Wednesday, 12 March 2014

How I've Changed

In the nearly three months since my return from Scotland, I've found readjusting to be harder than adjusting in the first place. I miss everything, achingly so. That's not to say I miss the days of homesickness, or the days I would do nothing but watch Netflix, or the days of loneliness or alienation. But in my hindsight view of my exchange, none of the mediocre or sad times even exist anymore. I have erased them, because I don't need them. The things I miss are having a tight knit group to do everything with. I miss having a family that experienced the same things for the first time, all together. I miss adventure, and not caring about a crappy day because it all adds to the story in the end.

I keep in touch with my friends by Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp. It's crossed my mind that maybe this is why I struggle moving back to my old world - I keep trying to stay in Glasgow, from over 5000 km away. I would never give up being able to send a silly Snap to the best friends I may never see again.

Recently I went to the pre-departure workshop for next years' exchange students. Students who are anxious, wide-eyed and eager to start their own adventure. I remembered my workshop being loud and overwhelming and giving me a great deal of stress over whether I was making the right decision to uproot myself. Besides advice on where to buy cheap shampoo, whether the housing packages from GCU are worth it or not, and how to get from the airport to the school, there are a list of things I learned from my exchange that I though was important to relay. Most of these lessons are brand-new, and I still struggle to remember them now that I'm not living an adventure anymore. I learned a lot about myself, and about what I'm capable of that I wouldn't have learned at home.

I'm not afraid to be alone. As a people person, I've always needed other people around me. I've been dependent on other people around me to give me courage and comfort. In the first weeks of my living in Glasgow, I would have passed up an opportunity just because I didn't have anyone to go with (because friends don't materialize on their own). I missed days of adventure because I didn't think I could have an adventure by myself. In the final two weeks of my stay, I had yet to see London. I would be devastated if I returned from the UK without ever seeing the big city. Two days from the first time the thought crossed my mind, I had booked a flight and arranged to stay with family friends outside London. I travelled solo by bus, plane, and train to stay with a family I had never met for three nights. I learned the city bus, train, and tube alone simply by doing it. I went to exhibits and museums and a theatre show completely autonomously, and I enjoyed all of it. Before my semester abroad, I never would have thought myself capable of travelling alone.

I can find pleasure in a bad situation. I learned this when my flatmate Holly and I planned our day trip to Loch Lomond. The morning of it was drizzling, cloudy and cold. We got as far as the Glasgow train station (to take us to Balloch) when I confessed that I wasn't sure I wanted to go today, not in this weather. Holly taught me the lesson to let others push your boundaries. She insisted, and I conceded, and we had a marvelous adventure on the banks and hills in the national park. Not only did we push on through the wet fog, we were laughing about it together, at the time and continue to do so as we enjoy the memory.

The authority to handle a problem. GCU is a mess of administrational hiccups. I first encountered the Scottish attitude of "it'll work itself out" weeks before I left Canada, when I was waiting frantically for confirmation of residence placement. Once I had settled residency and arrived, I was faced with registration problems. After two weeks of battling to clear up my registration (alone in a foreign country), I was misplaced and overlooked in my classes. The fire alarm in my residence went haywire, whining for three consecutive days and nights. I chased down administrators and professors, sat in meetings and wrote a million emails. I teamed up with Holly to get the attention of someone, anyone who would listen to our fire alarm torture without laughing and walking away. I learned to be an independent problem-solver because I had to, or the whole thing was a bust.

The confidence to step out of my comfort zone. Being far away from home with no one tying you to presuppositions of who you are lets you explore who you could be. It is a fearful thing, to be cast into solitude amidst a massive city bustling with life. The best way I found to make use of the daunting situation was to throw myself into it. I used to be a relatively conservative partier - drinks on the weekends, usually leaving the bar before the taxi wars broke out. I learned to negotiate the self I thought I was with the self I was now allowed to be. I went to dinner with people I didn't know, and we became best friends. I invited myself to a flat party on Facebook, and the people in that flat became my family. I tagged along to a sidestreet club and discovered a nightlife way better than the promotional student clubs whose flyers littered our residence. I learned that I liked being someone I didn't think I was. I'm currently in the process of introducing that person to this life.

