Latin Chanting, Blood Baths, and Ancient Towers: My Trip to Oxford

April 4, 2014

Last week (March 22-28) my program visited Oxford. The Oxford students were away on mid-semester break, so we got to stay in the dorms at University College (Univ, for short) and take classes like real, live Oxford undergrads! Besides the stunning historical sites, great food, and a couple fascinating lectures—the thing I’m most excited about is the fact that I can now say I “studied at Oxford” and technically, technically, I won’t be lying. How baller is that?

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(Univ College Quad)

I can just see it now: I’m at some mixer filled with highly sophisticated, high-society people, sipping scotch and discussing politics, and someone asks, “Where did you study as an undergrad?” I’ll swirl my scotch, raise an eyebrow nonchalantly and say, “Oxford…among other places.” This will of course be followed by nods and murmurs of approval. I mean, I don’t know what I’d be doing at this fancy-ass mixer. And I hate scotch. And I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished a nonchalant eyebrow raise. But still. It just sounds so…impressive. I studied at Oxford. Squee!

Anyway. Back to the point. Oxford is a stunning city. Like Bath, it’s super historical, but it’s more medieval and renaissance-y rather than classical. Oxford has upwards of forty colleges (forty-three…I think) and some famous poet or politician or world leader studied at almost every one. Besides Univ, where we were staying (and where Percy Shelley studied!!), I got to explore Wadham College, founded in 1610, St. John’s College, founded in the Middle Ages, Oriel College, founded during the Renaissance, and Christ Church College, founded during Henry VIII’s reign. I also stood in the famous quad of the Bodleian Library and got two awesome views of the city—one from the top of Carfax Tower, the other from the tower of St. Mary’s Church.

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(The entryway into the Bodleian Library Quad)

Carfax Tower is all that remains of a 13th century church that stood there. It’s the highest point in Oxford and no building in Oxford can be constructed higher than it. The spiraling staircase that goes to the top is extremely narrow. I didn’t bump into anyone on the way up, but on the way down, some interesting acrobatics had to be performed to get past a few people who were headed to the top. Let’s just say we had to get really intimate, really fast. Teamwork and a lack of personal boundaries is always the key in situations like that! The view from the top was absolutely stunning, and I had it all to myself for a good half hour. I stared out over the city, brooding and channeling my inner Heathcliffe like the good poet I am, letting the wind whip my hair into a frizzy mess.

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(The narrow, spiral staircase leading to the top of Carfax Tower)

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(View from the top of Carfax Tower)

By the time I headed back down the staircase, it was raining (typical) but I forged on and headed over to St. Mary’s for another tower climb. I once again made close friends with a few people on the way up the insanely narrow staircase, and once again had the view all to myself once I reached the top. I think the rain scared everyone else off. Unlike Carfax Tower where you have an unobstructed view of the city, you can’t actually go all the way to the top of St. Mary’s. You walk around a narrow path that circles the building and get, in a sense, four different views of the city.

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(Radcliffe Quad and the Camera)

The first view you get when you emerge from the staircase is of Radcliffe Quad and the Camera—a beautiful, circular structure that is the most-photographed building in Oxford. Just behind the Camera you can see the Bodleian Library. To the right is All Souls College, which is a highly exclusive Oxford college that doesn’t admit undergrads, doesn’t allow visitors, and boasts its own (apparently extremely well-stocked) wine cellar.

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(All Souls College)

The second view you get on the way around is of Brasenose College. The other two views are of city street, including High Street. St. Mary’s Church is on one side of High Street and Univ College is on the other side, a little ways down. The first thing I saw every time I stepped out of Univ was the St. Mary’s Church tower—not a bad thing to be greeted with every morning.

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(Oxford viewed from the St. Mary’s Tower)

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(St. Mary’s viewed from the ground)

Besides soaking up the views—and the rain—I scared the shit out a pigeon (literally) who thought it had found a nice, peaceful place to hide out on the tower. There was a little alcove that I stepped into to get out of the rain for a bit, but unfortunately this poor pigeon had the same idea. I think I was just as startled as the pigeon when I put my foot down and was greeted with an irritated squawk and an explosion of feathers. So, sorry, Oxford Pigeon. That was my bad.

Other highlights of my Oxford trip include:

1. A lecture entitled “Bloody Oxford” in which Dr. Leslie Mitchell recounted the surprisingly tumultuous (and bloody) beginnings of the University. The conflict between Town and Gown was so intense that murder was a rather common occurrence. University students (who were around 14 or 15 at the time) would run around town with knives tucked into their academic robes, stabbing any “townies” who pissed them off. One of the bloodiest occurrences was when a group of students got into a fight with an innkeeper over the dinner bill and stabbed him (because that’s the best way to settle any dispute.) At one point, the animosity got so bad that city-wide fighting broke out. Two “armies,” one comprised of University students, the other comprised of townspeople, marched towards each other down Broad Street and started slaughtering each other. A group of bishops that tried to walk between the two sides with crosses raised high in an attempt to end the fighting also got slaughtered. The king eventually became involved, and since the king was wildly, unapologetically biased in favor of the University, whose “clever people” he used in his governing, the king demanded that the mayor lay facedown on the church steps in an act of repentance. For centuries after, every mayor of Oxford was made to lie on the church steps each year as a reminder that all that murderous nonsense would not be tolerated.

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(Broad Street)

2. Taking a tour of Christ Church College including the Alice in Wonderland gardens, named after Lewis Carroll’s work that was inspired by stories Carroll told to Alice Liddell, daughter of the college’s dean at the time. Christ Church College is absolutely steeped in history. The main quad was designed by Cardinal Wolsey, the infamous favorite of Henry VIII who fell into ruin when he failed to obtain the king a divorce. Wolsey planned to call the college “Cardinal College,” for obvious, ridiculously egotistical reasons, but when he fell out of favor, Henry VIII took over and named it Christ Church.

