Friday, November 4, 2016

Hayley in Plymouth!

Hi everyone! I’m Hayley, and I’m spending my semester in Plymouth, England.

I don’t even know where to start.

Studying abroad has been one of the best and life-altering decisions I’ve ever made, and it’s only about halfway through the semester. I’ve learned so much about myself, about the world, and about practical things—how to travel cheaply and efficiently, how to cook for myself, and how to overcome homesickness when everything just seems like too much.

 Standing at the place where the Mayflower set sail with my friend Savannah and our friend from Malaysia, Tiffany
I’ll begin with Plymouth itself, since that’s where I’ve been living for nearly 2 months (how has it been that long?). I’ve had the chance to explore the city, which is right on the coast of the English Channel, and learn about the history surrounding it. I even got the chance to stand on the very spot where one of my ancestors boarded the Mayflower. I’ve had the best fish and chips of my life on the harbor, overlooking stunning cliffs and green hills that plummet into the shimmering, cold water below.

Plymouth is an ocean-city, for certain, but it’s nothing like the towns and cities along our beaches in North Carolina. It’s very urban and always bustling with activity. You wouldn’t even know you were near the coast if it weren’t for the steep hills that characterize the streets and yield stunning views of the water in the distance. You walk everywhere in Plymouth, which has definitely kept me in shape. (Well, that and the fact that my dorm in on the seventh floor of my building and there is no elevator…)
"The Hoe," which is an Anglo-Saxon word for "high place," overlooking the Plymouth Sound and English Channel.
It’s incredibly easy to get around in Plymouth, since most places are centered right around Plymouth University’s campus. There’s a Starbucks about 5 minutes walk from my dorm, a cheap clothing store right next to it, and grocery stores are all within a 15min walk radius. I’ve finally gotten used to the “bring your own bag” thing for stores so I don’t have to pay and extra 5 pence every time I go shopping. I’d like to say we should do this in America, since it’s far more sustainable than just freely giving out plastic bags, but for the first couple of weeks I found it incredibly frustrating. Effort—that’s the theme of this blog post. You’ve just got to put in that extra effort.

 I found the Ministry of Magic!

About two weeks after arriving, I took a trip to London with a couple of friends. London was absolutely incredible, and if you’re studying abroad in Europe I highly recommend adding that to your list of places to travel. We booked a cheap (but clean and safe) Airbnb, bought cheap bus tickets, and we were all set. If you stay in London for only a few days, I definitely suggest getting the 16-25 Railcard and just purchasing day tickets for trains at the nearest station. The Railcard gives you discounts on all train travel around the UK, and it saved us a lot of money traveling in London. It took us a day or two to figure out the transportation system, but once we got used to it, it was so incredibly efficient and easy to use—much more organized and less confusing than the New York subway system. We walked all around the city, had the best crepes of our lives, and only got rained on twice.

A street on the Barbican, which is Plymouth's harbor.

When I returned to Plymouth, I admit I found myself rather depressed and downtrodden. Classes here are much different from what I am used to at UNCG, and I really have to work to find ways to keep busy. The excitement of travel had worn off by this time and the homesickness really began to set in—I’m most definitely a homebody, and just after arriving here in England I found out that my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, so it’s been very hard on me to be away from my family at this time. But about halfway through October, I had the opportunity to go visit Germany to see my brother, who is in the US Air Force.

Germany was magical. The weather was rather cold and rainy, but I was so happy to spend time with family (and get to cuddle with my brother’s dog—I hadn’t pet a dog in a month!) and go on more adventures. We got to buy dirndls (traditional dress for Oktoberfest) and attend Oktoberfest in Sittard; we took a day trip to the beautiful Köln and saw the massive cathedral and the Rhein River; we had a lazy day where we sat wrapped in blankets and watched Star Wars; we took a trip to Amsterdam (yes, it is just as gorgeous as the pictures).

My brother Logan and I enjoying sweets in an Amsterdam bakery.

It was such a fun trip, and I knew that if I was going to keep my spirits up when I had to leave and return to Plymouth, I needed to change my way of thinking.

If you’re planning to study abroad, let me tell you this: homesickness happens to nearly everyone, and in different ways. It’s okay to miss home, to feel sad and feel like you don’t belong in the place you’ve decided to study. I just want to assure you that these feelings will pass, but you really have to make an effort to go out and seize your adventure. When I left Germany, I decided that I would no longer allow my homesickness prevent me from experiencing what this semester has to offer. Since returning to Plymouth about a week ago, I’ve made about twelve new friends and gone out with them 3 times. I am not a huge partier, so this was a step way outside my comfort zone. But you know what I discovered? I actually really enjoy going to clubs and dancing. Who knew?