Don't let small excuses change your big ideas. If you want to hike in Scotland, hike in the rain or don't hike at all. It would be folly to visit Scotland with no intention to spend a day roaming the beauty. It would be  disappointing to let the person you believe yourself to be, suppress the person who can emerge in a time of change. It would be tragic to let anxiety stop you from going after a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and irresponsible to let a botched communication destroy the validity of your exchange experience. When it comes down to it, all excuses are too small against something magnificent that you really want.

If any student at Brock has the means and the opportunity to step away from Canada, I don't think there is a good enough reason not to go abroad. Even if you think it's not for you or you won't love it - you will.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle

After Halloween night out, I woke up bright and early to catch the bus to Glasgow International for a very special occasion - my mom's visit! She flew IcelandAir like I did, but she got to spend the night in Reykjavik and see Iceland's capital city. She arrived in Glasgow at about 10 am, and we took the bus together back to the city center. Of course the first thing on our agenda was to get her a proper fish supper (apparently the more common way of ordering fish and chips) so after we dropped her luggage in my dorm room we went to the Atholl Arms on Renfield street, just around the corner from the bus station and university.
Checking in was a bit weird, when there was nobody at the reception of the apartments and the doors were locked, the code they'd given Mom not working. Somehow the security guard showed up and let us in, and we settled into the adorable furnished one-bedroom apartment on Bath Street, not two minutes walk from GCU.

Scottish sunshine in Stirling
Wallace's sword
We spent the first day settling into the apartment, and making plans for the ten days Mom was in Scotland. On the Sunday we took the train to Stirling, and walked to the William Wallace monument. Stirling was really cool, and a definite spot to re-visit before I head home to see the Old Town. The Wallace monument stands 220' high overlooking the site of the battle of Stirling bridge. The stairs to the top are narrow and freezing, the day we went was wildly windy and the monument is modelled after Victorian gothic style, with narrow open windows up the tower stairwells. Each level explores sections of Scottish history, but my favourite was the first one that actually told the story of Wallace himself, and houses the actual 5'4" sword in
a glass case. The very top of the monument offers the most amazing views of the city, the mountains and the river - and on a clear day like the one we had, I could see to Edinburgh!

We managed to get a taxi from the monument to Stirling Castle for about five quid, although the taxi driver was pretty shady about taking us for a joy ride around the parking lot. We got there with only just over an hour before the castle closed, and once the sun goes down in Scotland it gets pretty frigid. We spent most of the visit wandering indoors the castle. They have costumed employees in some of the rooms, and one of the women dressed as a lady-in-waiting gave us a full informative brief on the life of the King and Queen, and how the castle came to be. My membership with Historic Scotland got us free entry to the castle and free audioguides. By the time the castle was closing we'd seen as much as we could have and it was dark and freezing. We went down to a pub at the castle gates cleverly called Portcullis, where we had some disappointing wine followed by a phenomenal meal. Train back to Glasgow, first trip a great success.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Halloween & Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh

Arthur's Seat is apparently one of the most popular climbs in Edinburgh. Some people told us that it was named for the Arthurian legends, but when I looked further into it the Gaelic name for the hilltop iÀrd-na-Said meaning "height of arrows," so the Wikipedia speculation that Arthur's Seat is a warped interpretation of "Archer's" seat makes a lot more sense to me. But honestly, Edinburgh is basically older than Earth itself and so who knows how it ended up the way it is. Six of us (myself, Amanda, Holly, Lauren, Chris, and Joni) took the one-hour train ride to the capital city and went separate ways when we arrived - Amanda, Holly and I walked down the Royal Mile to Holyrood (lol) Park where the trail starts. 
Chapel ruins on the climb to Arthur's Seat