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(Tom’s Quad and Tower at Christ Church–the tower was built by Christopher Wren, who also constructed St. Paul’s Cathedral)

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(The Alice in Wonderland gardens)

The site of the college was originally the site of a priory where St. Frideswide lived. Frideswide was a nun, but despite being married to God, she did her fair share of ass-kicking. When she refused the proposal of a king, he tried to force her into marriage, but she fled Oxford and managed to escape. After spending some time away, casually performing miracles and healing the sick, she returned to Oxford and confronted the pushy king. He was immediately struck blind by a bolt of lightning and dropped the whole marriage issue. Frideswide lived out the rest of her days in Oxford, surrounded by adoring townspeople. She was made a saint after her death, and is now the patron saint of Oxford.

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(St. Frideswide’s shrine in the Christ Church Cathedral)

Other cool things that happened at Christ Church: Charles I lived there during the English Civil War and even held parliament there. Elizabeth I also stayed there twice during her reign. And, apparently, the college was used as a location in the Harry Potter films—a fact that I did not find nearly as exciting as some of the other students in my program.

3. Attending a formal dinner at Univ College. I feel like there’s an image that people have of Oxford professors. Something along the lines of silver-haired, sophisticated academics strutting around in tweed jackets, reciting Latin. Well, I’m here to tell you that those stereotypes are absolutely accurate. Guess what we did before eating our fancy dinner? Nope, we didn’t hold hands and say grace—we chanted in Latin! I actually almost giggled. It was just such a clichéd moment. A balding professor stood on a slightly raised platform, tweed-jacket and all, and rattled at us in Latin about the virtues of academia for a good five minutes before we were allowed to sit down and eat. Hilarious! I loved it.

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(The Univ dining hall is called the Buttery–this is where we ate our fancy dinner and chanted in Latin)

In between all this excitement, I also managed to go to class, and hang out at the college bar—yes, there’s a college bar. Still not over it. America needs to get on that bandwagon.

So. To sum up: I can now and forever officially tell everyone I know that I studied at Oxford. How many times do you think I can super-casually drop it into conversation before I get punched? Lookin’ forward to finding out.

Scotland: Crown Jewels, Sea Glass & Wind

March 15, 2014

I went to Scotland last weekend! Here was my (cray-cray) travel itinerary:

4:45 AM: Car to Bristol Airport.

7:00 AM: Plane to Edinburgh Airport.

8:15 AM: Bus into Edinburgh city center.

1:00 PM: Train to Leuchar Station.

2:15 PM: Bus to St. Andrews.

I’ve never so thoroughly taken advantage of all the modes of transportation we humans have dreamed up for ourselves. And definitely not in one day, in the span of about ten hours. I think the only thing I was missing was a boat, a bicycle, and a horse, of course.

I wrote the beginning of this blog post at the café at Edinburgh Castle. I first glimpsed the castle’s austere face atop a rocky cliff face through the window of the bus from the airport into Edinburgh.

Despite the fact that my backpack weighed a ton and I knew I’d end up with a backache by the end of the day, I immediately made the decision to walk up the hill to the castle as soon as I stepped off the bus in Edinburgh. My back does hurt, but it was totally worth it. Look at this place:

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(Edinburgh Castle)

Still not over it!

The moments that inspired the most fangirling in my history-loving soul include:

1. Standing in the room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son James.

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(Confinement room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI/I)

At the age of one, Mary’s son was crowned James VI of Scotland after his mother was forced to abdicate her throne. Then, when Elizabeth I died in 1601, effectively ending the Tudor line, James became James I of England. He was the first monarch to rule both Scotland and England, a feat which was accomplished with very little trouble. Surprising considering the fact that England and Scotland have been like two bickering siblings for most of modern history.

2. Viewing the Honours of Scotland—aka the Crown Jewels of Scotland.

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(Scotland’s Crown Jewels)

Unlike the England’s Crown Jewels, which were destroyed by Oliver Cromwell when he killed Charles I and seized power (#rude), the Scottish Honours were kept safe. At one point, the castle where they were being kept was under siege by Cromwell’s army and a brave lady and her maid made a plan to infiltrate the castle and save the jewels. They made a lunch date with the Duchess who lived there, then smuggled the jewels out in their petticoats. The story goes that the lady froze, momentarily panicked that she would be made as a thief, and a polite Cromwellian officer came to her aid and helped her onto her horse. Lol! What a sucker.

The jewels are also extra magical (at least in my book) because the first coronation they were used for was Mary Queen of Scots’! Apparently Mary, who was an infant at the time, sobbed through the entire ceremony. What a peach.

3. Standing in the oldest building in Scotland—Saint Margaret’s Chapel.

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(St. Margaret’s Chapel)

Despite the fact that she’s automatically awesome for sharing my name, Queen (and later Saint) Margaret was also a super badass bitch. She was one of the most beloved queens in Scottish history. She ruled around 1070 until her death in 1093. She was married to the guy who was the son of Duncan I, who was killed by Macbeth—and yes that is the Macbeth from Shakespeare’s play.

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(Stained glass image of Saint Margaret)

Also, fun fact: I had to use Wikipedia to remind myself of some dates, and guess what. The photo of Saint Margaret on her Wikipedia page is an image of the stained glass window in her chapel aka the chapel I stood in! You know you’re coming up in the world when your personal pictures are the same ones Wikipedia uses. #famous

But anyway—history! Am I right? Seriously I can’t even handle it. I was in a constant state of overwhelming nerdy euphoria the entire time I was exploring the castle. Being in Mary Queen of Scots’ bedchamber especially was just…astounding. I mean, she was there. She slept in that room. Gave birth in that room. Walked around, got dressed, read stuff, just…lived her life. Probably had the sexy times, that saucy minx. And then, five hundred years later, there I am, standing where she stood. Whaaaaat? I can’t even.

So, after spending my entire morning freaking out over history at Edinburgh castle, I continued on my journey to St. Andrews where my friend Ellie is studying this semester. The views of the countryside during the train ride were breathtaking. The colors were so rich—the green of the grass, the blues and steel grays of the sea, and even the pinks and reds and yellows of the spring flowers already in bloom! Totally gorgeous.

