Friday, April 30, 2010

The London Eye and the Aquarium

The London Eye is something I had to do while I was here. Well, I couldn't go home and say I hadn't done it. Plus, I did, just a little bit, want to see what it was like up there. Today I finally forced myself to get it knocked out. Standing at a solid 442 ft., hanging out into the water (with a a base on the land), and with basically big glass bubbles that allow you to lean out a little and see straight down, it was not built with me in mind. I am glad that it doesn't shoot you straight up to that height, but I wouldn't have minded a little more speed, considering it gave me a lot of time to worry about being up so high. I should say that I had trouble even getting myself on it, I practically got vertigo just looking up at the thing. But, I bought my ticket for the Eye, and for the Aquarium located right nearby.

The majority of the time inside I sat on the bench in the middle and nervously looked around as it slowly moved upwards. Most of my thoughts on the way up were a variation of "Man was not meant to do this, or at least I'm not meant to do this." I cannot deny that the views were great, even on a cloudier day. It really reminds you that London is not a skyscraper city and there aren't many buildings (a few exceptions of course, especially around Canary Wharf) that go way way up. It also gives you a great view of Parliament, located right across the water and the trains stations around the area. I'm glad I did it, it was worth it, but I wouldn't do it again, purely because of my fear of heights.

Do I really want to go up that high?

The capsule:

On the way up:

Admittedly not the best picture in the world, but you can get a sense of what it was like going up, and how it hung out over the water:

Nice view of Parliament:

You get a good feel of just how high up were are with this one, as well as the previous one:

On the way down:


So that was the Eye. Then, I went on to the Aquarium. Now, people--or at least one person--mentioned that it wasn't that great. I see their point, but I enjoyed it. They had one of those tunnels that goes through a tank, so I had sharks and rays swimming right above me. They had other places to view from where I had sharks swim right past me, and later even a sea turtle. I spent about an hour there, but it was an hour filled with some cool sea creatures, a lot of little kids, and some awesome views of the animals (like looking down through glass and seeing sharks swimming below.

I mainly took videos here, the low light made it hard to take individual photos, but here's one:

And a slightly blurry one that gets the point across:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

We Will Rock You - Queen musical- try to see before you come home

We Will Rock You at Dominion Theatre

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

A day trip, because we could

How many times in my life am I going to be able to say that I woke up in one country, spent most of the day in another, and came back, all in one day? Also included on that is seeing the sunset while traveling over 100 MPH and stopping in a bar that sells over 2,000 types of beer, a Guinness World Record.

I went to Brussels! Well, a week ago I did.

A friend of mine planned it (well, bought the tickets, we really did basically no planning before we left). We met up at 6:45 and headed to catch our 8 AM Eurostar. We got there on time, and my ticket didn't work, but we got that sorted easily and got through security and all the fun stuff you do. I wasn't excited to be up that early, but I wasn't terribly tired either. Again, I was traveling to another country that day, not going to class (or work). Nothing like starting the morning off with a loud ride on the Tube (although with very few people since it was a Saturday). Although riding on the Eurostar was definitely worth it. Again, how many times am I going to be able to get to another country in 2 hours? Yes, at Clemson I have within a two hour drive Atlanta and Charlotte. And how do those two stack up to Brussels, or even Paris (don't really wanna go back there)? I'll let you decide that, but I think I'd rather travel to Brussels for a day. Again, how many more times in my life will I able able to say that I did a day trip to Brussels, and oh by the way it's nearly 200 miles away. Tough life I'm livin.

I had a waffle, had some beer at a place that sold over 2,000 types of beer (a Guinness world record), saw the famous fountain, bought two paintings or prints (we couldn't really tell what exactly they were, but apparently that they were on good paper according to one of my friends) bought some chocolate, and walked around a lot. All of the food we had was good. The beer was good, although I did try one from a monastery which was a little too strong for me to enjoy it.

I liked Brussels, but I came to this conclusion: you have to either spend just a day there or spend a solid amount of time--say a month--there and really get to know it. It didn't strike me as a weekend city, and I've heard people say that spending a weekend there was too long. But, I liked it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

An Obsession

I have an obsession to admit to, one that’s gotten even worse while I’ve been over here in Britain. If they had a taping that I could go to, I would skip my two classes one Wednesday and go. As it is, the fact that the BBC iPlayer (basically like Hulu but run by the BBC, meaning you can only get it here in the UK) has this show makes it bad enough. There are three episodes up that rotate periodically. Oh, right, I should probably tell you the name of the show, if you didn’t guess it already: Top Gear. It’s a car show, where they drive amazing cars and have crazy challenges with extremely inexpensive cars. It apparently gets over 300 million worldwide viewers each week when it’s on the air (sadly, the US gets the episodes wayyy later).

At certain points the guys can be a bit crude, but in most cases they are hysterical. Each has his own quirk: Jeremy Clarkson, the host, is older, taller and vaguely heavyset; Richard Hammond is short and is constantly accused of having his teeth whitened; and James May is the knowledgeable/geeky co host, and is referred to many times as “Captain Slow.” I think what holds it together is the fact that they do seem to truly get along with each other. Yes, they get in fights during most episodes and one of them is angry at the other for a period of time, but then eventually they get over it.

They’ve done crazy things: attempt to make a space shuttle out of a car, race a Eurofighter Typhoon (European fighter jet) against a Bugatti Veyron (at that point the fastest production car in the world), make limousines out of cheap cars and then drive celebrities to a show in them, and so on. They have celebrities on to do a lap around their track in a very basic car, including Simon Cowell, Boris Johnson (mayor of London), Michael Gambon, Stephen Fry, the list goes on. They also do about one show a season where they go to some country (like Vietnam) and have a challenge. In the most recent one they had to get from Bolivia, in the jungle, to the Chilean coast, in cars they bought online. There are some truly scary events, driving over the most dangerous highway in the world involves a tiny road with a massive drop on one side. Of course, there are many random moments that are funny, and the guys imply that they didn’t know exactly what they were going to be doing, but I have a feeling there is some acting involved. That’s fine with me. In the end, they make an interesting and very entertaining show, and you should watch it. Just hop onto youtube and you’ll find plenty of clips.