It was a lovely day when we started - clear skies and mild weather. The beginning of the climb wasn't that steep, and there was a ruin of a chapel that we stopped by on the way up for some photos, but mostly because there were tons of huge rocks to climb on. After the chapel it got much steeper and I will sheepishly admit that I need to stop to catch my breath! Once we reached one of the hilltops, the wind started to really get at us. The view of the city was so magnificient, with ocean and mountain and gorgeous architecture all in one line of sight. There was even a little body of water between two hilltops that some swans had collected in. After this, there wasa bit of a cobblestone footpath/stairway that was actually more of a pain than anything else. The very peak of Arthur's Seat was frigid. We all actually bundled up and hunkered down behind a boulder, for fear of being blown clean off the peak by the force of the wind. We had brought some leftover pizza and pancakes (breakfast of champions) and shared a drink at the top while we tried our best to get some pictures, but the wind was so fierce that none of us wanted to risk sitting on the actual stone called "Arthur's seat." 
Trying to stay on Arthur's seat

In the distance, just on the opposite side of the city, there was a massive dark cloud. We watched it approach for a little while until we realized what dark clouds typically led to, and decided to get down from the mountain as soon as we could. We only made it to about the chapel (we had to stop for a roll down the hill) before the heavens opened up on us and turned the path into a muddy mess. I'm always so thankful that Holly and I bought a pair of hiking boots each, and Amanda proved us right when she couldn't get any grip in the mud and nearly ate a puddle.
By the time we got to the Starbucks on the Royal Mile to meet Lauren and the boys I was soaked through (even with my rain jacket on). There was a disturbing lack of Lauren and the guys, so we called them and found out they were waiting for us at the other Starbucks. At the other end of the Royal Mile. No big deal, since we're drenched anyway, so we walked up to where they were warm, dry, and sipping Starbucks.

We had time for dinner before our tour started so we went to the World's End pub, fully decked out for Halloween. The pub was right at the Tron where we met up with Auld Reekie tours. Our guide took us through old Edinburgh, stopping at some historical sites such as the old gallows square, where we could still see staples in the stone walls that apparently were put through prisoners' ears at one time. We went into the Auld Reekie torture museum, where our guide told us about the horrible things each instrument was designed for, before he took us into the vaults. The underground vaults of Edinburgh are abandoned stone rooms and our guide told us ghost stories of each individual vault we went into. It was spooky, but the scariest part of the night was when Amanda got spooked and screamed in the dark for no good reason, and made me jump out of my skin. 

Pints at the World's End

Monday, 11 November 2013

Glencoe & St Andrews

Finally finally, I have a moment (albeit a moment of procrastination) to update. It's been almost two weeks I think, since I went on these two Student Tours Trips so it's about time I wrote about them.

Gary runs excellent coach bus trips far into Scotland, to places difficult (and expensive) to get to on your own. On our Loch Ness trip we drove through the magnificient Glencoe area and Gary mentioned that he did another day trip to the mountains here. For only £20 we met the bus at the university around 8am and boarded for a long drive into the highlands. Glencoe is the historical site of a famous massacre during the Jacobite uprising. Gary is an unparalleled tour guide, since his knowledge is so extensive but he genuinely loves the places he'll show you. He knows much more than he shares, and it's worth asking him about these historical places. The mountains we visited are called the "Three Sisters" and tower over a deep stream that we had to take on a little wooden bridge to cross. Standing under these highland mountains gives you a moment of perspective, and honestly, they feel mighty and alive.

Glencoe mountains: Aonach Eagach

Gaelic mountain names - try to pronounce them, I guarantee you can't.

After a while rambling about Glencoe, we got on the bus once again and drove a little ways through Fort William into Glenfinnan, and pulled into the visitor's center. In front of us was an awesome view down a long loch, on the beach of which a great big monument to the Jacobite is erected (for £3 entry). Behind the lot however, was the Glenfinnan viaduct, a massive bridge by which the Jacobite steam train travels in the summer. It is also to bridge that the Hogwarts Express travels, and I was so excited to be this close to the real deal finally. We could walk right up to the viaduct and in fact under it, and I don't consider myself much of an architecture nerd but it really was impressive and beautiful, set between two orange highland mountains.