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(View of North Sea from the train)

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(Leuchar’s station: the last stop on my journey to St. Andrews)

I arrived at St. Andrews in the afternoon and promptly passed out in Ellie’s bed while she went to a meeting. Thank god for that nap, because Ellie and I were out on the town until almost two in the morning. We went to a couple of genuine, Scottish pubs, then ended the night at a church of all places. On Friday and Saturday nights, there is a church in St. Andrews that serves toasties to the drunk masses. For just 50 pence, you can get a toastie with anything in it—even Oreos! I just stuck with cheese and tomato. It was actually quite an endearing experience. We placed our orders and were then shepherded into a large room filled to the brim with college students nursing different levels of inebriation. Church volunteers moved around the room with water pitchers, encouraging everyone to hydrate. Cuties! Also, the toasties were super tasty.

Over the next couple of days, Ellie and I explored the town of St. Andrews. Some highlights:

1. Walking along Castle Sands, a little beach at the foot of St. Andrews Castle—which wasn’t very grand even in its heyday and is now mostly rubble.

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(Castle Sands)

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(St. Andrews Castle–at least what’s left of it)

The beach is beautiful though, and, kind of similar to Edinburgh Castle, St. Andrews Castle was built right up to the edge of a cliff face that looks out over the North Sea. It’s very picturesque in a rugged, medieval sort of way. Ellie and I romped around like six-year-olds, collecting sea glass and skipping stones.

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(Me, collecting sea glass)

2. Walking to the end of a pier jutting out into the North Sea.

Holly motherfuckin’ wind, Batman. The pier was not all that wide, and the farther out to sea we got, the harder the wind blew. It actually made me stumble a few times. I felt a little in danger of being swept out to sea. The view at the end of the pier was totally worth the risk of death, though. On the right side of the coast were the remains of St. Andrews Castle. Next to that were the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, which must have been a spectacle when it was first completed, but now is just four walls with no roof. It’s used for a graveyard now. Beyond the cathedral, little, colorful houses dotted the coastline. Small crabbing boats were moored in a tiny harbor. Another beach, much larger than Castle Sands, stretched out to our left. Kids and dogs ran around happily, despite getting blown about by the wind.

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(The pier jutting out into the sea)

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(Pic of the coastline, taken from the end of the pier)

3. Ice cream in March!

You might not immediately think “Ice cream!” when you think “Scottish coastline,” but if your ever in St. Andrews, check out Janetta’s. They have amazing homemade ice cream. Totally worth it despite the fact that I couldn’t feel my face for a while afterwards. (Between the wind and the ice, it was pretty numb.)

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4. Standing in the presence of royal romance.

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(Me, chillin’ in front of Will and Kate’s former abode)

I made Ellie take me to the dorm where Prince William and Kate Middleton met in college. I’m a sucker for that shit. The dorm is absolutely beautiful and I could almost feel the remnants of royal love radiating from the earth. What a magical experience. I mean, it was no Mary-Queen-of Scots-Bedroom, but it wasn’t bad.

5. Crocuses!!!

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(Aren’t they pretty?!)

Okay, so I love crocuses. Like, seriously, I love these little guys. And little did I know that England and Scotland would have crocuses in abundance. I think they are a slightly different variety than the ones that peek out of the spring mud in my backyard every March—they’re a little bigger, but just as delicate and beautiful and wonderful. On our wanderings through town, Ellie and I would randomly stumble across a crocus patch, and I had to pause every time to take in all the amazingness. I don’t know what it is about them, but crocuses just speak to my soul.

6. Another beach walk.

If you’ve ever seen Chariots of Fire, you know all about this beach. I haven’t actually seen the movie, but I hear there is lots of slow-motion running, and, apparently, some of this iconic running happens on the beach that Ellie and I walked on! Exciting stuff. I devolved into a six-year-old again and wrote “BEYONCE” in huge block letters on the beach. I was very satisfied with my work. And, really, I was just following Beyonce’s wishes. She has a song called “I Was Here” in which she sings, “I want to leave my footprint on the sands of time.” So, you’re welcome, Beyonce. I left your footprint (okay, name) on the sands of time (okay, Scotland). Close enough.

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(Me, leaving Beyonce’s footprint in the sands of time)

Also, apparently golf is a big thing in St. Andrews because the oldest golf course in the world is there. Ellie and I also walked across that, but I didn’t really see the big deal. I mean, it’s just grass. It’s not as exciting as castles and jewels and ice cream.

In order to spend as much time as possible with my biffle Ellie, I decided to catch a super early flight out of Edinburgh on Monday morning. Here was my travel itinerary for the trip home (equally as cray-cray as getting to Scotland):

5:45 AM: Cab to Edinburgh airport.

8:35 AM: Plane from Edinburgh to Bristol Airport.

10:00 AM: Bus from Bristol Airport to Bristol-Temple Meads Station.

10:45 AM: Train from Bristol to Bath.

Then I took a lightning fast shower, went to my Monday class, and promptly passed out afterwards for a delectable afternoon nap. Definitely one of my top five best weekends ever (#epic).

The Cotswolds & Stonehenge

March 4, 2014

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(On the Cotswolds Walking Trail)

Every time I watch a movie adaption of a Jane Austen novel, I find myself drooling over the scenery. The windswept plains, blue skies flecked with cloud, the colors that seem to burst right out of the screen—it takes my breath away, every time, and I’m not even there. I’m sitting on a couch with a cat snoring in my lap feeling like my heart is about to explode because it’s so dang gorgeous.

When I went to England, I had all those movies swirling around in my head. Would the real thing live up to all that cinematic glory? It did. It does. On a trip to the Cotswolds last weekend, I stood on those rolling hills, breathed in the English country air, and felt like I might burst from how beautiful it was. We drove to Broadway Tower, a castle-esque structure that’s situated on the top of a hill overlooking acres and acres of prime sheep-grazing land. After enjoying the view from the top of the tower, we walked two miles down a gentle, muddy slope and I got my fill of breathtaking English countryside. I felt like Elizabeth Bennett—minus the affinity for brooding, high-society men.