I figured I needed to get something up here on the blog, considering it’s been a while.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Headphones

I have a story to tell, mainly about me being not all that smart. It involves getting a new pair of headphones. One headphone in my pair broke, so I figured that I should go buy a new pair. I went to PC World and got a pair yesterday. When I opened it I found that they were designed a little differently than ones in the US. Instead of splitting evenly, one headphone having the same length of wire as the other, this was different. It had one headphone that had a short piece of wire, and another where it was longer, so that the thick wire is to one side of you when you listen. I didn't like that, so today I went and bought another pair, hoping that they would be different. I even asked a lady at the store, and she seemed to think they'd be fine. Not so. Same problem. I tried to return them, but of course for sanitary reasons you can't do that. I came back and am now using that pair now. But, of course, I just looked and was reminded that my phone came with a pair of headphones that have a microphone attached to it, so really I could've just used those. You can tell I though this through very well.

I made some drawings to describe them. Yes, I made drawings. The main reason is that this is better than doing school work (I'm sure my parents will love to hear that).

Regular earphones:
The headphones I got, aka the lopsided ones:

Monday, March 22, 2010

Day 4-Sunday, March 7th

This was the first full day in Florence. It’s a good city, very old but definitely not decrepit. I started the day by going to church at the Duomo, the Basilica here; technically it is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fior. It’s absolutely massive, although much more interesting on the outside than on the inside. The Mass was in Italian, and it was a Gregorian Mass, so I had no idea what they were saying, although they did have translations of the readings in English, and in French, and in German, and I believe in Spanish. After that I met up with a friend I know from church at Clemson, Christine Davidson. We got lunch, and then she showed me around the area. We walked around for a while, and then we ended up walking up to the Piazza Michelangelo, or something like that. It was a bit of a hike, but what a view! Seriously, this was one of the best views I’ve ever had in my life. Maybe not quite equal to the Cinque Terre, but it was another amazing spot. You can see the mountains around the city, and get a feel for the more agricultural land right next to it. It’s really a breathtaking way to view Florence, and I would say the best view of a city I’ve ever had. If you go to Florence and it's a sunny day, go up here, it's worth the walk. I will pay you (in dollars, pounds, euros, whatever) if that view is not worth the time. I think it helps that the city looks different, compared to a place like New York City or Washington, DC. So I owe Christine a big thank you for that. I should also mention that there’s another church up there that is interesting inside. More beautiful art of course, like all the churches around here. After that we walked over/through the Ponte Vecchio, which is a bridge with a bunch of fancy stores on it. They’re all jewelry stores, and expensive ones at that.

The Basilica, not a great picture, but you get the idea of the size of the thing. This close building is actually the Baptistery, which I never got myself into (sorry mom):

The view:

I had to get in a picture with the view, although not my best picture:

And then I told Christine I'd tag her on Facebook, so she got in on the picture taking:

It turned out that my new roommates were a 15 year old kid and his grandmother; he was from North Carolina and now lived in Denmark with his family and the grandmother. There were also some older ladies from Canada and two girls from USC (the real USC, not South Carolina like some people in Clemson mean when they say USC). I guess I never looked to see if it was a coed hostel or not. It wasn’t a youth hostel, which I was actually kinda glad about, I feel like a youth hostel might be a little less safe, and a little harder to sleep in at night. The two of them were nice, and went to bed relatively early, which was what I was hoping for.

The room:

Oh and I should mention that I owe Christine another thank you. She and her roommates were making dinner around 7 or so, and so she invited me to come over and have some. I enjoyed her cooking, and it was great to talk to people from Clemson. I guarantee you my time in Florence would not have been as good if she hadn’t been so nice and helpful. Check out her blog (there are only one or two posts up): http://fettucinichristini.blogspot.com/

Overall, another good day.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Stonehenge and Bath

Hey everyone,

Sorry I haven't continued the spring break story. I'll get one up today, I promise.
But, I will quickly fill you in on my trip to Stonehenge and Bath yesterday. Stonehenge was, well, not all all that exciting. It was interesting to think about how they got all those massive rocks there from miles and miles away, but that's about as far as the interest took me. It really is a bunch of huge, organized rocks that you walk around.

Bath, on the other hand, was actually a neat little town. Well, reasonably sized town, but not a city. The outside of all the buildings were made out of material (can't remember what it was) that was quarried right around there. Even today all the houses have to be covered in this stone. We toured the Roman baths, which are cool because it's a geothermal spot, the only one in the UK, covered by a very old Roman building. But again, even here I wasn't terribly interested. It was cool that the water was naturally warm, and that 250,000 gallons comes up every day from the ground. So, I walked through that, and then a bunch of us ended up going to lunch. We found a cafe after some walking, got two tables, and got our food. I learned yet again, from all the chatting, that I know nothing about movies. I might just get Netflix next school year and catch up on all these movies that I haven't seen. I'd rather not download them off some random website. Anyways, I got a hamburger, and then eventually (after tasting someone else's) decided to get a milkshake. The milkshake was alright, and the hamburger was disappointing. I've had a few good hamburgers while over here, well really two, and when I get home I think I'll be having an American hamburger.

