Saturday, October 19, 2013

what's in a date?

all day, i’ve been contemplating the concept of time and the significance of its passage. and the irony of this post is not lost on me… a reflective post about reflection, how very meta of me. but truly, how strange a process it is!

today, more than other days, i’ve been preoccupied by the passage of time. it’s a topic that is never far from my mind; i’m an exceptionally nostalgic and sentimental person. i’ve always had a thing for dates, like birthdays, anniversaries, or just significant events. i know what day i donated my hair for the first time (april 25, 2002), i still know all of my would-be anniversaries with boyfriends-of-old (today being one), and i go out of my way to make countdowns and mark my calendars for future events. part of this obsession comes from an innate desire to see cycles completed. it’s not necessarily a compulsion, per se… but i really, really, really like to see things come full circle. for example, i began and ended my job at the public library in high school on august 7th, 2006 and 2009, respectively. moments like that make my soul feel like the universe is working properly. i might have a psychological problem.

as i sit in my little french village, one question in particular has been plaguing me on this sunny fall day; is it more important to look back on your past and honour where you’ve  been, or to leave it behind and just look to the future and what lies ahead? as someone who is simultaneously extremely nostalgic and notorious for playing the “what if” game... how do i reconcile this contradiction in my spirit?

i want to learn from my past, of course.  and, even on a bigger scale, i love history. i love knowing that hundreds and thousands of years have rolled by, and that people have lived and worked and loved and died through them all. that’s why i have always wanted to live in europe – the history here is palpable… hell, the town where i’m living was mentioned in writing in 572 ad. richard the lion-hearted slept at the chateau. i’m living in history – i’m reminded of that every day, and i love it.

but at the same time… i’m a planner. i like knowing how things will play out – or, if i can’t know, i like to at least think about it. part of my INFJ-ness is that i like to think about every single possible outcome of any given situation so i can know all my options. (thanks, mrs. v, for teaching me about myers-briggs. changed my world!) that trait translates into spending hours looking at various travel options, researching tons of different potential career paths, browsing every aisle of whatever shop i might enter… it can be both a very rewarding and very frustrating tendency.

so, how do i break my habit of obsessing over dates? do i even want to break it? more than anything else, this year abroad was a way for me to ask myself some big questions and start working through the answers. is it better to just cut all ties? do i want to be the kind of person who holds on to the nostalgia and the history as the years go by?

at the end of the day, what’s more important… october 19, 2010 or october 19, 2016? even on this smaller scale… just a few years backward or forward. deciding which way to look is hard, especially when i’m trying to be here and live in 2013.

Monday, October 14, 2013


bureaucrazy: (n) the ridiculous number of administrative hoops one must navigate in order to legally reside in a new country; the gladiator games of paperwork

they say patience is a virtue. here in france, it’s more of a condescending expectation. if you think anything is going to happen here with any sense of urgency… you’re wrong. however, if you think that anyone else is going to get your paperwork done for you… you’re even more wrong. i’ve been trying so hard to maintain a healthy combination of persistence and patience since i’ve gotten to france, because it takes both to come out of the soul-sucking, nerve-frying, catch-22-riddled machine that is french bureaucracy with any modicum of sanity intact. i’ve been dancing an exasperating tango with the bureaucrazy here – one step forward, two steps back, side-step, complete spin, forward, back…. it honestly feels like i’ve made no progress at all, and it’s starting to get overwhelming. there is always some form missing from the application packet or some mysterious bank god that needs to approve some other form before the payment can go through or another step to complete before you can get that stamp on your visa… the list goes on.

it’s exceptionally challenging for me, since i’m someone that likes to be prepared. france has thoroughly unarmed, frustrated, and humbled me in this respect.  i suppose i shouldn’t be surprised – the only reason i’m here at all is because i had the rug pulled out from under all my carefully-laid plans last year, which prompted me to apply for this grant. so, i probably could have looked at that experience as an indicator for how this adventure was going to be. when little things add up, i sometimes have the tendency to let it get to me; i’m a pretty on-the-ball kind of girl, and i do well taking care of myself and what i need to get done. but if i get too far behind, or if the inefficiency of a process is too glaringly insurmountable, i can feel the panic start to settle into the pit of my stomach. i hate when things don’t work well and i can’t make it right. but, over the last few weeks, i have had a crash course in patience, humility, and just being able to let frustration slide off of me. with the way things are here, sometimes there really is just nothing to be done but wait. ugh.