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(Broadway Tower)

It was so overwhelmingly gorgeous, the poet in me was struck silent. How could I ever capture what I was looking at in words? The stormy blue sky, threatening rain, the rolling pastures dotted with sheep, the sleepy town nestled in the valley below me, the delicate purples and golds of the crocuses (crocuses in February!) that pushed up through the soil at my feet. It was like something out of a dream. Or a movie. Except all the Jane Austen novels in world couldn’t capture the smell of the land—like dirt and grass and water, or the sounds of sheep calling out to each other as a pack of Americans traipsed across their pasture, or the soft, slightly oily feel of the wads of wool caught on thorny branches.

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(Cotswolds sheep!)

I had a similarly wonderful experience when I visited Stonehenge a couple weeks earlier. It was overwhelming in the best way. The wind nipped at my cheeks and blustered around me, making me sway with its force. I stood in the shadow of stones erected thousands of years ago, by people I couldn’t even imagine, for purposes that remain mostly a mystery even to this day. But whatever the site was used for, I could feel the power pouring out of the earth. It was like the stones were alive. Their energy pressed in on me, made my heart thump a little harder, my breath come a little quicker. The wind that had made me want to huddle under a blanket when we’d first gotten off the bus barely registered, except to heighten the brooding power of the land.

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(Stonehenge)

I looked around at the people gathered. A few stood apart, like me, gazing wide-eyed at the stones. But almost everyone else was too busy gathering up their friends for endless photos to steep in the wonder that I thought couldn’t be ignored. It made me pause, made me wonder about people’s priorities. Yes, I was excited to share the dozens of pictures I’d snapped of the place on Facebook, but some of the people I watched barely glanced at the stones the entire time we were there. They kept their backs to them, their focus not on the ancient magic that surrounded them, but on the cameras that clicked away in front of them. It was disheartening. Were these tourists not feeling what I was feeling? Were they closed off to the energy I could feel seeping from the sodden earth at my feet? The energy that had drawn ancient peoples to this site over and over for centuries and centuries and centuries? It’s hard to look that far back in time, to grasp the history that is laid out before you—especially when that history is six thousand years deep. But I wished that everyone around me would stop for a moment and at least try to ponder it.

I think that sometimes we just go to places because we’re supposed to. Visiting New York City? Can’t miss the Empire State Building. Paris? You obviously have to see the Eiffel Tower. Egypt? Don’t forget to take ten thousand pictures of the pyramids. Obviously everyone should experience these places, but I think the reason these legendary structures are so, well, legendary, is because humans made them. Human hands, just like the ones attached to our own arms, crafted these mind-boggling structures. History is hard to grapple with sometimes, but, standing in front of those monolithic stones in the English countryside, I was moved by the magic of the site, magic harnessed by humans just like me.

On Horses and Home

February 19, 2014

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Earlier today, when I was walking back from picking up some groceries, I spotted a horse drawn carriage “parked” on the side of the street. Two striking black geldings with white stockings stood in front of the carriage, rain sheets draped over their backs. I immediately crossed the street and made my way over to them, pausing beside the one closest to the curb. “May I pet your horse?” I asked the woman who stood holding his bridle.

“Of course,” she said.

I immediately pressed my hand to the warm, muscled neck. I trailed my fingers along the familiar path that I’d traced thousands of times before, the smell of horse sweat and hay filling the humid night air.

I found an inexplicable wave of sadness wash over me. What I really wanted to do was press my face into the soft fur and take a deep breath, lean into the large animal and let him hold my body weight.

At Skidmore, I have the privilege of taking riding lessons twice a week. One of my favorite parts of each trip to the barn is the moment after the lesson when the tack has been put away, the horse has been groomed, the hooves picked. When there’s nothing left for me to do, I press my face into the curve just beneath the withers and lean into the horse. It’s such a wonderful, peaceful feeling to be able to let everything go and just breathe in the smell of horse and hay and sawdust.

Horses are astonishingly patient animals. When my parents were getting divorced, those moments I spent in the barn, resting against a horse, were almost more therapeutic to me than the actual therapy sessions I went to. Horses don’t expect anything from you except kindness—and maybe a carrot now and then. They don’t care if you’re wearing makeup, or if your rosacea is flaming up in fiery red patches across your cheeks. They don’t care if you’re sad or lonely or scared. As long as you are gentle and quiet, they will let you rest against them for as long as you need.

And you know what? Every time I walk into a horse’s stall because I need to escape, because the tears are brimming and I don’t want to have to explain why I’m crying to my riding instructor—the horse knows. He knows when it is one of those moments when I’m splitting apart at the seams. And he will lift his head from his hay or his water bucket and let me stroke his face, let me kiss his nose, let me wrap my arms around that great big neck and cry. Horses are patient as the earth and they never judge. Plus they’re cuddly and warm.

So—getting back to my horse encounter in Bath—I pet Bill (that was the horse’s name, his partner was Bob) for a good five minutes before I thought I better head back to my flat. “Thank you,” I told the owner. “I really needed that.”

And I did. I love being in Bath, but there are things that I’m starting to miss about my house—like the presence of my two cats. Human companionship is great, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something inexplicably calming and therapeutic about having a cat purring in your lap. Seeing those horses tonight reminded me how long it’s been since I’ve had some quality animal time.

During the day, when I’m exploring Bath or going to class or even reading in my bedroom, my mind is filled with the concepts I’m studying, the sights I’m seeing, and the new people I’m meeting. But during the night, there is always a moment, usually just before bedtime, when I think to myself, I am very far from home. It’s a strange feeling—one that I’m not quite used to yet. I’ve never been so removed, geographically speaking, from the house I grew up in. For the first time in my life, I can’t hop in a car and be in my childhood bedroom in a few short hours. There’s an entire ocean between me and that bedroom.

