to the way that the American education system works. Granted, I have no idea how or if the European education system is really any different than the United States system. But the point is that in high school in the United States, we are told EXACTLY what is expected of us. So, naturally, this is what happens when the students get to college. It isn't "here is the incredibly general topic that you are going to write an essay about, now go write it and it's due in two months." Honestly, that's essentially the situation here at UCC with writing essays and I've never been so uneasy about writing essays in my life. I don't like not having specifics or a rubric to refer to. There is something to be said for specificity and detail.

So really, I think the point I'm trying to make (and have kind of ended up off topic and ranting just a bit) is that I think the two systems of university structure (the United States and European systems) are different and it is not really fair to compare the two and then state that the Americans are less "grown up" or that American universities "hand-hold" more than European ones. It think there is more to it than that and a lot of it is societal differences, especially with regard to education systems. Each system has benefits and negatives, but I do like the way the W&J (and the United States) system works. I look forward to returning to the organization and specificity of it all. One more month left, then it's back to the land of the U.S dollar, snow (if is correct), Walmart, baseball, American football, driving on the right side of the road (literally, the actual right side, as opposed to the left side) and the familiar sight of the Red, White and Blue.

Friday, November 1, 2013

London-the final part

I probably could have done a bit more on my last day in London, but I'm one of those people who gets extremely nervous about something potentially going wrong and missing a flight. So, what did I actually do then on my last day? I did the thing that I had been meaning to do since I got to Parliament Square the Thursday before: I went to Westminster Abbey. In case you didn't know, that's where Prince William and Kate got married in 2011. There is a TON of history there. Kings, Queens, poets, writers etc. are buried there. Kings and Queens have been crowned there. It apparently has a fairly extensive crypt of some sort. It was supposed to be beautiful inside, but I hadn't gotten the chance to go in until the last day. I was going to go the first day I got to London, but the Abbey closed at 6 PM. So, I ended up going on the last day. Now, before actually going to Westminster Abbey, I stopped at Westminster Cathedral. Despite the pouring rain, the line for entry into Westminster Abbey was really long.
The line for entry into Westminster Abbey
Unfortunately, you can't actually take pictures inside the Westminster Abbey. But here are some outside, close up shots of Westminster Abbey.