if each governmental system in the world were to be represented by a famous architectural icon, france would be the coliseum. it’s renowned for the unbelievable detail and complexity of its structure; it’s run by a network of state officials that all take great pride in acting completely unconcerned with the needs of the plebeians they serve; it looks nice and pretty and organized from the outside, and the inside is a vicious labyrinth of dead-end websites, incomprehensible hours of operation, enough forms and paperwork to redecorate versailles, and a few man-eating beasts (probably). you can only do so much to be prepared – you can have every single form listed on the website (multiple copies), your passport, extra passport photos (the french need a passport photo for everything), your work contract, your lease, your bank account identification information, your second grade report cards, your dog’s immunization records….. it doesn’t matter. they’re going to need something you don’t have on the first visit. and then, once you do have everything they need, you have to mail it to them. and then they mail you something back saying they received it. and then, later, they mail you another form which tells you when your next appointment will be. and then, after that appointment, you get a stamp which allows you to move onto the next step. my point is, the process is literally never-ending. sometimes, i use that word as emphasis (and not in its original sense) – but this time, i mean that i’m pretty sure this process has no endpoint. there will always be something else. always. (i’ve had this confirmed by french friends, so i’m confident. and thoroughly disheartened at the thought.)

when i take a mental step back and look at the last few weeks, i can see that i’ve definitely have made some progress. i opened my bank account and received my card. i submitted all my forms for the immigration office and my dossier for my insurance. i’m on my way to having all my accommodation paperwork done (damn you, electric company) and my paychecks are set up for direct deposit. so, yay! i keep reminding myself that i am not the first person to ever go through this process – it can be done, it just takes time. and, ironically, time is what i have the most of here. today was the first day that i really felt the downswing of expatriation – the part of the process where the nice, shiny veneer of novelty is wearing off, and everything is just kind of wrong and annoying. but, those feelings are all part of the game, and having them means that i’m doing it right. so, instead of crying to the woman in the post office (who saw me three separate times today) like i wanted to do this evening, i just ate half a pan of apple cake and watched french game shows. that’s productive, right?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

back to school

let’s talk about school a little bit, shall we?

first, the basics. the school where i’m working is called cité scolaire girault de borneil. it’s a combination lycée (high school) and collège (middle school) - the equivalent of grades 7-12 in the states, or ages 12-18. there are about 600 kids in the school, many of whom get bussed in from neighboring villages/hamlets/bumps in the road. i’m still kind of unclear on how many teachers there are… but i’d guestimate about 40. maybe. anyway, out of those teachers, there are maybe 7 or 8 who teach foreign language, and i’m working directly with 4 of them. the school building itself is pretty complicated, with lots of corridors that branch out into random directions, and some split-level action. thankfully, most of the english classes are in the same hallway, so i don’t have to move around too much. there is a small library and a nice, bright cafeteria, and a really big courtyard where the kids hang out during breaks.

the class structure and schedule is mad confusing. kids are separated into paths (focusing on literature, or science, etc), and then grades, and then sections. so, for example, on monday afternoon and thursday morning, i work with a class of 1ère ses  - essentially, they are in 11th grade, on a track that focuses on sciences and economics. so… not too keen on the foreign language. but i digress. so, there are different groups of kids, and they all circulate around together during the day. each class is about 30 kids, and each class period is 55 minutes long. so, that’s exhausting. these kids go to school from 8:15am to like 5:15 every day. imagine! and some of them have to travel into town and then home again on the bus…so they end up pulling 12 hours a day for school. meh.