By the time we finished our lunch, we had a few minutes left till we had to get the bus. We walked around a little, took a few pictures, I became worried that I had lost my camera and then I found it, and chatted with a few people. The bus took us to a spot where there were some huge townhouses, and we saw a wedding (it wasn't a good day for a wedding in terms of the weather, rain). We then saw this place called The Circus, it's basically a big circle of townhouses, expensive ones, including one where Nicolas Cage might still own. Might still because he's bankrupt. That was really the end of our trip, and so we headed out on the two and a half hour drive back to campus, stopping off at our other campus (which has a beautiful building and is in another wealthy area) on the way back. I was relatively tired from the day, but really we didn't do a ton of walking. For the price I paid it was worth it, but really Stonehenge, for how much people talk about it, wasn't anywhere near life-changing, but Bath was a great place.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Day 3-Saturday, March 6th

This started out with a breakfast in the hotel. Of course, breakfast was on the top floor with a beautiful view of some of the surrounding area. It was fantastic to have that in the morning, a nice start to the day and so much better than the drab view from the basement cafeteria in London.

The view:

The Cinque Terre area has the most amazing views I have ever seen in my life. I think it beats any city skyline I’ve ever seen, or any purely man-made object in my life. The Cinque Terre is 5 small Italian towns perched (I think I’m borrowing the word from some website I read it on, but it’s really the only word that works) on these steep hills along the water. The whole area is a National Park, although people still live there, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a number of walking paths, biking paths, and horse trails. I took the paths along the water. In some spots you are walking on a path that is built into the side of basically a sheer cliff, with a straight fall down (I was thankful for the railing on the side here). But you have an unbelievable view. It was sunny with very few clouds, and the water was an amazing turquoise color, turning deeper blue as you looked farther out. It’s amazing to see these houses, I can only imagine what waking up in the morning would be like there (I’ll stay in a hotel there someday). It wasn’t too cold out, and I think this was a good time to be there. It isn’t as busy this time of year and so there’s a little more room to stop, or walk fast as I tend to do. I saw Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia, starting on the most southern one (Riomaggiore) and working my way north. The first walk was very easy, and the second one slightly harder. But it was completely worth it for the views. To get up to Corniglia requires, at the end of the walk, climbing a very very big set of stairs, which did provide some good views.

One of the towns:

The path:

I had a small world moment while getting lunch. In the third town (Corniglia) I stopped and got lunch, after seeing a little church up there and saying a quick prayer. I walked into a small place that looked like it had basic food, and there was a group of Americans. After ordering my food I asked where they were from. One girl said she was from South Carolina, so of course I told her I went to Clemson. She got all excited and told me how she knew all these people who went there.So she ran a few names by me, and I knew three of them: Gray Segars (a ridiculously tall guy), Jenna Guthrie, and Melissa Hulbert (two good friends of mine).

I went back to La Spezia after this, and figured out what time the next train was to Florence.After finding out it was something around 1:30 or so, I had some time left to kill, and decided to walk around. La Spezia, while not all that exciting, seemed like an interesting place. I saw a Saturday market around the middle of town. I tried to get to the water, but one place was a military port (somewhere I figured I probably didn’t belong) and it seemed like every other spot was blocked by some shipping place. So that didn’t work out, but I had fun just walking around. I finally got on the train, saw some more water, but then left the coast behind. I saw some snow-capped mountains, which I think might just be the first time I’ve ever seen snow-capped mountains in my life (maybe I’ve seen some in New York at some point, but I can’t remember).This train ride wasn’t all that exciting otherwise, but I arrived in Florence alive and with all my belongings, which is always a good thing.

This was my first night in a hostel. I was staying with a guy and his wife, both young Australians currently living in England. The husband is teaching in England, and they are traveling around Europe when they can. I settled in, got on the internet (we all had to share a computer unless we had an Ethernet cord for our laptop) and then decided to take a walk around. My walk ended up at the Duomo, or Basilica, basically church with the ridiculously huge dome (which I could see from a window in the hostel). Right next to that is a famous Baptistery that my mom wanted me to check out. Unfortunately I never got around to going in on my trip...

The Basilica:

A pretty good day overall.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Day 2—Friday, March 5th

I think my trip gets slowly more interesting, for you the reader, from this point onward.

This day was three trains over a total of 10 hours, the majority of the time spent in one train or another, not much time in between. It started at 6:20 AM when my alarm went off. Good thing I had gone to bed early the previous night. Showering wasn’t enjoyable, the showerhead had nothing to be hung on like a normal shower does, so you had to pick it up and set it down a lot. Eventually I checked out of the hotel, grabbed a little food, and headed to the train station, which was just up the road. I made my 7:30 train on time, and got a window seat on the side that I figured would be the one with the best views, theoretically with the water on that side. Of course, at first there was very little water to be seen, and actually for the first half of that trip I rarely saw water. All the people in my coach also got moved forward and so I ended up with a cruddy view. But, it was cool seeing the land pass by, and the big mountains that shot up around us. Eventually we began to see more water. The train passed through Cannes, which I thought was interesting, I can now say I’ve been where they have the huge film festival, even if it was only for maybe ten minutes and spent sitting in a train. From what I could see I don’t blame all those movie stars for going to the film festival there, although really I could mainly see the less well off areas. On trains this tends to happen, you see the places that aren’t as wealthy as maybe some parts of each city are.

The second train was running behind, but I eventually made it on. It was much more crowded, and for a while I had a terrible view of the water. But, I eventually moved, and anyway that was a short trip, about 50 minutes. I got into the Ventimille station around 11:30, and I was moving again 20 minutes later (I had been on the ground for probably 50 minutes at the last station. By this time I believe I was in Italy. I hopped on a Trenitalia (Italian train company) train and was on my way. For about two stops I sat across from a British couple who were some town for the day with their family. They were staying in Monte Carlo for someone’s 21st birthday (what a way to spend that birthday), and told me that they took a helicopter from the Nice airport to Monte Carlo. That sounded fantastic, so I’ll add it to my list of things to do (mental list, and this one is probably not happening while I’m studying abroad). Their whole group seemed very lively and excited. I was just happy to hear English. The husband worked for Toyota in some capacity around Birmingham, so I joked that they were having some troubles recently. Glad he found it funny and wasn’t frustrated that I mentioned it. Maybe he secretly dislikes me…

This third train was very much on the water, although it also goes through a lot of tunnels. All three of them were like this at some point: you come out of a tunnel and there behind you is a small city/town on a hillside by the water. Many of the roads had these huge bridges to get between the mountains. I was watching Top Gear recently and they showed them driving in the same area I was, which is pretty cool. This was all helped by having a relatively sunny day, a few clouds here and there but nothing too bad. So I had knocked out one of my big reasons for taking these trains: see the Italian coast. It was fantastic. Although by the end of it I was a little tired of the direct sunlight, and regretting not bringing my sunglasses.