Everything about Bath is beautiful, but there’s nothing quite like walking down the same streets you’ve walked down for two decades, or standing in the dining room where the festivities for your third birthday party took place. I know some people who get restless with the idea of sameness, of longevity. Some people are fed by near-constant newness. I have never been like that. I’m fed by familiarity, and while I feel exhilarated and inspired here in Bath, there are moments when I’m acutely aware that the tie between me and my familiar places is stretched as thin as it’s ever been.

I am very far from home.

It’s a good thing, a necessary thing. I am growing and learning, but I miss my home. My cats. And I definitely miss being able to bask in all that equine goodness twice a week. Hopefully I’ll run into Bill and Bob again soon.

The Evening I Spent with a British Rugby Team

February 15, 2014

My friend Ruth and I ventured out into Bath night life with nothing but some twenty pound notes and our charming American accents. Ruth had one main goal for her evening: to find some company of the male persuasion. I was happily playing the part wingwoman.

Off a tip from a nice saleswoman earlier in the day, we decided to start the night at The Gin Bar. We walked in and were immediately enveloped in a cloud of testosterone. We began to talk to some lovely “blokes”. (I still don’t feel I have enough street cred to use British slang without quotation marks). We soon learned that these nice men were rugby players—not surprising considering their impressive muscles, nicely showcased by skin-tight shirts. We soon realized that the men we’d met had brought all their teammates as well. We’d ventured into a local rugby player’s birthday bash!

I met a man named Frazier, who was more than a few drinks into the night. He informed me straight away that he was an asshole—his honesty was very refreshing. I told him, “Well, at least you’re up front about it.” He proceeded to tell me that he’d just had a baby named Jasper, and he was out that night celebrating his birthday. (He was the rugby player that all the other rugby players were gathered for.) He then told me he had a fiancée, Laura, who he hated except he loved her…mostly…except…no he really just loved her. (Picture a drunken ramble in which this information was related.) I told him that he was living the dream by some people’s standards and he should embrace it. He was distressed about the unpredictability of life. I told him that the wildness of life can be a very beautiful thing. He seemed unconvinced. He told me that if it didn’t work out with Laura, we would make a great pair. Such a charmer. But, hey, he did warn me about his asshole tendencies so I shouldn’t have been all that surprised.

Meanwhile, Ruth was in hetero heaven. Our rugby team invited us to move on from the Gin Bar to an Irish pub where I wrote the beginning of this blog while Ruth chatted up two blonde and burly rugby men. Frazier, who wooed me earlier by inviting me to be his backup plan, offered me a drink. (I only mention this because it’s just too awesomesauce of a thing to leave out. A rugby player bought me a drink! #win.)

From the Irish pub, we moved to a nightclub where Beyoncé was playing so I immediately felt at home. Unfortunately, while we were outside having a smoke, the rugby team disappeared.

Next, I found myself, a bit weary, in a night club that happens to be right beneath my apartment building. Ruth had found a dashing middle-aged fox to chat up while I rested my feet on a stool. Some people might be bored or annoyed to be left to their own devices in such a place, but as a writer, it’s moments like these where I’m happy as a peach.

Ruth went to smoke on the terrace with her silver-haired fox. I escaped the crush of the dance floor and found a very nice couch to chill on. It was a lovely night out. A full moon. I’ve found that full moon energy either makes me want to crawl out of my skin or settles into my gut like a belly full of warm tea, leaving me feeling deeply at peace. Saturday’s full moon was the latter. There I was at a nightclub in Bath with one of my best friends. There was a time in my life when I could barely leave my house without having a panic attack, let alone go bar hopping with an entire English rugby team. I’m proud of myself. Also a little in wonder. For one of the first times in my life, I have experiences to write about, rather than wishes or idle imaginings—and I couldn’t be happier, or more grateful.

As I mentioned before, the club Ruth and I were in was right next to my flat, so while Ruth got cozy with her middle-aged hottie, I went to my flat and started to get ready for bed. Forty-five minutes later, Ruth called me so I could come down to let her into my building. Apparently, in the short amount of time since I’d left her, she’d gone to another bar with her older man, ran into the rugby team that had mysteriously disappeared earlier, and ended up hooking up with one of the players, which would’ve bee an awesome enough ending to the night…but wait. There’s more.

As Ruth related all this to me, a man walked up to us, asking for a light. We started talking. His name was Gino (“I’m Gino, I’m eye-talian”), he is a landlord in Bath, and is flamboyantly gay. He pegged me for a lesbian immediately, which pleased me to no end. I asked him how he knew. He gestured vaguely at my body, looking me up and down, and said, “It’s just your whole look. The pants and…no it’s the coat. It’s really the coat that gives you away.” After giving Ruth and me some makeup tips and sharing with us (rather unprompted, mind you) that he enjoys a little rough-and-tumble in the boudoir, he gave me his number and said to call him sometime. He told me to introduce myself as “the lesbian I met when I was piss drunk talking about drag queens” and he would remember me “straight away.” Then, with a two cheek kiss, he skipped off into the ether. Now that’s what I call a night to remember.

Special thanks to my good friend Ruth Truth for being the driving force behind our adventurous evening. I wouldn’t have had a story to tell if it wasn’t for her and her awesomeness.

History Be Cray (And I Dig It)

February 10, 2014

During my first (almost) full week in Bath, we visited a medieval cathedral and a local abbey whose origins date back to the 1200s. While these buildings are impressive simply as ridiculously awesome architectural feats, my favorite thing about exploring these ancient places is the stories that are contained within their walls.

Here are some of my faves.