my schedule is SIGNIFICANTLY less arduous…. like, criminally so. actually, let me break it down. 
          i have a 7 month job contract (october 1 – april 30), during which i cannot be 
          asked to work more than 12 hours a week (yes, twelve). i have four separate
          two-week-long breaks (so, that’s 8 weeks of paid vacation) – and i’m getting 
          paid preeeetty well, considering the amount of work i'm actually doing. 
you can all stop trying to punch me through the computer screen now. each week, i don’t have work monday or tuesday mornings, wednesday afternoons, or fridays. at all. so, that’s nice. my contract is for 12 hours a week – 9 with high schoolers and 3 with middle schoolers. i think i’ll end up being at the school for more than 12 hours a week out of sheer boredom  - i’ve kind of offered to be a tutor whenever i’m available (which is often) for one of the other teachers. i did that for an hour today, and had a great time helping two younger boys with an english worksheet. generally, though, my job entails helping the teacher of whatever class i’m working with, in whatever capacity i can. at various points this week, i’ve observed from the back of the room, been interrogated by classes, offered up as a topic of conversation, served as a floating question-answerer, led a video-viewing and discussion about environmental innovation, been taken on a tour of the village, led a discussion about modern signapore, helped a prosecution team prepare for a mock trial of edward snowden, and helped moniter an independent research session in the media room. all within about 10 hours of actual classroom time. so, versatility is the name of the game. i’m pretty sure i’ll be doing something completely different every day. yay? i don’t always love change, but i think being kept on my toes will be a good experience for me.

digression – during the edward snowden trial preparation, i tried to explain –in french – the meaning of the saying “your rights end where someone else’s begin.” talk about digging myself a hole...

anywho. as far as the kids go… there’s a wide spectrum. on a whole, i think they’re more culturally well-behaved than american students. they respect the system, and they go with it pretty much inherently. that said, there are some things that are just universal, and teenagers are a great example. i think that no matter where you go in the world, you will pretty much find that 14 is an awkward stage of a human’s life, and that 17 year old boys will always try to show off in front of their buddies (and more importantly, in front of girls). i may not have any actual teaching credentials… in fact, my only credential for this job is that i speak english. however, i am a human, and was once (much to my chagrin) a teenage human. being such, i feel like i know what to expect certain regards. the nice thing about being an authority figure in a french school is that i can act like the french teachers do.. which is much more sarcastic than i’ve ever seen an american teacher act. you can honestly just get sassy with the kids, and it mostly works. i’m looking forward to exploring that power in the coming weeks. i’ve already detected some landmarks, as far as teaching goes: the first crush on me (super sweet 10th grader who never takes his eyes off me and always helps me move chairs back at the end of the lesson), the trouble makers (mainly kids whose parents are anglophone, therefore making them bilingual and total snots in class), and the ones who feel like english is way out of their league (my favourites, in some cases). i can’t wait to get to know these kids throughout the school year and, hopefully, see how far they come!

the rest of the faculty are super nice – i’ve made friends with several of the teachers/administration already, and it’s only been 2 weeks. i’m hoping that as the year goes on, i’ll start getting invited to teacher-y things on the weekends, so i don’t sit in my apartment for 3 days straight! we’ll see with time, i suppose. the year is young. :)

all in all, after a week of total ambiguity and then another of only partial ambiguity, i think i might have an idea about how this school year is going to be. i love that i’m in a place where i can recognize kids in the hallways, and get an enthusiastic “hello!” from them, instead of some giant school where no one really knows me. i’ve got a great feeling about this year!

Monday, October 7, 2013

it's a quiet village

after a week of the country life here in excideuil, i feel like i’m starting to get the hang of it. during the week, i was forever going back and forth between my flat and the school, each time in the hope that the teachers would have a schedule for me. (no luck.. maybe tomorrow?) it's so great to live this close to my work... whenever i have a free hour, i can go home for a little snack or a catnap. love it. i also did some administrative-y stuff, like opening a bank account and filling out/mailing infinite forms. i spent most of my free time either in my apartment, watching french tv and trying to figure out how the heck the timetables are organized, or down in the café, chatting with vicki and the other patrons. there was a lot of free time…

the biggest day of my week was wednesday, when i went back into périgueux for the departmental assistant orientation day. the entire morning, we were inundated with information regarding our moves to france – how to get our visas validated, how to sign up for the social security system, how the complementary insurance system worked, how to get our rent subsidy… it was enough to make me want to give up, by the end of it. there are just so many administrative hoops… and i’m only going to be here for 8 months. ugh. but the afternoon was great – we were split up into groups, based on the languages and grades we’d be teaching, and then a teacher walked us through how to plan our lessons and gave us a bunch of tips and activity ideas. all in all, it was a great orientation… just very overwhelming. that actually kind of describes what moving abroad is like… great and overwhelming. i’ve been gone for over a month – time is flying!!