A random town along the way:

More from the train:

Italy already seemed very different. The buildings looked different, and I started to see more buildings that I really stuck out as churches. While I saw churches in France, they didn’t always seem as visible, minus the ones in the small towns with a big church in the middle.

I eventually arrived in La Spezia, near the Cinque Terre, and got to my hotel down the road from the train station. It was a nice little place, and I enjoy having a hotel room to myself. I got settled and then took a walk to find some food. There was a main strip that had a number of clothing shops in what I assumed was the center of town. After a little bit of walking I found a place to eat, and had a beer and some pasta, both of which I enjoyed. I called it a night relatively early, partly because I wanted to get myself up and going in the morning, and partly because I had woken up early that morning.

By the hotel in La Spezia (I feel like it's pronounced like La Spetzia, but not really sure):

I had a rather big key:

What I slept on, not too bad:

Where I had dinner (this was taken the next morning):


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring Break Day 1-Thursday March 4

My trip began with the 9:30 AM Eurostar. I got up about 7:30, went down to breakfast at 8 or so, and then headed out to hop on the Underground at 8:15. I got to St. Pancras/Kings Cross at around 8:45, got through the ticket/security line, and waited till my train was called. I then decided that I would go buy my Paris Metro ticket beforehand, and of course it took forever and it also turned out that I could only buy groups of tickets, I just didn’t listen well enough. That aside, boarding (which had started while I was in line) went smoothly and I was able to hop online with my iPod and send two quick emails while sitting in the train. I enjoyed the trip, and actually noticed this time when I was in the Chunnel (I hadn’t realized we were in the Chunnel on my first trip). I sat next to a French girl engrossed in her book and not willing to move very much to let me out (I don’t mind climbing over people when they’re asleep, but if you’re awake the courteous thing to do is to move your legs out of the way at least a little bit). The Eurostar was a truly fast machine, it was almost dizzying to look out the window, though I was also going backwards which probably changes things. The Eurostar can be a little bit of an assault on your ears; for some reason there is a good amount of sudden elevation change during certain parts of the trip. But I still like it.

Bright and early in the station:

The train pulled into Paris right on time, 12:45, and I made my way over from the Paris Nord Station to Gare de Lyon. I got a little confused, Nord is a huge station, but eventually figured it all out. Now, I knew Gare de Lyon, I had stayed right next door in Paris. Even then I got a little lost, because I hadn’t been in the part of the station that the metro put me out by. Luckily my train didn’t leave until 2:15. I got lunch, in the form of a baguette from this little shop down the road from the station that I remembered from my previous visit. I will admit that saying I had breakfast in London, lunch in Paris, and dinner in Marseilles just sounds really cool.

My TGV experience was very different from my Eurostar one. The Eurostar was packed full of people. In the TGV train I had a second floor window seat, looking forward, and much less crowded train. On that trip we seemed to pass a lot more trains, which was always a surprise, you can feel the force of them going past for that two seconds. Both trains go 100+ MPH I believe. The seats were more comfortable on the TGV, but really the Eurostar ones weren’t bad. Also, the sights outside of the train were different. On the Eurostar, there were a few hills on the English side, and in France it was mostly flat fields with the occasional wind farm. On the TGV to Marseilles, it was much hillier, the train weaving in and out of hills and valleys. A few tiny towns pass by (as they did on the way to Paris) and if the windows weren’t as dirty as they are I would have better pictures. It’s been odd hearing the announcements in just French, and then realizing that they won’t be translated into English because I’m in France. I started to miss English very quickly…

My seat in the TGV:

Most of the trip I just listened to my iPod when I wanted something to keep me occupied. I thought about bringing a book, but I already had so much in my big backpack that I didn’t want to add one more thing to it. By the end of the trip I realized that I probably should’ve brought one.

For dinner, I walked around a little, eventually finding a shop that had baguettes. I ended up getting a sandwich with tuna, and some lettuce and tomato (those two came off when I had it). It was AMAZING. So good, that I went and got another. It was 3 Euro for one sandwich, but it was fantastic. I’m sure I’ve had better PB&Js, but this is up there in my top sandwiches ever list.

While I was trying to find some dinner, I saw a protest. Not sure what they were protesting, but it wasn’t a big group, and they didn’t look that intimidating, mostly because they had younger people, adults, and I even saw a little girl with her dad there. They were carrying some like torch-stick type things, and occasionally shooting off tiny fireworks. I wasn’t all that surprised, considering I was in France.

Protesters, not a good picture but it gives you the flavor:

I also found out that this city has electrical trams, which were pretty neat to see go up and down the street. I saw the same thing in Florence, although I never rode one. It’s something that I haven’t seen in America, other than a vague memory of them in Baltimore by the baseball stadium, and it’s been years since I’ve been there.

Overall this first day was good. Marseilles wasn’t all that interesting to me, but I enjoyed the two train rides. I had a lot of time to think and just look at some interesting landscapes. But if I somehow make it back to Italy (other than the Rome trip I'm signed up for) I'll fly.

Pictures from the first few days

Friday, March 12, 2010

Spring Break Trip

Hopefully I will be getting posts up, at most one a day, about how I spent my spring break. But let me first say this:

My trip has been unforgettable. I've seen natural beauty and man made beauty. I've seen old history and ridden on some of the most modern trains. I've had sunny days and I've seen it snow. I met some great people and wondered what some people were thinking. I've felt confident and I've questioned what in the world I want to do with my life. I had smooth transportation and I had a flight cancelled. I had highs and lows, ups and downs, but it was all worth it. I can't say that I'm the same person after this trip.