The courtyard inside the Abbey

Courtyard of the Abbey

After going to Westminster Abbey I walked along the River Thames for a few minutes, then decided that I should try to get to London Heathrow Airport. My flight wasn't until around 6 p.m., at this point it was about noon, I think. Like I said before, I'm really paranoid about getting to places on time. It probably took about 50 minutes to get from the Westminster Underground station to London Heathrow Airport. The Tube actually stops IN London Heathrow at the different terminals. London Heathrow is so big that it can do that. Now the question was what to do for five hours until my flight. I ended up getting my boarding pass, then eating lunch/dinner at one of the restaurants in the airport. I then went through security, which I have to tell you, I don't see what the big deal is. It's not that bad. It probably took me five minutes. Then again, I did get there pretty early. I spent the next few hours walking around London Heathrow, mostly just going in and out of the different shops. Eventually, I sat down and started to do what I do best when I'm bored: read. I finished "Catching Fire" in the Hunger Games book series (which I had been meaning to do for months) and after that, I started to write down everything and anything I had observed during my time in London. Here is some of the observations I made:
1) I became acutely aware of how "flat" my American/East Coast/Pittsburgh accent sounds when compared to the English/British accent (I know, there are different dialects and there isn't just ONE accent, it's like anywhere else in the world, but you know what I mean). To be honest, I hadn't really even noticed this while I was in Cork, but it hit me like a ton of bricks while I was in London. I don't know WHY it occurred to me, perhaps I have become so used to listening to the Irish accent that the English/British (I'm still not positive which is the correct usage here) accent sounded different enough. Either way, I've become very aware of how my American accent sounds. It's not really even in a negative way, it's just the way I hear myself speak now after talking to a person with a British or Irish accent. It sounds very flat and even, and I hadn't ever noticed that before.
2). How different London is from Cork. I almost hate to even compare the two cities because it's like comparing New York City to Pittsburgh. Actually, it's almost EXACTLY like comparing those two, so I'm going to roll with it. Here's the thing about London: it's very clearly a major international city. And it KNOWS it. Which isn't a bad thing at all, but it has a certain aura or aristocratic (I don't think that's the exact word I'm searching for, but go with it) "air" about it. Maybe, a high profile, sense of its own importance? I don't know how to describe it, but it's just like the city knows it's a very important place. I have a feeling that you would get this in any major international city. I vaguely recall feeling the same thing in Washington D.C. There is just so much there culturally, politically, socially and historically. So it just has this "feeling" about it. That's NOT  negative thing, but compared to Cork, it's noticeable. See, one of the things that I've noticed about Ireland is that it's not really a country that feels the need to put on airs or promote its own importance. Particularly not in Cork (or maybe the South), but maybe a little bit in Dublin. Back to the NYC and Pittsburgh analogy. Cork is like Pittsburgh in that it's kind of a secondary city (well, it's the second biggest city in the Republic of Ireland). New York is like London for fairly obvious (I think) reasons. Now, I come from Pittsburgh. It's fairly no nonsense (unless it's Sunday and it's football season, then the whole place goes mental) and working class. I appreciate Cork so much because it reminds me of Pittsburgh with it's no nonsense atmosphere. The thing with New York (and London) is that they are extremely important and everything in these two cities SCREAMS "hey, we're important." Again, that's not a BAD THING. I just notice it more because I'm from Pittsburgh and I've been in Cork/Ireland for so long. I've also come to realize that I almost prefer the cities like Pittsburgh or Cork. Don't get me wrong, I LOVED London, but I almost prefer the "down to earth" feeling of my hometown and Cork. I kind of felt the same way about Dublin as I do London. I like being a tourist in them, but I don't know if I'd love actually living there.
3) British pound sterling beats the Euro, the Euro beats the dollar. London is just SO EXPENSIVE. I am NEVER EVER going to complain about how much anything costs in Ireland again. And I am definitely NEVER going to complain about the cost of things back home in the United States. I swear. (unless it's the cost of textbooks or my education, I'm still going to be complaining about that)
Overall, I really loved London. It was kind of a way of proving to myself that I can fly to some other place alone and navigate things in an unfamiliar city well enough to be completely fine. I wasn't really worried about getting lost since I had a map. I tend to worry about small things, like the amount of time the Tube is going to take to get from Westminster to London Heathrow. But I do think the London trip helped me to prove to myself that I can do things alone, be fine and have fun while seeing a ton of cool, unforgettable stuff. And I think that might have been the most important part of the whole trip. That sort of personal confirmation that I can figure things out. Like when your phone runs of money, you go to Starbucks and use their free Wi-Fi to talk to your dad, so that everyone else knows you're okay. Also, getting lost isn't such a bad thing. I accidently stumbled across this ridiculously cool street that only had bookstores and stores with art/sketches in them. Literally, the entire street was just those two things. So, really, that's what is important about traveling. You can get a greater sense of what you can do and how to handle adversity (though, really, running of money on a cell phone isn't the best example of "adversity" but it's the one I have, so I'm going to go with it.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

London (part 4): Palaces, Books, Movies and Magic

This post in particular is going to be the geekiest one, by far, that you're going to read on here-- so fair warning. Day 4 of my London trip MAY have been my favorite. Why? Well, first of all, I got to see Buckingham Palace. But that's actually not why it was probably my favorite day. It was my favorite day because I got to go to the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London. And I am a MASSIVE, unapologetic, die-hard Harry Potter fanatic. Before I dive into THAT part of Day 4, I guess I'll start at the beginning.

I meant to go to the Tower of London on Day 4, but after getting on the bus to go to Parliament Square that morning, I realized that I didn't have enough money on my oyster card to get to the Tower of London right away, meaning that I had to go to the Underground station (where I would have had to go anyway, but it meant taking more time) to reload it. Unfortunately, there were some other tourists who, frankly, couldn't grasp the concept of buying a ticket and were causing the line to add money to the card to be EXTREMELY long. I ended up getting out of line and going to the information line and just adding money through them. However, this took awhile and I just didn't have enough time to go all the way to the Tower of London, explore that area AND make it to the Harry Potter Studio Tour on time. I ended up deciding to walk to Buckingham Palace.

I actually wasn't positive that I wasn't going in the right direction because there was construction being done and I was walking for awhile. However, I saw a crowd of tourists walking in one direction (I swear I didn't just make a One Direction pun in post about London.....okay, I did), so I figured I was probably getting close to Buckingham Palace.