anyway, if the slow tempo and relative calm of the work week is any hint to you, weekends here in excideuil are verrrry peaceful. in that, unless you have a car, you can’t leave. happily for me, my upstairs neighbor / new friend mathilde does have a car, so the two of us got to escape the village for a few hours on saturday and head into a town nearby called trelissac for a little retail therapy. there’s not much happening in trelissac, but there was a nice little shopping center. i got a few things that i’d been passively needing (a pair of light tennis shoes, a clock, a yoga ball) and we browsed a few home goods stores (i’m just as obsessed with them here as i am at home). it was really nice to be able to leave excideuil (in a car!) for a few hours, just for a change of scenery. and then today, the weather was absolutely beautiful, so mathilde and i went on a walk around the village and took some pictures. we also watched a rugby match down at the little athletic center… where i learned that some things, like obnoxiously passionate fans of amateur sports teams, are universal experiences. the rest of my evening was spent skyping with my family and planning my upcoming trip to spain!

basically, the point of this post was to let the blogosphere know that i have a new facebook album, filled with photos of my apartment and the village in general. check it out!

Friday, October 4, 2013


well, i’ve passed my first week here in the countryside of southern france, and let me tell you… it’s lovely here. i’m definitely living a charmed little life here!

let me back up a little bit, just to explain how it is that i got where i am. when i was applying for the TAPIF program, i chose “small town / rural area” as my preference, because i wanted a better shot at true immersion.. sometimes, in bigger towns and definitely in the major cities, assistants will just flock to each other and you pretty much end up speaking only english. not what i was going for this time! so, when i received my placement back in june, i found out that i’d been placed in a rural village called excideuil (ex-cee-duh-yuh, sort of). all in all, there are about 2,000 people who live here… which is only slightly larger than my high school. soooo… small town. but, even with all the reservations i had about my remote placement, i knew that it would be the absolute best thing for my french to be as immersed as possible. and i was excited about the prospect of my own beauty-and-the-beast-esque village.

in researching the town, i came across the facebook page for a café in town called ‘kitsch kafé,’ owned and operated by a lovely british ex-pat named vicki. since i was curious about the village, i looked through the photos on her page and noticed that they also rented the apartments over the café… an idea that appealed greatly to me. i reached out to vicki, just wanting to introduce myself and learn a little bit about the village. we continued our correspondence over the summer, and in late july, she told me that their studio apartment was going to be available at the end of september… exactly when i would be arriving in excideuil! too perfect. having my housing worries taken care of before i even left the states was a huge weight off of my shoulders, and made my transition into france life much easier.

so, i arrived here in excideuil on monday, september 30th. vicki even sent one of the café regulars, a philedelphia native named richard, to meet me at the bus stop and help me get my bags to the café (a whopping 200m walk down the street). when we walked in the door, vicki immediately greeted me with a smile and the bisous (the french kiss-kiss greeting) and showed me right upstairs. my apartment is TOO cute. it came totally furnished, which is an immeasurable blessing… she went above and beyond and provided bedding, towels, dishes, even hangers. pretty much everything i needed except for food. i can’t express how rare this type of accommodation is in france, and especially for the rent i’m paying, which is half of what i paid in nashville. it’s a studio, so all one room, but i have a little sleeping nook with a double bed, a decent bathroom, a kitchen with hot places and a little countertop oven, and even a couch and small tv! everything i need for a sweet life in the countryside. (pictures to come this weekend!)

i’ve spent my first few days here just settling in. i went to the supermarket down the road my first evening here and then again the next night, just to get my pantry stocked with the basics (pasta, cereal, madeleines, nutella, etc). i also stopped by the hardware store next to the market for a little plug adapter the first night, and a tv cable the next night. it’s fun to learn the little idiosyncrasies of a new place. for example, the woman at the hardware store really likes exact change… the first night, she was really short with me when i only had a 5 euro note and she had to give me change back, but the second night, i gave her exactly 3.20 for the cord, and she chatted with me about my job for about 5 minutes and wished me ‘bon courage’ as i left. i also learned that it’s way better to bring my backpack to the supermarket, instead of lugging shopping bags back home. and that’s even more true now that i have a bike!! richard, the philedelphian, is in the middle of a decade-long saga of renovation in a 15th century home just behind the café, and he had a bike up in the attic that he’s lent to me! i used the pressure washer behind the supermarket to wash it off, and it works like a charm. so, instead of walking with giant bags like i did the first night, i can now bike with my backpack to the supermarket! much easier.