I’ll start with the abbey in Bath, with its soaring ceilings, insanely beautiful stained glass, walls covered by hundreds of memorials, and a history that reaches far back into the centuries.

abbey outside

This abbey was the site of the coronation of King Edgar, the very first king of England, in 973 A.D. It was also used as an army base and hospital during the British Civil War—so we’ve got some super historical shit happening here. The building went through two major transformations over the centuries. It began as a Norman church; expanded into a massive cathedral that fell into disarray because it was too big for the (lazy) monks to take care of; then, in 1499, construction of the abbey began. When Henry VIII threw his infamous temper tantrum and founded the Church of England, construction halted. Under Elizabeth I, construction began again, and the abbey was finally completed in the 1570s.

parl dude 2

This tomb tells a particularly interesting (read: slightly tragic) story. The man pictured fought for the Parliamentarians during the Biritish Civil War. During the war, the Royalists occupied the abbey and used it as a base and make-shift hospital. The Royalists were obviously not huge fans of our Parliamentarian friend here, so they decided to vent their hatred in the most mature way possible—by hacking away at his face and cutting off his hand, which originally held a sword, so he couldn’t fight anymore! Those Royalists sure were a respectful bunch.

What makes the story even more upsetting is the fact that the Parliamentarian soldier wasn’t even buried there! His wife had died and was buried in the abbey. He commissioned a tomb to be constructed that included his likeness lying beside his wife’s. But then he went on to remarry twice and ended up being buried beside his third wife. So all that those rude Royalists accomplished was the degradation of an innocent woman’s grave. Sigh.

Still a good story, though.

roy dude glass

Ironically, the stained glass window positioned nearest to the tomb (pictured above) portrays a famous Royalist who will now spend eternity looking down at the work of his grave-defacing comrades.

graffiti

Okay, this is one of my favorites. The picture above is an example of ancient graffiti. No one really knows how this Hebrew got carved into the wall of a Catholic abbey, but the best guess is that it was done during the Civil War—around the same time our Parliamentarian had his statue face hacked off. While all hell was breaking loose during the war, a Jew or someone with an awesome sense of humor (or a Jew with an awesome sense of humor!) would have been able to carve out these letters. The interesting thing is that the carving is done properly. Whoever did the carving had been trained well. The translation is “God Lives,” so actually rather appropriate for a Catholic abbey.

american flag abbey

senator memorial

There’s also an American presence in the abbey! Funzies. When we visited, the man giving us the tour made sure to point out all the connections to America. It was actually very sweet. The flag in the picture above was given to the abbey by the American government after World War II to represent the relationship between the two great countries. Yay for friendship!

The second picture is a little (okay, a lot) embarrassing. William Bingham, a U.S. senator, commissioned a memorial to be put up in the abbey after his death. Out of the hundreds of memorials lining the walls, his is by far the most obnoxious. I mean, he has two giant stone-carved angels on either side of his precious memorial. I mean, I could see including one giant stone-carved angel, but two? Come on, Will. Reign it in a little. Typical America though, am I right? Sigh.

Now, moving on to the awesome medieval cathedral in Salisbury. Just look at this mother fucker:

cathedral cathedral 2

Damn. Do you ever have moments where you look at something human-made and say to yourself, Damn, my species is awesome? (For reference, at the opposite end of the spectrum is the feeling you get when you walk into a Wal-Mart Super Center.) I’ve been having a lot of those moments in England, but the Salisbury cathedral was extra mind-blowing—because not only is it heartwrenchingly gorgeous, but it was also constructed in a mere 38 years. Seriously. Human beings built this architectural gem in a little less than four decades. I’m not easily impressed, but that shit is impressive.

Moving on to the interior—just check this shit out.

cathedral inside 2

Seriously.

cathedral inside 1

People built this with their hands. There weren’t any power tools in the 13th century, y’all. Mind blown yet?

Speaking of blown minds, I pretty much lost every last bit of cool I had (which wasn’t much to begin with) when we reached this particular tomb during the tour:

tudor grave

“What prompted you to lose your meager supply of cool, Maggie?” you may ask. I shall tell you. It’s a mother-fucking Tudor grave, people! As in, the bitch buried here was related to Elizabeth I aka the baddest bitch in the game (at least until Beyonce rolled around and took over that particular title). Her husband is also buried here, but he’s less interesting—a mere peasant. Actually, though, she was of royal blood (Tudor blood!!!), and he was just your average, neighborhood hottie with a tight ass and a pretty face. Okay fine he was an earl, but, I mean, who wasn’t in those days, am I right? BOOOORING.

Anyway, the chick in question was Catharine Grey. She was the sister of Lady Jane Grey. Both sisters were first cousins once removed to Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII. Edward was a Protestant, and when he died, all the Protestants freaked out because Bloody Mary Tudor was next in line to inherit the throne and she was a raging Catholic. So the Protestants ran around looking for a replacement and settled on Jane Grey. Unfortunately for Jane, England was still a pretty Catholic place and most people actually wanted Mary to be queen.

Mary was all like, “Bitch, you better step off!” And Jane was all like, “I just wish we could bake a cake of rainbows and smiles and we could all eat it and be happy.” And then England was all like, “She doesn’t even go here!” So, long story short, a mere nine days into Jane’s reign, Mary kicked her skinny Protestant ass out the way and took her throne. Jane was beheaded pretty soon after that (sad face), thus ushering in one of the bloodiest eras in English history. Fun times.

Meanwhile, Jane’s sister Catharine was getting into some shenanigans of her own. She met Edward Seymour, fell madly in love, and proceeded to marry him without the queen’s permission (*collective gasp*)! Mary was super pissed and threw her and Eddie in the Tower of London where she gave birth to two sons. Years later, she was finally released on house arrest, but then she died of tuberculosis. Those Grey sisters seriously just could not catch a break. She was then laid to rest in the Salisbury cathedral where I had the distinct privilege of fangirling over her grave a few days ago.

Okay. Still with me? I have one more story. This one is pretty nasty—in the best way obviously. I unfortunately don’t have a picture to go with this one, but it’s not really necessary. Just use your imagination! I know you have one and I know it’s awesome.

So, just a few short feet away from Catharine Grey’s tomb is the tomb of William Longespée, Third Earl of Salisbury. Our boy Will was actually present to see the first brick laid for construction of the Cathedral. He died six years into its construction, but arranged for his body to be buried there once it was finished. Over the course of the eight centuries that Will’s body was chilling in the cathedral, his tomb had to be moved a couple of times. It’s like when you move your couch to get better energy flow in your apartment. Anyway, after one of its repositionings in the 1700s, someone had the bright idea to open the tomb to see how old Will’s shriveled remains were faring.