After Glenfinnan we stopped back in Fort William for a bite to eat, or rather a pint. Thinking we were late, Holly and I raced through miserable rain back to the bus afterwards only to find that not even Gary had got on board yet. Oops...

Next day we joined up with Gary again to see the Kingdom of Fife and St Andrews. The bus ride was again long, but we were warned that St Andrews was in a perpetual raincloud and so we were delighted when we arrived to blue sky and sunshine! St Andrews is an adorably typical British town, with castle ruins and cobblestone alleyways and that sort of thing surrounding us all over.We were let off the bus at the beach, where we did some quality rock-climbing before heading into town. The first stop for us was the St Andrews castle, which we got into for free thanks to Gary (entry on Student Tours to these sites is always free with the group)! It was possibly my favourite castle so far, though it's ruined and crumbled, the plaques illustrate what it would have looked like, and much of its foundations are intact. The absolute coolest part of this castle in the mine and countermine. Turns out the castle was under seige and was being tunnelled into, and the Scots dug a tunnel of their own to intercept the invaders. These tunnels are still there and have been stabilised so tourists like us could go inside! Besides the ladder and railing, it was so authentic, the walls were wet and slimy and the countermine was only about 4' around - very uncomfortable!
St Andrews Cathedral ruins and cemetery
After the castle we broke off from the group and explored the town ourselves. We walked to the ruins of the St Andrews cathedral, which has become a breathtaking cemetery since its destruction in the Reformation. We wandered through the village for some ice cream and a pint, until we made it back to the bus at the beach and took off for another castle, and another beach.

The ruins are really incredibly preserved, which I've found that I prefer to an upkept castle like the one in Edinburgh. While these are far more historically informative, I love the bareness of the ruins and find that the Historical Scotland group provides a perfect amount of information on plaques without interfering with the ruin itself. St Andrews was absolutely stocked with ruins, from the castle to the cathedral to the ancient university, parts of which still stand. In St Andrews I finally found a perfect Edinburgh lager called Three Hops that made the long ride home into a pleasant nap for me.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Conich Hill, Loch Lomond

Okay I know I am way behind on updates - I've just been on several great trips in a row and need to a) upload the photos and then b) blog them but I get caught up in things like homework and classes... and other day trips. and beer pong parties. and Netflix.

The first leg of the Conich Hill climb.
Holly and I finally made an independent day trip to hike up Conich Hill! We had a little group of interested friends, but lives got in each others way and so the two of us went anyway. It was a miserable, grey and foggy day (not unusual) and I almost wanted to forget about the trip and raincheck it. Thank goodness Holly is more fearless than I am, and got me to hop on the train anyway. We finally used our student rail passes to get discounted tickets to Balloch from Glasgow. It was about 40 mins on the train to Balloch, which let us off in another wet and grey area of Scotland on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. We set off in the most logical direction we could surmise and found an information center, where we got directions to the Balloch bus stance to catch our city bus to Balmaha. The total round trip from Glasgow to Balmaha only cost us about £8, and climbing the hill is free! We got dropped off the bus after about 20 mins at the base of Conich Hill, where the visitors center for the Loch Lomond & the Trossacs national park is built. We spoke to a lovely young gentleman who directed us to the path that would take us to the hill. We started up the path with our rain hoods pulled tight and our brand new waterproof hiking boots (Tip for future GCU exchange students: Mountain Warehouse on Sauchiehall street offers discount hiking/camping gear, often on sale and they also give a 10% extra discount with your student card!). The beginning of the hike is through a beautiful soft and green forested area, really showcasing some of the gorgeous flora that grows in Scotland. We got to a wooden fence with a hilarious sign warning us that sheep graze Conich Hill freely throughout the year and to please respect them. We shuffled through the fence (it was a bit complicated - ingeniously engineered so that people could fit themselves through it without the danger of sheep escaping) and sort of emerged into this vast range of mossy hills that disappeared into the thick mist.