i think i’ll cut myself off here and do a separate post about my school – don’t want these suckers to get too long, or even i won’t want to reread them! :) x

Thursday, October 3, 2013

sweet reunion

coming back to ireland from scotland truly felt like coming home. i had my vacation, and then i had a lovely place to come back to, with great friends and plenty of time to relax. i spent those two days pretty much just recuperating from constant motion – doing a little computer work, catching up with my friends, packing my bags for the “big” flight to france.

coincidentally, i was in dublin for the 4th annual “arthur’s day,” which is a commercial holiday celebrating arthur guinness’ birthday. all the bars in town had music and specials, and the whole city was packed out with people wearing guinness paraphernalia and toting pints. i went in search of a bar that wasn’t full of tourists singing along to “wagon wheel” or “don’t stop believin’” in order to have my obligatory pint of guinness, but i was ultimately unsuccessful. i landed in in a pub called “the old storehouse,” which i had visited the night before, when they had two awesome trad musicians and it was great fun. but on arthur’s day, it was full of tourists, and i sat with my guinness, crammed between two very intoxicated middle aged couples and listened to the whole bar sing along to “zombie” by the cranberries and a really weird arrangement of “get lucky” by daft punk. cheers, arthur. the rest of the evening was nice, though, because i went to a pub near to our house with the rest of my friend shane’s housemates – it was much quieter, and we had a great time chatting and trying to flip coasters onto empty pint glasses. (shout out to shane for being such a doll and letting me invade his house right as he was in the middle of finishing his thesis! hero. and also the the rest of the house!!)

the month of september was funny, because i was in this sort of vacation-y limbo. when i left on the 3rd (a month ago!!!), i said “i’m moving to france!” – except i didn’t go to france. i floated around for three weeks, posting pictures from various castles and cobblestone streets, until my friends on facebook started saying, “will you please just go to work already!?” my whole “job” kind of seemed like this excuse i had given to my friends and family, in order to escape to europe. (hint – it was.) however, friday, the 27th, was the day i’d been waiting for – i was actually going to france! my flight from dublin to bordeaux was pretty uneventful. i did have the chance to surprise my step-grandmother at the dublin airport, which was just the universe smiling on me. my mom had told me that she was arriving in ireland with a group for a ten day tour at the exact time that i was leaving! so, i checked my bag and went up to the arrivals door to see if i could catch her. sure enough, not three minutes later, she walked through the doors! it was great fun to see the surprise on her face when i called her name. we chatted for just a minute and then i gave her a hug and sent her on to meet her group. so, that was fun. :)

i felt my heart skip a little beat when i finally touched down on french soil – i can’t believe it’s been almost two and a half years since i was last here. i was even more excited, however, to finally see my friend emma again! we had lived on the same hall back in angers, and she quickly became one of my most cherished friends. we kept in touch over the last two years over skype and facebook and sweet handwritten letters, hoping that we’d be able to figure out a way to see each other soon. in fact, when i applied for this program, i chose the aquitaine region because emma was here working at the university in bordeaux. when i found out i got the job, i was ecstatic – partially because i was going to france, and partially because i would be so near to emma for a whole year!

my return to france was marked by a weekend in bordeaux with emma and her boyfriend pierce. she was sweet enough to come meet me at the airport, and i was so excited to see her!! we immediately fell back into our normal, comfortable rapport and it just felt so right. her apartment is in the nicest part of bordeaux (just around the corner from cartier!) and it is so charming. we had a great weekend, catching up and cooking and going out. we even made the old angers classic, pasta bolognese, and then i made pancakes and eggs for breakfast on sunday. i got to meet several of the other language assistants that emma works with at the university, and they were all so nice! it was a great way to transition back into french life. on monday morning, pierce helped carry my bags to the train station and saw me off, because he’s an absolute legend!