And guess what they found.

You’ll never guess.

A mummified rat inside his skull!!

Isn’t that just disgustingly disgusting and also kind of disgustingly awesome at the same time? But the story doesn’t end there. When they did some tests on our rat friend, they discovered that his little rat body was riddled with arsenic. So, the question then arises, how did the rat get his tiny paws on all that arsenic? The most interesting theory (and therefore the one I choose to believe) is that the rat got arsenic poisoning from munching on Will’s brain, which would mean that Will was poisoned! Drama! Intrigue! I can’t even handle it. There are other way more boring explanations, but I really dig the whole murder mystery thing so I’m just going to leave it at that.

The end. For now.

The Birds of Bath

February 6, 2014

ducks of bath

On my third day in Bath, I went exploring on my own. It was raining, so I was happy. The rain in Bath is different than the rain in upstate New York. It does not drench you. It seems gentler somehow. It does not prick your face. Even when the wind is howling, the rain is still somehow soft. The drops are farther apart from each other, falling in a scattered pattern across your clothes, so that even when you walk in a storm for a long time, it does not soak you to the skin, does not reach your bones the way New York rain can.

I walked slowly, gazing upwards at the buildings. I gave equal attention to everything—from the abandoned buildings on the periphery of town, painted with lopsided graffiti, to the Pizza Hut at the center, or the ancient Roman Baths that tourists stopped to gawk at.

In Bath, there is beauty in almost every building. Even the Starbucks and Burger Kings are built from stone and appear elegant and ancient (if you’re able to ignore the gaudy logos). One building had beautiful patterns carved from the stone buttresses that protruded from its storefront. I noticed about a dozen pigeons tucked carefully into the nooks and crannies created by the ornately carved stone. The shallow stone overhangs provided just enough of a “roof” to keep the pigeons dry. Many of them slept soundly, faces tucked into ruffled feathers. Some cleaned themselves, waiting out the rain in their little sanctuary.

I continued on past the mythically beautiful abbey we had taken a tour of the day before, passed through the center of the city, and emerged on the other side where a circular road winds around the edge of downtown. There was a small, waterlogged park to my right, and straight ahead I could just barely see the boldly rushing Avon River.

I headed in that direction, pausing to lean against a railing and look out over the water. The river was practically bursting out of its seams. The walkway that normally ran along the shore was completely underwater. The water was caramel brown and the current moved swiftly, dotted with eddies that swirled briefly into sight then faded.

I spotted two ducks a little ways down along the shore. They were paddling in the calmer water close to land. The female was digging into the wet grasses within her reach, while her male partner bobbed beside her, looking a little bored (not that I can read duck emotions very well, but he definitely seemed bored.) Every once in a while the female would quack and the male would quack back. They picked their way along the shore for a while, until the female went rogue and drifted out into the faster current. As she began to be swept away, her husband began to quack frantically. She quacked back, equally distressed. Then, in a flash of brilliance, she seemed to remember that she was duck, which meant that she had wings, which meant that she could fly! She leapt into the air and was airborne briefly before taking refuge on an old dock on the other side of the river where another duck couple was hanging out. Her husband seemed a little peeved, swimming back and forth on the other side of the river, quacking in annoyance every once in a while.

After a while, the female duck returned to her partner. A few moments later, the other duck couple she’d introduced herself to joined them and they began to swim together, moving up and down the shore, eating what they could find.

On a random side note—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a duck land on water, but it’s actually a very elegant process. First, they swoop down towards the water until their little orange feet skim the surface. Then, rather than plopping straight into the water with an unseemly splash, they skim along the top, using their feet as tiny water skis to slow their momentum. Then, finally, they sink gracefully into the water, scooting a little ways further before coming to a stop at whatever destination they were aiming for.

I’m probably biased, but after observing all four ducks (two females and two males) execute a water landing, I’ve come to the conclusion that female ducks are much more talented in this area. The two lady ducks I watched added a certain finesse to the act that was very pleasing to watch.

When the ducks finally drifted downriver and out of site, I headed off in the direction of my flat. By that time, I was pretty thoroughly damp, but I didn’t mind. Bath rain seems to agree with me—as does almost everything else about this wonderful city.

Getting to Bath

February 3, 2014

View of Bath

My journey to England started at Kennedy Airport in NYC. Something else also started that day. Snow! Perfect timing. I drove to the airport with my dad. We talked about the city, the neighborhoods my grandparents grew up in, how Queens was a suburb of New York when my grandfather was growing up there as a kid.

“Going into The City was a big deal,” my dad said. He gave me a look. “That was Manhattan. They almost never went. Too stressful.” I chuckled at the absurdity of not including Queens under the catch-all phrase of “The City.”

Even though I was sad that my mom wouldn’t be able to see me off at the airport, I was glad that my dad was there with me. My mom would have been emotional. She probably would have started crying before we left my aunt’s apartment in Inwood. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad that she was emotional about me leaving. It would’ve been a bummer if she’d shoved my suitcases at me and sent me on my way without at least a few bouts of crying. But whenever my mom cries, I cry, and I didn’t need any more encouragement in that moment.

We arrived at the airport and my dad pointed out a broad-shouldered guy hopping out of a cab in front of us. “Where’s he going?” he asked.

I glanced at the guy, feeling the panic of leaving home suddenly descend on me. “Don’t know,” I said.

My dad poked my shoulder. “Oh come on, you’re a writer.”

I swallowed. “Okay. He looks Canadian to me. Yeah, definitely Canadian.”

My dad considered this. “An athlete?” he asked. “I bet he does luge.”

“Nah,” I said. “Too bulky for luge. Maybe hockey.”

I took a deep breath and stepped out of the cab. Whether he meant to or not, my dad’s little game had done the trick. My anxiety was in check for the time being.