The landscape was breathtaking. I love the soft and mossy green of the mountains in Scotland, and Conich Hill offered up the changing seasons showing us red and yellow mosses the the craggy rock as well.
The hiking path was recently groomed and was maintained beautifully. There were some wooden steps, followed by mossy hill (boasting a collection of sheep), followed by some well-kept stone steps up to a dirt path along the side of the hill's summits.


On the guide the Conich Hill climb was said to take two to three hours, so we were pretty prepared for that kind of effort. We had packed lunch, layered and layered and then rain-proof layered, and happily hiked further up into the fog and rain. By the time we could see the very peak of the climb, my hair was literally dripping wet, my face was soaked and my eyelashes were throwing off water droplets every time I blinked. Hiking kept us warm, but definitely not dry! I caved before the top and ate my sandwich, only to discover that the peak was a short climb from where we stopped to take a breather. We scrabbled up the wet grass and gravel and came to the very top of Conich Hill! There were plaques dedicated to deceased lovers of the hill, and Holly got to enjoy her lunch at the peak, where we overlooked the rolling hills and the shore of Loch Lomond. There was another summit not far from were we were standing, so we wandered down the hill a little and got to a bit that was closer to the shore. Amazingly, as we were taking photos of the landscape through the thick cloud, it began to clear! I won't go so far as to say the sun came out, but the clouds did lift just then. We could make out the islands just off the shore in the lake, and could finally see the little farmyard that a cattle-sounding ruckus had been coming from for almost the whole hour we had been hiking.

It was our descent that was probably the best story of the day. Adventurous young things like myself and Holly get bored with the beaten path, apparently. Over the edge of this hilltop was a water runoff, really just gravel and moss and heather. We brilliantly decided to make this our descent path rather than go back the way we had come from. Thank GOD we had our new hiking boots on. The only parts with any grip were the patches of bush that grew between the rocks. We had to keep practically crouched so that our weight was low enough to be stable climbing down. We both got stuck a couple of times as we tried to make like mountain goats and navigate down the cliffside to the grassy hill below! 

Holly scaling the cliffside on our way down from the top.
There was a French family on the path below us who must have thought "those idiots are going to die today." We had way too much fun with this part! After we finally made it to the grass at the bottom of the runoff, we decided to explore this newest hilltop, and got to the other side of it when we saw a little goat path to the main walkway! Brilliantly, we made for it not realizing that to get there we'd have to once again stumble down a gravel cliff. Again, we had way too much fun doing it and made it to safety without so much as a twisted ankle.

After we backtracked to the bottom of Conich Hill, we were sopping wet and cold from sitting motionless on the bus back to Balloch. We had about ten minutes before our train back to Glasgow arrived, so we ducked into an adorable inn by the train station for a pint to warm up. There was a fantastic real-wood fireplace and a great big cow hide rug that we sat right in front of. We made our train just barely and headed back to our Glaswegian lives. I was absolutely soaked through, and even after a hot shower and dry clothes I didn't feel properly warm again until the next day!

I'm about three adventures behind on posts, so I hope to bang them out as soon as I can. In the meantime remember to browse my photo album! The link's right at the top of the sidebar.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Belated Scotsgiving!

Forgive me, I have been trying to figure out exactly how to do my homework lately. For instance, I have a 2,000 word paper for my E-Marketing class at the syllabus only explains that I must use course concepts... so it's been difficult to discern exactly where to begin. I've also been struggling to do my assigned lecture readings, since they come up on the lecture slides but there is no reading schedule to be found anywhere in my syllabus for the module.

Regardless, we went ahead and celebrated Thanksgiving!
The Swedes and the Finns were game, even though they'd never had a Thanksgiving before. From that angle, it's a little silly to try and explain what the point of the holiday is. At the end of the day I'm satisfied with: it's the day you eat as much as you can with a big group of people that you like hanging out with!