so, nearly one month after my departure, i was finally on my way to my own little village in the french countryside. :) more on that to come!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

couchsurfing and ceilidhs - scotland, week two.

one of the best parts of my entire trip was the train ride from stirling to fort william – it took about four hours and genuinely left me speechless several times. the route went right alongside loch lomond through the mountains, before splitting off to the west, straight into the highlands. it was absolutely breathtaking.
i spent two nights in fort william, which i was initially apprehensive about (tiny town, traveling alone) but it ended up being so great! when i arrived at the hostel, i met several fellow wanderers in the common room. i chatted with two belgian girls before offering an open dinner invitation to the room, and two australian guys took me up on the offer! so, i made two friends pretty quickly… which is weird, for me, but i’m kind of a different person when i travel. more on that another time. their names were ryan and kris, and they were on a two-month european tour before they headed to western canada to work at a ski resort for the season. ah, the vagrant life. we had dinner and pints, and then stayed up and chatted for a while. once we got back to the hostel, the universe smiled on me – my roommate for the evening was an older french woman who spoke pretty much no english. we talked for a long time, and since it was kind of a trial-by-fire surprise to me, i didn’t have time to get nervous about my french. it was a great practice session, and reminder that i do actually speak french with some level of ability. anyways.

the full day in fort william (friday) was actually not in fort william, per se… i had gone to fort william with the intention to ride the jacobite train (made famous by its use at the hogwarts express in the harry potter films!), but the night before, ryan and kris offered to let me tag along with them to the isle of skye for the day… i really wanted to go to skye, and the thought of having some friends to hang with the day was very appealing. basically, the decision came down to riding a really awesome train through some awesome scenery alone for 33 pounds, or riding a bus through the exact same scenery and then getting to go on the ferry to the island with friends for 20 pounds. so i went with the second option, and vowed to come back for the jacobite train with mary lyn or colleen or someone. (that way, i’ll have someone to quote the books with and not look like a crazy person.)

the trip to skye was gorgeous – i can’t explain the landscape. it’s so rugged and natural, and i had the distinct feeling multiple times that a group of tartan-wearing highlanders was going to come running over the hills at any moment. there’s something about scotland that really makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time. not just because everything is very old – it just has this spirit of longevity, like the land is inextricably tied with the history that has taken place on it. those mountains have seen things, man.

the next four days went by in a sudafed-enhanced blur – the cold, wet weather and constant traveling finally caught up with me, and i woke up preeeetty sick on friday morning. so, the continuation of my trip to inverness and aberdeen was a little fuzzy. however, i did tough it out enough to make my afternoon at loch ness totally awesome. i left my backpack at the tourism office of this tiny village and walked 2 miles up to urquhart castle – totally worth the visit. talk about history feeling alive! i was unsuccessful in my hunt for nessie… but i know she’s there somewhere. after the walk back to town, i had a nice little scone before hopping on the bus to inverness. as luck would have it, i recognized one of the castle employees at the bus stop, and we got to talking… turns out, he’s from virginia, but has spent the last 4 years at university in aberdeen! he told me about both inverness and aberdeen, and even pointed out a few key spots to check out once we got off the bus. thanks, craig! unfortunately, i was pretty much incapacitated the minute i arrived at the hostel… i laid down around 7:30pm – “just for a  minute” – and ended up sleeping until 8:30 the next morning. considering i usually can’t sleep for more than 9 hours, i was pretty sick.. but the rest did wonders, and i was able to enjoy a lovely day of exploration around the city. i had tea and a scone at an incredible bookshop called ‘leakey’s’ and then walked around for a while before stopping in a ceilidh bar to listen to some traditional music for the arfternoon. all in all, inverness was kind of a wash (thank you, medicated haze), but i definitely enjoyed the parts i did see, and it was well worth the stop, just to see loch ness on the way.