I also realize that I owe so many people for this trip, especially those who helped to fund it. So to those people, thanks.

Now that all probably sounds melodramatic, and if I don't cover everything I mentioned I'm sorry. But it was a fantastic adventure, on the whole. I feel like I could write a book on it, but I'll do my best to not overwhelm you.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Quick Update

Here’s a quick update on what’s been going on here. Over the weekend I went to the British Museum (the Rosetta Stone, mummies from Egypt), which was really interesting. Of course my camera died after maybe 5 pictures.

This week is midterms, so I've been studying for those. But, last night I got to tour Parliament, as part of my British Politics class. We saw a vote in the House of Commons on a Defence Bill (yes they spell Defense differently over here), in which I believe the Conservatives defeated the Labour Party. We then got to see the House of Lords, which was an interesting room but had a dull discussion going on (the word uhhh was used prolifically by the Lord who was talking). It was cool to go in the little passages between the buildings. We started out at 1 Parliament Street, the least fancy of their buildings. From there we went over to the newest building, which I don't know the name of. However, they spent something like 250 million GBP on this building, so 1 million a room. We just saw the center part of it, and it looked really nice. Then we moved over into THE building. Apparently we weren't supposed to take pictures, but I will admit I snapped one or two, I just won't be putting them online anytime soon.

Today is mainly studying for exams, and getting myself ready for my trip. The plan is Marseilles for a night, then on to a hotel near the Cinque Terre (5 little towns in Italy) hopefully seeing one or two of those towns while there. Then on to Florence, then to Venice. And flying back a week from Friday. And hopefully I'll get to go to church in the Duomo, the big cathedral in Florence. Should be an adventure.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Travel writing, a market, a banquet, and Parliament talk

It’s been a while since I’ve updated, I owe you guys something. But first, here’s a little summary of each day:

Friday: Travel Writing Workshop, and Gloucester Arms

Saturday: Portobello Market and Medieval Banquet

Sunday: 7:30 PM Mass, and really nothing very exciting

Monday: Class meeting with Member of Parliament—election talk

We’ll start with Friday. In the afternoon I had signed up for this Travel Writing Workshop, as part of the Travelers’ Tales Festival. It was a whole weekend event, with talks about photography and travel writing for the two days. I just signed up for a workshop. It was located at the building, right down the road from me, of the Royal Geographical Society. So, I took the bus down two or three stops, got off, and headed to the building. It was in a pretty plain, run of the mill room, but the rest of the place looked pretty interesting. In between talks I walked around, and saw some of the maps and paintings they had hung up. Anyways, the workshop started off with a talk by Jonathon Lorie (who ran the event) and Matthew Teller and Sarah Monaghan. Probably three people you have never heard of, but the last two are travel writers, I’ll let you look them up. Now, I should say that most of the people there were pretty serious about travel writing, a solid chunk of them looking to make that their living. So I was sort of the odd man out in that sense. But moving on. The second part was what they called a “masterclass,” really a talk, by Chris Steward, who wrote a book called “Driving Over Lemons.” Now, apparently this guy was the drummer for Genesis when they started playing, but they, or he, moved on relatively early. He was very funny, and interesting, and listed a bunch of books to read, most of which sounded interesting. And then the last part was titled “Meet the Editors,” where they had Sarah Miller, who is the editor of Conde Nast Traveler, and Ed Grenby, the editor of the Sunday Times Travel magazine. It was interesting, I learned that magazine editors have to plan wayyy ahead to make sure they get articles published at the right time. Overall, it was a good experience, and I learned a thing or two from it.

That night, we’re still on Friday here, I went out with some friends to the local pub, Gloucester Arms (pronounced like it’s spelled Gloster). I had a beer and played some cards with those friends, and then we went back and chatted for a little while in a girl’s room. I have to say, so far I’ve found that wine isn’t all that great, and beer is alright, but nothing for me to get too excited about, which is probably a good thing.

Saturday, I slept in, a surprisingly rare occurrence for me here. That afternoon, I went to the Portobello Market. It was reallllyyy crowded. Which is fun in a way. My problem was that the group I was with took their time going through the area, and there was a lot of waiting for 15 minutes for people to get food. We ended up spending something like 2 ½ hours there, a little long for me. I plan to go back, they had some interesting stuff there, but will probably go by myself to get in and out faster. I’m glad I went, I just would’ve gone through faster.

Saturday night I went to the Medieval Banquet. It was a little on the pricey side, but worth going. And of course there were a lot of obnoxious people there, but you have to bet on that when you go to something like this. I feel like I’ve spent the last two paragraphs complaining about different things, so let’s get to the positive stuff. I went with two of my friends, Cameron and Leah. We sat next to some interesting people: a group from Holland on a vacation, a couple from Southampton celebrating their wedding anniversary, and an older couple (the wife seemed like she had had a glass of wine or two before getting there, and they didn’t seem to have such a great night). There were something like 350 people there, but it was in a solid sized basement room.

Sunday was more relaxing. I slept in again, couldn’t really fall asleep the night before. Didn’t do nearly as much, mainly because I had an earache to figure out. I went to 7:30 Mass at the local church with a friend, and then came back and hung out here. The homily was good at Mass, I do remember that.