On a student's budget it proved more than challenging to have a Thanksgiving spread. Instead, we brought our own meals and shared anything left over. Kind of a hodge-podge of dishes, and not some that I've seen at many of my family Thanksgivings, but the sight of a full table and happy faces was really what I was after anyway. The non-Canadians were good sports about it, and we felt like we had been properly celebrated.

PS. These are Nina's disgusting candies from Finland. In Finland they love to eat things that taste horrible. They taste like salt and black licorice, and they love them so much that Esko dissolved some into his vodka so that it tasted just like them!

Monday, 21 October 2013


I never appreciated how wonderful Brock is until I had the chance to step away from home. At the opportunity to fly across the ocean and settle into a new city, school, and world for four full months, I barely hesitated to jump through the necessary hoops. It's been about six or seven weeks since my arrival in Glasgow, and adjusting has been slower going than I had imagined.

I thought of writing this post this morning, when a professor of mine asked me how I'm finding Scotland, etc, and he asked me what the biggest difference between here and home is to me. I didn't have a proper answer for him, and so I think I came off a bit unobservant or non-participatory in some way, as if I haven't noticed any difference at all. But truthfully, I had to take a moment to think of a real answer to the question.
There are many differences, and many similarities. But to answer my prof's question, I think optimism is the biggest cultural difference. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about - but the Scots seems  a perpetually positive people. Aside from shop clerks and baristas, who are consistently upbeat, the people on the street and in the university offices have the same positive attitude. Nothing seems to be worth stressing over - to some frustration on my end, when half the printers on campus are out of order and nobody seems bothered about rushing to fix them.
I was delightfully surprised when, by another spectacular failure on GCU's part I was overlooked when placing  students into workshop groups and am now four weeks behind on coursework. I went to meet with my program advisor, who went over the module expectations with me and said to just show up to the next class. Now, I am a chronic worrier and automatically spin into panic mode when everything isn't sunshine and rainbows, so I asked him outright: is this going to be a problem that I should be worried about?
He laughed. No, he chuckled with glee or something wonderful like that, and said "Nah man, it's cool!"

So I suppose to answer the question, the biggest difference to me has been attitude. People seem happier when everything isn't dependent on perfection all the time and place faith that the problems will get resolved in their own time. My frustration with GCU's administration, while justified by my organized, anti-chaos Canadian culture is actually standard procedure when you take the approach that everything will work itself out. I'll try to get used to it. But it is difficult when half the facilities on campus are broken and not fixed for weeks on end, or when the fire alarm in my building is broken and it's a long weekend, so the squealing goes on for three days before someone is reminded to fix it.

I have been getting annoyed with a lot of the workings of GCU, and most of the time try to chalk it up to the cultural difference instead of getting upset. I will pose a question and for whatever reason, it rarely gets understood correctly and the respondent will spend an unnecessary length of time explaining something to me that is irrelevant. For example, when I asked my seminar leader about how exactly to begin my essay, he proceeded to explain the importance of title pages, paragraphs, citations, etc. as if I have never written a university paper ever before. When I emailed another lecturer about the same topic, asking the same question, he rudely responded that it was inappropriate to ask for help over email and to discuss my problem in seminar. Maybe it's just me that found his response impolite and brash, but I am still quite put out about it. No matter how many times I've sought out help on my own, nobody seems to be able to give me the guidance I'm looking for. It makes my anxiety about succeeding in classes worsen, and a lot of the time I feel like I'm just on my own to figure it out. The program leaders are adamant about being available for anyone with questions, but at the moment their help seems useless to me.

Another note about my exchange: the classes offered at GCU are unlike any classes I've ever seen at Brock. I'm taking Creative Advertising in which we are given a brief each week and must pitch ideas to our professor, which is so stimulating and creative in a way unlike anything I've done at Brock. I'm also taking Radio Production in which we write and produce a full-length radio episode.These opportunities aren't available for credit at Brock in my experience. The opportunity to explore and exercise these tasks and skills is worth the cultural frustrations... so far!