There were A TON of tourists there, which makes sense. The royal family and all. Buckingham Palace itself (in terms of appearance) actually reminded me a bit of the White House. I waited awhile, trying to get up to the front of the gates to properly see. Hardly anyone was speaking English, or at least it seemed that way. We were all waiting around, hoping to see the Changing of the Guard, but it wasn't actually occurring until the next day. After realizing that, I walked over to St. James Park, which was right next to the Palace.

Buckingham Palace photos (all the pictures are my doing, so some of them aren't all that great)

I think this statue is devoted to the Queen

Outside the Palace

Palace guards (I had a video of him and his counterpart on the other side marching, but it was too big to attach here)

Monument to the Queen

This is the guard outside of what I think might have been an alternate entrance to the Palace

I just liked it, also-- you can see my shoes (and shadow)

St. James Park, right outside the Palace
Anyway, I was REALLY anxious about getting to the Harry Potter Studio Tour, so I walked back to the Victoria Underground station and got on the Tube. I actually had to switch stations and take the Overground, for the last leg of the journey. The Tour was actually outside of London. It took awhile to get there, maybe an hour and a half. After getting to the last station, there was an actual Harry Potter Tour bus that was specifically for the Harry Potter people, which took us to the Studio.
I reserved my ticket for the Tour a month in advance, when I started planning the entire London trip. It was the one thing that I REALLY wanted to do (aside from all of the sightseeing). Anyway, I got to the Tour about two hours early (mostly because I incredibly excited and I wasn't too sure how long it would take to get to the Tour). I got dinner and wandered through the gift shop. If I could, I would have bought EVERYTHING in the store. But, seriously, the setup of the Tour was AWESOME. First, the whole thing is THE place where all 8 of the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Everything is REAL. The costumes, props, sets etc. It was ALL in the movies, none of it is fake or just produced for the tour.
I was like a kid in a candy store (actually, better put: I was like my little sister-who I love very much-in a candy store).  See, I'm that person who was completely willing to wait in line for the books to come out at midnight or see the movie the first day it came out. I was Hermione for Halloween at least 3 times. I wrote a paper freshman year of college for my composition class about the phenomenon of Harry Potter and why it became so massive. (I said this was going to be the geekiest post you're going to read...) And, possibly more importantly, Harry Potter was (both literarily and not, to some degree) my childhood. I'll never love another book series the way I love the Harry Potter books. So much of who I am and how I understand the world is because of those books. Friendship, family, life/death, growing up etc., are all major themes in the books, and so much of what I understand about them can be traced back to reading the Harry Potter books as I grew up. The opportunity to see the place where the filmed the movies, to see the place where this entire world that I saw in my head while I read the books, was filmed--spectacular.
The tour was not really structured all that much, we had free reign to look at whatever we wanted for as long as we wanted. They flat out said that it generally takes about 4 hours, (yes, FOUR) to complete the whole tour and that we could stay until closing if we really wanted to. They weren't even exaggerating, I'm pretty sure I was there for about 5 hours total. Mostly what they've done is split the sets, props, costumes etc. all across two lots, then the back/outside lot. There is so much to see. Anything you wanted to see from the movies, it's there. Want to know how they filmed the Quidditch scenes? That's there. Curious about the creatures like dragons, house elves, hippogriffs? That's there. It was awesome. There is also a section where you can get on a broomstick and they'll do the green screen behind you and make it seem like you're flying.

 *Like I said before, they are all the photos I took while I was at the tour, so the quality isn't that great*



But the first of my favorite four parts had to be the very beginning: the Great Hall. See, they took us to this little movie theater inside the tour at the very start and played a brief video about Harry Potter and then we all got up and they pushed open the doors (just like in the movies) and there is the Great Hall in all its spectacular beauty. I'm pretty sure I couldn't breathe for a second because it was RIGHT THERE. I walked through the Great Hall. (I'm sorry this is so geeky, but this was seriously one of the highlights of the entire London trip) I think my second favorite part was the backlot, where you could try butterbeer (it's essentially cream soda--no alcohol or anything), and it tasted really good. Also in the backlot were the chess pieces from the Philosopher's Stone movie (that was actually one of my favorite scenes in that movie), the Knight Bus, Number 4 Privet Drive, Godric's Hollow etc. My third favorite part was Diagon Alley, because it EXACTLY like it was in the movies, with all the different storefronts and everything.
The last of the four favorite parts was probably my favorite. It was a model (a HUGE model) of Hogwarts. I don't know if you've ever been to the Science Center in downtown Pittsburgh, but they have this massive train/city model that takes up a whole room and the Hogwarts (and the grounds of Hogwarts) model reminded me of that. Only on a much larger scale. I can't even begin to explain how fantastic the model was. To be perfectly honest, I actually got choked up at the end of walking around it. It was like the books had ended all over again. I honestly had to sit down and stop for a second because I basically started crying a bit. See, the combination of the replica/model of Hogwarts mixed with the massive TV screen that showed a J.K Rowling quote (see below), literally had me in tears. It was the best possible way to end the tour.