Yesterday was another day of classes. But, for one of my classes we meet in 1 Parliament Street (the least fancy of the Parliament buildings) with a Member of Parliament (MP). We have people presenting on different topics each week, which he then analyzes, and corrects if need be. Our MP is Mr. John Hayes, the Shadow Minister for Education and Skills, or something like that. He’s a very nice guy, and like any politician can talk for ages. This week we didn’t start till 6:15, and by start I mean we got into the room then. He then talked about what is currently happening in Parliament, as they are about to come back into session in the next week or two (they’ve been in recess recently). I’m actually glad I took this class, especially at this time. There has to be a general election called here in the UK by June, and the Prime Minister gets to decide when the election will be. He has to give a certain amount of notice, and of course technically he has to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament, but in reality this is a huge tool for him. The current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is a few points behind the Conservative (sometimes referred to as the Tory) Party leader David Cameron. Our MP is a member of the Conservative Party, hence being a Shadow Minister (technically this Shadow Government is Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition) currently. So this is an interesting time for him, and for the Conservative party. The lead the Conservative’s had has narrowed, which will probably cause Brown to wait longer to call for an election. Of course, there is talk that even if the Conservative’s win, aka get the most people elected into the House of Commons, they won’t have a large enough majority in the Commons to create a government (a poll recently showed them getting something like %40 of the votes). Their electoral system is different from ours, and so is the way the government is run. But for now, suffice to say, there could be what is called a “hung Parliament” if the Conservatives have a numerical majority, but cannot get enough other parties to side with them in creating a government. This brings the Queen into play, and all sorts of interesting things could happen. I’ll leave you with that, though, hopefully it isn’t all too much to swallow. We had two presentations that day, and we are technically supposed to get out at 7, but we got out at 11:30, not bad considering we didn’t start the presentations until at least 6:30, maybe more like 6:45. Politicians can talk and talllkkk and taalllkkk. I had fun passing notes back and forth with a friend, though. I’ve found that I’ve done more note passing in college than I did in the rest of my life combined. And yes mom and dad, I’m paying attention, for the most part. But on a serious not, I’m hoping that something crazy happens with the government while I’m here, so I’m also hoping an election is called sooner rather than later…

That’s it for now, if I can say that’s it and not sound hypocritical (I feel like that’s not the right word to use there). I need to work on this putting out shorter blog posts idea…

Friday, February 12, 2010

Colchester

I know, I know, another blog post, and a pretty long one at that. But, I hope it’s a good story. In the end, that’s what I would like these posts to be, stories; not just a boring statement of what I did and when, but a coherent narrative (yes, fancy words) of what I found interesting about my trips. That will come with time…

I had been looking to go somewhere, on a short day trip, for the past week or so. I figured since I wasn’t doing anything on Friday, I might as well go somewhere. So I looked on a map, and chose a random place. Well, relatively random. On my first try I ended up with Brighton. The train tickets didn’t look too bad, it was by the water, and there was outlet shopping. Some neighbors here said that they wanted to join me, and so we were figuring out tickets. But then, one of them pointed out that it was going to be cold, and that if we went in the spring it would be better. I realized that they were right, so I had to find new plans. After a little looking at the National Rail map and googleing, I landed on Colchester. Now, who in the world has heard of Colchester? I hadn’t before I started looking. Turns out that it’s the earliest settlement in England, and according to Wikipedia “it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in AD 77,” and the Castle is older than that. I looked up the train and tours and all that fun stuff, and figured I’d just get the tickets the day of, in case I couldn’t get myself up or changed my mind at the last minute and went somewhere else.

This morning I got up at 7:30 (pretty early for me, although I was helped by the people going to Amsterdam talking outside), showered, had breakfast, and headed out around 8:30. I took the Tube from the Gloucester Road station to the Holborn station on the Piccadilly Line; then I went over to the Liverpool Street station from Holborn on the Central Line. From there, I went and got my ticket, one way for 22.70. Turns out I probably should’ve gotten a return ticket (meaning you get one trip there and back in a day) but I’ll remember that next time. Turns out when you buy your ticket, you can use it anytime that day, I thought they were just for a specific time. Anyways, I got my ticket, hopped on the train, and was off. It was nice, I got my own seat, the train wasn’t crowded at all. As you’ll read about it wasn’t that way coming back.

The train up was a pleasant experience. I saw where the Olympics are going to be held, there’s a lot of construction going on in the area, and saw what I would guess is the main stadium. I also saw some of what I assumed were the less well off parts of London, providing at least some perspective for me. Most of the trip was though fields and farms. I listened to some music and a podcast. When I got to Colchester, I transferred to another train for the short trip to Colchester Town (I didn’t want to walk, and turns out it was a solid distance).

Olympic area:

The town is a reasonable size, and I liked it. On the way walking up to the Castle (the main thing I wanted to see when I was there) I ran into some Mormons, who asked me a few questions and gave me a pamphlet. I kept walking up Queen Street, until I got to the park that the Castle is in. The Castle isn’t a big building, but it’s in a relatively big park. So, I stopped into the Castle, got my spot on the noon tour, and found that I had about 45 minutes to walk around. The park turned out to be nice, even during the winter, and as I was walking down along one of the paths, the sun came out. To be honest, I wouldn’t have been shocked if I met some amazing girl while walking around, it was just one of those odd, almost cliché, moments. Although it was chilly so even if I had met a girl I wouldn’t have been able to communicate very well, by the time I got back to the castle my lips were a little stuck. I took a bunch of pictures, including one of a squirrel that came about 6 inches from me, stopped, looked up, and went along on his business, obviously not caring about me.

The park:

The squirrel:

The castle:

Eventually I turned around and headed back. I grabbed a coffee at a local coffee shop, and the woman there was telling me she had just been on a trip to the US: Miami, Orlando, and Las Vegas. So we chatted while she got my coffee, then I went and drank it outside before heading to the tour.

The tour was good. A lot of bending over to go through small tunnels in the basement. On the tour was with a bunch of what I think were middle school kids. I had known they were gonna be there, but I wanted to do the noon tour; overall, they weren’t all that bad. The tour lady we had was interesting, and she took us down to the dungeons, and then up to the roof, talked about the different designs of the building and its various uses. At one point Colchester Castle was a Roman temple, and then it was transformed by the Normans into a fort. I’ll let you look up the information on Wikipedia. I will say that it was cool touching a wall (part of the base) that had been there since at least the 60s AD. Crazy.