Prost! (That's me in a dirndl. I discovered that breathing isn't considered a requirement while wearing one.)

The thing is, you just really have to push yourself to grow and to learn. As I mentioned before, I love home and I love UNCG, so this transition has been difficult to me. But I’ve allowed myself to feel anxious about being in an unfamiliar environment, I’ve allowed myself to feel vulnerable and do things I normally wouldn’t have tried, and it’s been incredible. I’m 20 years old and I’ve planned international trips and travel all on my own—trips that have thus far been incredibly successful. I know it seems ridiculously cliché, but you’ve really just got to bite the bullet and step out of your comfort zone. I never really knew what stepping out of my comfort zone meant until I was thrown into this journey with far less guidance than I was used to, and I’m so grateful to have learned and experienced everything I have so far.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Caroline en España

 ¡Hola de Cuenca, España! Cuenca is a tiny little city situated in the mountains of Castilla la Mancha. I live near the Río Júcar, which is always a beautiful blue green color. I have the most gorgeous walk to school every day.  Cuenca is the most beautiful place that I have ever visited and I am so glad that I have been able to call it home. As I have told my friends here and basically anyone who has spoken to me for any period of time, I have fallen completely in love with Cuenca. Cuenca has brought out a different side of me, a Caroline that likes rock climbing, despite her fear of heights. My first day in Cuenca, I visited el Puente de San Pablo, which boasts a spectacular view of the hanging houses of Cuenca. El Puente de San Pablo is 40 meters high, which is about 131 feet. I made it about a quarter of the way across the bride before turning around and rushing back to safety. Within a month of this incident, I went rock climbing on an actual mountain and later on a via ferrata, which is a type of climbing route. If I remember correctly, at one point we were 80 meters high hanging off the side of a mountain. Had anyone told me before I left that I would be hanging out on the side of a mountain hundreds of feet above the ground I would have laughed in your face, but now I can’t wait to go climbing again.

A view of Cuenca from the mountains

Amazing view from the Via Ferrata, I'm trying rally hard not to look down

Rio, Jucar
Another way that I’ve been challenged here in Cuenca is to stay on top of current events in the states. I knew that as a US citizen in another country I would be asked a lot of questions about our politics since they are so widely publicized. Many people have asked my opinion regarding the impending presidential elections, to the point where I have been asked to speak as an American about the presidential elections on a radio program at my university. One thing that has been really interesting for me here in Spain is seeing the US through the eyes of other parts of the world. The group of international students here in Cuenca is surprisingly large. I have met people from all over the world, from Russia to Taiwan to Mexico. There are not many other US citizens studying abroad, so people are usually very interested to hear what I think about the things that are going on in the states right now.

In Madrid with a group of students, we found Minerva!

Cuenca's hanging houses...In the past there wasn't enough space for people to build their houses, so they began to build them on the side of the mountains!

          There have been times when I leave for the night that as soon as people learn that I am an American they immediately make jokes about our love for guns, or ask me if I hate Mexico. Most frequently people ask who I am voting for in the elections. While I love sharing my ideas with my new friends, a few times I have been a little bit ashamed of what is happening at home. One of my friends here told me that when we first met he didn’t think we would be able to be friends ‘since he is Mexican and I am American.’ All in all, it has been a really interesting opportunity to hear outside perspectives about my home, in spite of the gun lugging stereotypes. Of course everyone knows that the media portrayal of the US is exaggerated, but it is really unique to meet people who have only seen the US in that light.

El Puente, de San Pablo

Climbing the Via Ferrata! If you look closely, you can see the fear in my eyes!

           What I have learned in all these discussions of politics is that many people feel similarly towards their own government. My Spanish roommates have made jokes about their lack of government in response to my lamenting US politics (right now Spain has a kind of interim president due to complications with their elections). I fully expected to learn a lot while abroad, but I have learned a lot about politics, gained a new lens through which to view the US, and learned about myself through challenging situations or conversations. One of the most important things I have learned while living in Spain is that it is ok to not be completely in control or to not always know what to expect. Jump out of your comfort zone, try new foods, and talk to strangers. I’m still working on it, but I can’t wait to see what the next two months have in store for me.