aberdeen was equally medicated, but i was lucky enough to land a couch with some really sweet couchsurfers who showed me around the city and introduced me to several other travelers and students! i got to see the beach, which was beautiful, and also a lot of the architecture around town. aberdeen is called the silver city and/or the granite city, because there were so many fires in aberdeen's history that the town council decided a while back that everything would be made of local granite... and they weren't joking. all the buildings are this sparkly grey... which is absolutely lovely in the sunshine, because everything glitters. but i hear it's pretty morose in the rain - grey ocean, grey city, grey sky. meh. i had a great first day with merle, a german girl doing her erasmus year in aberdeen, and then the next night, i met with another couchsurfer for drinks! it was a really fun few days, and i was definitely blessed to have such great accomodation and company - and weather! it was gorgeous and so not scottish both days i was there. i'm afraid i didn't really do aberdeen justice, but that just means i'll have to go back and enjoy it properly. :)

potentially the best day of my entire sojourn in scotland was the last day.. i got to see several sides of scottish culture, all within 12 hours. if you look on a map of scotland, my trip thus far was about 80% of a big circle-ish shape – all i had left was the finish the circle by getting back to edinburgh, for my flight back to dublin on wednesday. so, tuesday morning, i left aberdeen and headed south. there is a small town called stonehaven, just an hour or so south of the city, which ended up being one of my favourite places in scotland. i got off the bus about 2 miles south of stonehaven, in order to visit the coolest castle ruin ever, dunnottar castle. even the pixar animators thought so! i had brought a picnic along, so i spent part of the afternoon eating my lunch on a very, very old stone staircase and wandering around the rest of the property. from the castle, i walked along the coastal trail back to stonehaven – a beautiful pathway, right on the cliffs and through cow pastures. there’s even a wwi monument along the way. when i finally got back to stonehaven, i had the best scone and tea in scotland (and coincidentally, of my life) and then made my way to the train station!

once i finally got back to edinburgh, i went to drop my stuff off at my couchsurfing friend marlies’ apartment, where i would be staying for the night. i had a pretty quick turn around before i was scheduled to meet up with ryan and kris (remember those australians from earlier? they were in edinburgh for their flight to germany on wednesday!) to head to a real ceilidh! yay! a ceilidh (pronounced cay-lee) is a traditional community dance, where giant scottish men in kilts fling girls around the dance floor. well, not all the time, but that was the dream! in typical small world fashion, cameron and carly had befriended a local named jonathan, one of the employees of their bed & breakfast from the week before, and he had mentioned the ceilidh club that meets on tuesdays. since going to a ceilidh was #1 on my scotland list, i couldn’t refuse… and i even dragged my new friends along! we arrived at the dance hall and met with jonathan and his friends. the universe was smiling upon us, because with my two friends tagging, we were a perfect group of four couples! the rest of the night passed in a loud, sweaty, accordion-accompanied spinning blur. i don’t think i stopped laughing for two hours straight! ceilidh dancing is like a combination of jane-austen-esque country dancing and line dancing, but on crack. i had so, so much fun, and i am so grateful to jonathan for organizing that experience! thanks, jonathan! :)

the evening went by so quickly, and by 11pm, i was about ready to fall over. the group parted ways at the dance hall, and then i said goodbye to ryan and kris after our walk back to the grassmarket. 6am came much too soon, but i did eventually make it onto the airlink bus and out to the airport!

all in all, i had an absolutely unbelievable time in scotland. i made so many friends and even more memories – castles, walks through the countryside, new cities, all manners of transportation (train, bus, rental car, taxi, boat… if only i could have ridden a sheep!), lots of scones…. so much more. now that i’ve gotten a fairly extensive entry-level introduction to the country, i can’t wait to go back and spend more time in my favourite places!

i took over 700 pictures in scotland, but you can see my favourites in this facebook album, starting with picture number 43! (this post starts at 104!)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

castles and cattle - scotland, week one.

oh, where to begin. time passes so strangely here; i feel like i’ve been gone for ages, but at the same time like the hours are just flying by… already, i’ve been in europe for a month. which means that i’m basically 1/9th through my wanderyear! ach! i’m doing my best to enjoy each moment and not think ahead too much, but that can be a challenge for me. but, i digress.

my silence in the blogosphere over the last while was due to the fact that i spent two magical weeks in scotland, traipsing around the country and just generally having a great time. after that, i had a whirlwind few days in dublin, a quick flight to bordeaux and a weekend with friends there, and theeeen i got to my village. but i’m here now! and i can blog again! so, without further ado… phase one of blog catch-up: scotland!