Tunnels:

View from the roof of the town:

When I was done with the tour, I made the decision to just head back “home,” well really just to London. I did wander around a little bit, and saw a local market and a few shops. But eventually I made it back to the train station. I got a ticket, went to the next stop, got a little lost, and eventually made it onto the train that was going to London’s Liverpool Street. This time the train was crowded, much more than it was leaving London. So that wasn’t as exciting. But when I got back to the London station, I had a thought. I was already reasonably close to the Canary Wharf area, which is where a lot of the modern buildings are. So, I took the DLR (Docklands Light Railway), which is an aboveground train similar to the Tube, to the Canary Wharf Station. The DLR like to bounce back and forth a good bit. But, Canary Wharf was interesting. It’s a very impressive area, and it reminded me a lot of New York City. Citi, HSBC, and Barclays (all huge banks) have big buildings there. I walked around a bit, got cold, and then found the Canary Wharf Tube Station. I got on the Jubilee Line, which has relatively modern/fancy stations compared to most of the other lines, took that to Westminster, and then headed back to Gloucester Road. Overall, I think I accomplished something today. I am pretty tired though, 7:30 is the earliest I’ve been up in a while.

Market:

DLR around Canary Wharf:

A few of the buildings:

Walked around a little here, and the Underground station is on the left:

Entrance to the Underground station:

Who knew I could write so much about a short little trip? Hopefully these aren’t too long for you, I don’t want to have people getting backlogged on them. Although, if nothing else, this process is good for my memory.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Paris

I just decided to leave this as one big blog post, but I've separated out the days. So, here goes:

Paris Day 1:

I AM IN PARIS! Crazy words, right?

The first part of this trip was taking the Eurostar train from St. Pancras Station to Paris. We took a bus to the station, and then hopped on the train. It was awesome. I got a backward facing seat, at a table with three other people. Half the seats face in one direction, half in the other, and in the middle they meet and there’s the table. The beginning part is interesting, because there are a lot of small tunnels on the England side of the trip, and going through them you get these crazy pressure changes, that completely mess with your ears. The English side is very pretty, a lot of rolling green hills. Then you go through the Chunnel, which was surprisingly fast. We weren’t sure whether we were in France or not for a while. The French side is equally beautiful, with wind farms scattered here and there plus the occasional small town. And we got to see the sun set over the French countryside. It was an unforgettable experience, probably one of my favorite parts of the entire trip.

The sunset:

Of course then you arrive in Paris. Really I could’ve gone on for longer, the train was pretty smooth for the speed it traveled. Plus I was obsessed with the train. I’m definitely taking it again (not counting the trip back). Anyways, then we took a charter bus from the station to the hotel, seeing a Paris Fried Chicken along the route. The hotel is nice. The room is small, but I found out I have no roommate! It’s great, a whole room to myself. I went out and ran into some people taking a walk. I joined them, and they decided to stop and get some wine. Turns out the place also has sandwiches, or whatever you call them here in Paris. It was a good dinner.

After that, they offered a boat trip and tour of the Eiffel Tower (one part today one part tomorrow) for 22 Euros. Most people did that, so we met up with the tour guides and headed off on the metro to our stop. The metro here has two decks, so that was cool, but the stations and most of the system were not nearly as nice as the London Underground. The city is also much dirtier it seems. Now, our guides had told us to rip our tickets when we were done with the trip there, because we’d get new ones on the way back. Of course, me being a genius, I ripped mine after getting into the system, not thinking about the whole exit part. So my ticket didn’t get me out. I ended up getting out (after standing to the side in embarrassment) by squeezing in with someone and sneaking through. This was at the Tour Eiffel station. So I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was when I turned the corner a few yards out of the station and there’s the Eiffel Tower. We walked right by it, got onto the boat, and took a boat tour of some of Paris. The buildings are cool around the Seine. We passed Notre Dame Cathedral, which seems so much bigger from one side than it does the other. We’re going to try and go there for Church on Sunday.

After the boat tour I ended up hanging with some people who decided to get crepes. Figuring it was something one should do when in Paris, I got one. It was good, but I couldn’t get through the whole thing. I think it was too much chocolate and banana.

We passed a group of soldiers at the Eiffel Tower that were just standing there with rifles hanging down, right by a group of people trying to sell the flashing Eiffel Towers (you just have to ignore them). I felt a little safer knowing they had that visible security in the area.

Now I’m back in my room, and when I first got in and was typing this, I felt very overwhelmed. There’s so much to take in such a short period of time. I’ve enjoyed my time here so far. But I think London is still my favorite city. Probably followed by DC, and then Paris. Then comes New York City.

Day 2:

Today started out early. As in I woke up about 7:45, showered, had breakfast, and then we met for the bus tour at 8:45. The tour was cool, we got to see the major sights of Paris, which was nice. We stopped to go into the Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s huge, absolutely massive. And I’m excited to go to church there tomorrow morning.

The bus tour dropped us off at the Eiffel Tower. That was cool, but I’m not a fan of heights. Thankfully, we only went halfway up, as the top was closed. And it was a rainy day, so it wasn’t the best view, but I still was going crazy being that far up. I was ready to get down pretty quickly.

After that we went to the Louvre, which is massive. But, it’s also not all that interesting to me. I enjoyed it, it was cool to see the Mona Lisa and one of the famous statues, but really it just wasn’t all that interesting to me. I’m more of a landscape painting type of guy, and I didn’t see many there. Although I will say the quality/detail of most of the paintings there is unbelievable.

The Louvre:

Now I went through the Louvre with two girls, Jen and Tanya. After the Louvre, Tanya was meeting her best friend who was studying in Paris for the semester. Me and Jen felt like we didn’t want to interrupt and figured we’d let them have their own time to hang out. I was hoping I’d meet up with them later to get some food, but that never worked out. I ended up not accomplishing all that much the rest of the day.

So overall opinion on the second day: Paris is pretty, that’s true. But, there are definitely things I don’t like.