While he went to park the car, I ventured into the airport to check my bags. I became paralyzed about ten steps inside. So I did what I always do whenever I feel like the world is being pulled out from under me: I called my mommy.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do this,” I mumbled into the phone. My mom, in her special mother voice—tender and more reassuring than anything in the world—told me that I could do it. She told me all the things I would do on my way to Bath, England, all the steps of my journey from the airplane to Heathrow, to the train to Bath. Somehow, hearing her talking about it, it didn’t seem so impossible.

After hanging up with my mom, my dad reappeared and we went to check my bags. Then we began to meander towards security. I could feel my panic rising, knowing he wouldn’t be able to go any farther with me. I tugged on his sleeve so he stopped and buried my face in his chest, crying hard. My dad was perfect. He gave me one of his tight, daddy hugs and listened while I verbalized my fear. “I feel like I’ve spent my whole life having a panic attack,” I said. “I never thought I’d be able to do anything like this.”

He told me he was proud of me. That he loved me. In one of the most tender gestures I’ve ever experienced from him, he lifted his hand to my cheek. “You can do this,” he assured me.

I have the best parents in the world.

I hugged my dad one last time before the security checkpoint. He waited until I was all the way through. I waved at him one last time then headed to my gate. I was an hour early. I passed the time talking to my mom and trying not to throw up on the British woman who was sitting next to me.

We boarded the plane on time. As everyone settled into their seats, the captain announced that take-off would be delayed by 10 to 15 minutes so that they could de-ice the plane. Long story short it didn’t take 10 to 15 minutes. It took three hours. Luckily, I had taken a Dramamine to avoid motion sickness so I was basically unconscious for most of the delay. When we finally took off, the flight was pretty smooth considering the fact that we’d taken off in the middle of a blizzard.

We landed in Heathrow at around 11:30 local time. The airport was nearly deserted so it didn’t take long to get across the border and go through customs. By the time I finally caught a taxi to go stay with my friend Ruth in London, it was past midnight. The taxi ride to Hoxton Market cost over one hundred pounds, but I was too exhausted at that point to really care. The cabbie let me use his phone so I could contact Ruth and within a couple minutes she appeared and gave me a hug. I let out a long sigh. The relief of seeing a friendly face after a stressful day that started at 5:30 am was almost overwhelming. But Ruth had me laughing within seconds.

I called my mom from Ruth’s room. As my adrenaline wore off, a wave of exhaustion and sadness washed over me. I’d never been so far away from my parents, from my home. I felt empowered and independent, traveling overseas by myself, but saying goodbye has always been hard for me. Going on Zoloft a little over a year ago helped me get my anxiety under control, but I’m still a homebody at heart, a mush ball who likes to snuggle with her mom and her cat, who loves the little town she grew up in. I cried to my mom and she reassured me for the umpteenth time that day.

When I walked back into Ruth’s room, she patted the spot on the mattress beside her. “Come sit,” she said. I sat. “It’s going to be okay, Magalicious. I promise.” Her uncharacteristic sweetness told me she’d overheard my sob fest. Ruth is a wonderful, loyal friend, but she saves the gentle reassurance for moments when I’m truly freaking the fuck out.

We watched an episode of a web series produced by Jerry Seinfeld in which he picks up his famous friends and takes them out to coffee. It was basically coffee porn with some genuine comedy thrown in. After that, we both passed out.

Ruth left early in the morning to go to her internship and I was left to navigate to Bath. First stop: the coffee shop across the street that had WiFi so I could look up directions to the Liverpool Street Station where I’d be able to get my phone working in the U.K. That morning definitely helped to bolster my faith in humanity. I asked about a dozen people for directions and every last one was friendly and helpful. Each time one of these strangers smiled at me, I could feel my chest ease. I could do this. I was capable and smart and people were nice. Whenever I’m in the midst of a panic attack, I tend to forget that as a general rule, human beings tend to be good.

I made it to the Liverpool Station, got my phone working, and caught a cab to Paddington. The cabbie this time was very sweet. He called me “Love” and waited outside the train station while I ran inside to an ATM to get cash because he didn’t take cards.

I bought my ticket to Bath from a man who was possibly the nicest stranger I’d met up to that point. I told him, “I want to go to Bath.”

“Well,” he replied, “I’m not one to kill a dream.”

I paused, squinting at him a little. I was tired and stressed and jetlagged so it took me a little longer than usual to register the joke. But then I smiled and said, “Can you help me?”

“Thought you’d never ask,” he declared and went about printing my ticket.

I don’t know how, but we started talking about chips versus fries and crisps versus chips. “I certainly think ‘American’ qualifies as a foreign language,” he said. I agreed. The more time I spend here, the more I agree with him.

I caught my train and tried not to pass out in my seat. I had to stay awake so I wouldn’t miss my stop. I closed my eyes—but not before setting an alarm that would go off in a few minutes.

When I arrived in Bath, Emma, a staff member from ASE met me at the station and took me to my flat. She was very sweet and understanding—once again solidifying the fact that human beings tend to be awesome if you give them a chance. I met my roommate Amy briefly, went over a few ground rules with Emma, and then headed off for the first rounds of orientation. I also called my mom somewhere in there and once again unloaded all my weariness and sadness on her. She once again made me feel better and told me I would be fine. (She’s seriously the best.)

After a couple meetings and a quick walking tour around town led by a staff member, I was able to take a shower which worked wonders for my mood. That night, I went out to dinner at a pub called The Raven with my two flatmates, Heather and Amy. Heather had been in Bath the semester before and started to fill me and Amy in on all the insider knowledge.

At The Raven, I enjoyed my first real meal in about two days: sweet potato pie with goat cheese and spinach, topped with a Guinness gravy and a side of “chips”. After dinner, Amy and Heather wanted to stop in at a grocery store. I opted to find my own way home. The walking tour earlier had been rushed and I wanted to linger a bit, meander down the narrow, cobble stone streets and dwell on the heartbreakingly gorgeous architecture, the rushing Avon River, swollen with rain.

I found my way back to my flat with no trouble and after calling my parents, I fell into bed, sleeping soundly until 8:30 when I got up to head off for more orientation.