Monday, October 28, 2013

London (part 3): Delays, Airplanes and Heights

I think I've mentioned before how much I appreciate public transportation in Europe. I think it's actually one of my favorite parts about Europe as a whole. Anyway, I particularly like the London Tube system, primarily because it's fast and cheap (if you have an oyster card). However, on my third day in London, the reliance on the Tube did cause a minor delay. See, the Northern Line, which I needed to use to get to Colindale (which was a bit outside of London) was suspended for maintenance for most of the Line. When I asked the information desk how to get to Colindale, the lady pretty much told me it was going to be difficult, involving transferring twice, getting on a replacement bus etc. But here's the thing (admittedly, much to the chagrin of my family and friends sometimes) when I get something in my head, I don't let it go. So the point is: I was getting to Colindale that day regardless of the Northern Line being closed. Why did I want to go to Colindale so badly? Well, I REALLY wanted to go the Royal Air Force Museum. My grandfather was in the U.S Air Force and LOVES planes, which I think is really cool, so I really wanted to visit the Royal Air Force Museum because of that, plus it was supposed to be a really cool place visit while in London. Anyway, the Museum was in Colindale. And so I took the Tube, changed to a different station and then took a bus to Colindale. I got to the Royal Air Force Museum a bit later than anticipated, but I got there eventually. It was definitely worth it though. There were a TON of planes, a lot of which were from World War II (British planes, American planes and even Nazi Germany planes) and older. It was really cool to see all of them, there is actually quite a bit of history involved. There were old bombs and other things that would have gotten dropped from the planes during wartime. It was quite cool. Also, the food in the cafĂ© was pretty good as well. The British have a thing with already prepared sandwiches that I really just don't get, but hey, I guess it's food. Also, they really DO like their tea. I'm serious, it isn't a national stereotype. EVERY MENU HAS HOT TEA AS AN OPTION. It's the EXACT SAME THING in Ireland actually. Which is perfectly fine for me because I love tea. Coffee, not so much. Although, I will say that they don't seem to have iced tea. At all. I think that's a bit bizarre, but maybe they think it's strange that we DO have cold tea...

After I got back from the Royal Air Force Museum, it was probably around 5 or 6 p.m. I didn't want to just go back to the hostel, because I was only going to be in London for a few more days. I ended up deciding to walk along the Westminster Bridge (I think that's what it was called). I subsequently spent about 15 minutes debating about whether or not I really wanted to brave the massive line (and my fear of heights) to get on the London Eye, which basically looks like a Ferris wheel. A very energy efficient Ferris wheel. Eventually, I caved in to my curiosity and got in line for a ticket.

It was an incredible experience. Despite my fear of heights, the London Eye was actually really great. It's very slow, so you don't feel it moving too much in the capsule, it probably takes about 30 minutes total. But you really do get to see ALL of London. I think the best way to describe the experience is through pictures, so that's what I'm going to do. Note: it started raining while I was on it, so there are rain drops in some of the pictures.


Outside the Royal Air Force Museum--my picture
This is just a small part of the Museum, I actually took over 300 photos--my picture
Royal Air Force Museum--my picture
Just starting out on the London Eye--my picture

A little bit higher now--my picture

London Eye--my picture

I zoomed in, or else it would be smaller--my picture

Mostly to show you the sunset and what the capsule/car looks like--my picture

Houses of Parliament all lit up for the night--my picture
After the London Eye, I walked around the bridge area for a bit. It was very tourist-y, with street performers and a carousel, but it was fun to people watch for a few minutes. Eventually, I bought a waffle with chocolate syrup (I'm not going to lie, that was my dinner), and walked back to the hostel. Oh, and side note: if your cell phone ever runs out of minutes and you have your iPad with you--go to Starbucks. Free Wi-Fi is the greatest. So that was Day 3 of my London trip.