Day 3

Day three started early. Me and this girl Andrea (there were supposed to be other people joining us, never really got things worked out) went over to Notre Dame Cathedral and caught the 10 Mass. It was good, although they let people walk around the cathedral while Mass was going on, which I found odd. Also, the whole Mass in French part made it hard to understand.

After that I was going to go on a bike ride with these older guys Dom and Thomas, they work at the school. Paris has this system where you can rent a bike for one euro a day, but you have to switch out the bikes every 30 minutes. If you don’t return the bike they charge you 150 Euros for it. The problem was my debit card doesn’t have a chip on it. Most credit/debit cards here in Europe have a little chip, so you just slide the card in and the machine reads it. Mine don’t have that, so they didn’t work. That meant I couldn’t use a bike (Thomas tried some other cards he had, but even those didn’t work). Oh well. I decided to go down to the Louvre and hang out. I walked along the Seine, and the Louvre wasn’t a bad walk at all. When I went in, I just wandered around and found places to sit and watch. There were some big rooms that had statues, and provided a good place to hang out.

After the Louvre, I wandered some more, went into the Apple store right next to it, then headed to the Metro. While waiting in line to get a ticket (it took a while) I talked to a guy from London who was heading back home later. He was annoyed the lack of service in the Paris metro. In London, there are people in the Underground stations that help you, and really it’s just a whole lot better. The system is cleaner, better, all those good things.

When I got back to Gare de Lyon, I sat down in the station (which our hotel is right next to) and watch the TGV trains come and go. I saw three of soldiers walk through. They have these at the major sights, and I guess at some of the transportation hubs. This time two of them had rifles, and the other one was just looking around. I then went back to the hotel and sat down with people to wait for the Eurostar train back. I got bored a few times and walked back to the train station (the hotel is practically connected to the station), looked around, got some food, and watched the very serious looking soldiers walk through occasionally.

Gare de Lyon:

The soldiers:

The Eurostar back was fun, I rode backwards again (it really wasn’t too bad). I was at another table seat. So I talked to the people at both tables, took a short nap, and tried to work on some of my presentation. We stopped randomly in a small tunnel on the England side of the trip, and when the man came on the speakers, he said he was just told to stop and wasn’t sure why. But we got rolling again, and got in a few minutes late. After that we took the bus back to the school, and we were back. Oh and I went to get some Indian food (I think my mom will be happy I’m “expanding my horizons”), and got some chicken. The food was good, and it was definitely a different way of eating. They had fantastic bread, called naan. A good meal overall. I think my roommates gonna try and get me to have all sorts of different foods, which is good.

Overall, Paris really isn’t my favorite city. I think it might rank a little ahead of New York City, but it just isn’t all that great. Of course, I’m glad I saw it, it’s definitely a place you should see at some point in your life. I miss London, there’s really stuff that’s so much better there. The Tube is bright, clean, and has people there to help you if something isn’t working. It’s so much better than the metro/DLR system in Paris. It might be the weather, or that knowing someone who knows Paris and speaks French would make it better, and maybe I’ll go back some time, but the first impression wasn’t that great. Heck, maybe if I was in a different part of London (not as nice) I would have a different impression, someone was pointing out today that we’re lucky to be where we are. And, I should add that I can’t complain that much, I’m lucky I got to go to Paris in the first place.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ketchup

Ok, so this has nothing to do with studying abroad, but it was funny to read this morning. Read through the comments, it really is funny how people can get so into ketchup: Ketchup

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Trying to find the library

Today, I went to the library. Or really I should say I tried to go. I wanted to get this book for a presentation I'm working on. The book wasn't at the library closest to me, it was at one a solid distance away. Now, I looked up where this library was on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea website. It had a map, showing the location of the library: Supposedly where the library is. Now, you have to scroll down a little. Of course, I assumed was correct. Bad decision. I remember the first week of classes my freshman year of high school my geometry teacher (can't remember her name, but she's still there) told us the classic "when you assume you make and ass out of u and me" statement. But moving on. If you click on the location that's part of the pop up on the page I just linked to, you come to here: Actual location of the library. Conveniently I found this out after I walked around the Notting Hill area for a while. It's a pretty area, but it was chilly and I have a bit of a cold, so it was a little frustrating not finding the library. So I gave up and came back to the room. It probably used up an hour and a half at most. Oh well, learned something new today.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Coffee, Natural History Museum, and a hamburger

I woke up this morning at about 9:30. After my shower and basic morning necessities, I went and grabbed a coffee at the Whole Foods by us. I took the coffee and went and sat in a comfy chair that they have set up by a set of windows that look out onto Kensington High Street/Church Street/St. Mary Abbot's Church. I read the Guardian newspaper, including an article about taking the Crescent Train (the one I take to get down to Clemson when I'm home) to New Orleans and then over to LA. Then on the way back I grabbed the Weekend Edition of the Financial Times (at a cost of 2.50 GBP), recommended by a teacher and interesting to look over.

After that me and my roommate checked out the Natural History Museum, which was pretty neat. It's a huge place, and was packed with people, so we didn't see a ton of it, but we can go back, it's right down the road. Side note, on the way there I saw a really nice Lamborghini, orange with a white stripe down the middle. I looked it up later, and it was the Lamborghini Gallardo LP 550-2 Valentino Balboni, a great looking car if I do say so myself. But here's a picture of the main entrance room for the Museum:


Tonight I went to dinner with my roommate and this girl who lives on the floor above. We went to a hamburger place called Byron's. It was very good.

A few things I should note about London. People here don't walk as fast as I thought they would. But then I walk pretty fast. Also, I learned a few weeks ago, but forgot to put up here, the buses don't wait for you to get a seat and then go, they just go. I got to the top of the stairs and nearly fell backward when the bus started going, a week or two ago. I feel like there are a few more lessons I've learned, but now I can't remember them.

So, that was my Saturday, along with homework and other non exciting things.