week one:

i spent the first week of my fortnight in scotland (relevant use of fortnight, win!) with two very dear friends from back home. cameron and carly have been in my life for years – we became friends back in middle school / high school respectively, and have been blessed to share quite a few fun times together. (probably the coolest of which, until scotland, was that one time i was a bridesmaid in their wedding.) cameron is in seminary at sewanee these days, and was lucky enough to get accepted into a semester-long exchange program in cambridge, england! so, we got to plan a little friend-adventure for their first week in the uk.
i flew into edinburgh from dublin late on the 11th , and had the hilarious experience of having an international flight be shorter than the bus ride from the airport to my host’s flat across the city (50 minute flight < 1h15m bus ride). the next morning, i met cam and carly in the city center and we did some errands before heading to explore edinburgh castle! it was my first major “sight” in scotland, and it did not disappoint. hundreds upon hundreds of years of history, overlooking a beautiful city from its perch high up on a hill. the sheer cliff drops on three sides made it even more dramatic. after a long walk around the area, we stopped for dinner at a pub called ‘the last drop’ (so named due to its proximity to the gallows which used to be nearby…). i tried haggis for the first (read: only) time and had my first (read: not last) scottish whiskey of the trip. for dessert, we treated ourselves to hot drinks at the elephant house, where j.k. rowling wrote the beginning of the harry potter series! the magic was palpable – the view from the window of the castle up on the cliff really gave away the inspiration for hogwarts! the bathroom walls were absolutely covered in hp-graffiti – i spent several minutes reading different quotes and smiling at the thought of how many people had come to pay homage to the site.

friday was pretty laid-back – we pretty much just wandered around and went inside any place that took our fancy. the national library was really beautiful, and we found several gorgeous churches! the highlight of the day was the choral evensong we attended at st. mary’s – a beautiful service, in an even more breathtaking location. the evening was spent chatting with new friends and listening to some traditional music!

our biggest day in edinburgh was saturday – i can conservatively say we walked a half-marathon over the course of the day! my sweet couchsurfing host, marlies from amsterdam, came with us for most of the day. we started at the holyrood house, which is the queen’s official residence in scotland,  where we learned about the history of the crown in relation to scotland. from there, we walked up, up, up to the very top of arthur’s seat, the legendary location of camelot. the hike was steep, but the view from the top was worth it!! once we descended and had a little lunch, marlies went off to work and the rest of us walked alllll the way across town to the royal botanical gardens. once we finally got to a pub for after-dinner drinks, i really felt like we’d earned our whiskeys!

sunday morning was a treat – i taught marlies how to make pancakes and scrambled eggs! we had a great last breakfast together before cameron, carly and i headed to stirling. the train ride was short and sweet, but due to weekend construction, we had to take a bus for the last leg of our journey. we finally arrived in stirling, dropped our bags off, and headed right over to the castle for a  tour.

my favourite part of stirling was definitely the castle. scotland is full of beautiful, historical places, but stirling castle is probably in the top 5 most historically significant. so many battles took place around the castle hill, and so many political figures resided there or at least visited. we had the coolest, most passionate tour guide ever, too, so that made our tour even more awesome.

even though we had three nights in stirling, sunday was really our only day in the city. on monday, we picked up our rental car (mad props to cameron for driving on the other side of the road!!!) and took a day trip out to the eastern coast, stopping for the afternoon in st. andrews before heading back along the coastal route. st. andrew’s was absolutely stunning, and i got to go see several of the places my best friend told me about from her semester abroad there! so fun. the next day, we took another day trip in the other direction out to loch lomond (you take the high road, i’ll take the low road… etc). we drove around the entire national park, stopping when a view compelled us. we even hiked up a smallish mountain (big hill?), where we were caught by one of scotland’s famous weather changes and had to slip and slide our way back down, through the tall grass. i almost got in a fight with a sheep at the bottom of the hill. on the way home from loch lomond, we stopped in doune – famous for the use of doune castle in ‘monty python and the holy grail’… needless to say, we trotted around with our fake coconut sounds and shouted insults to each other in atrocious french accents for about thirty minutes. 

wednesday morning, we went our separate ways – cam and carly went south to oxford for a c.s. lewis conference and i continued on my own for another week of scottish adventure! but that’s a story for another post… :)

pictures from this post are available in my facebook album! just start after the dublin ones. take a look! :)