I have attempted several times since Belgium to continue cataloging my weekend ventures—jotting down names of restaurants and pubs we’ve frequented in Lisbon and Germany, the names of castles and cliffs we’ve traversed in Ireland—but all to no avail. For when I log onto my tumblr, and read through the posts I have written on Brussels and Paris, on the Lake District and my first week at Harlaxton, a cold, hard lump sinks into my stomach and I instinctively close the lid of my laptop.
I have noticed during this semester a rather dark change within myself, and my ability to remain happy for an extended period of time. I can wake up on a Tuesday morning in my perfectly acceptable bunk bed and tell myself I am going to have a great day as I climb down the awkward stepladder, that I’m not going to let anything bring me down as my bare feet touch the rough carpet of my dark dorm room. I can brush my teeth over my dirty sink and stare back at the shaggy-haired, saggy-eyed woman in the glass, days and seconds of deep disturbance under her pale skin, and tell her through a foamy mouth that she’s going to have to smile if she wants anyone to talk to her today. I can walk outside and smile as the wintry English air fills my sinuses, and take each step up the gravel walk to the manor with more confidence than I had the night before.
But the second I hear the sound of my key unlocking the reception door, my stomach grows suddenly cold; I can feel the lump. And no matter how hard I try, at some point in my day that woman in the mirror finds me, and my hands and thoughts grow restless, my throat heavy and thick, the anger and boredom in my chest burning to burst out through my teeth.
This started fairly early on. As the weeks carried on and the days fell darker, this inability to cope with my situation affected my relationships with my friends. I grew incredibly self-conscious, constantly worrying about how others perceived me, especially those who seemed so attached to the place I loathed so much. How would my boyfriend feel about my lack of motivation, about my ambivalence toward conversation and socialization? I convinced myself at times that perhaps he would grow tired of it, that others would pay no attention and I would slowly sink completely into myself and someone, one day, would find a puddle of sallow cheekbones and saggy eyes on the bathroom floor and call the janitor to mop me up. My troubled thoughts gave way to more troubled thoughts, and yet I managed to keep my cheeks intact.
I found an escape in my weekend trips, leaving every weary disturbance on the steps of that enormous manor with passport and boarding pass in hand. I stumbled into the maps of Lisbon and Brugges, Berlin and Dublin; I took that sad woman in the mirror by the hand and whispered in her ear, “Now this is Europe.” Together, we explored our identity through French and Portuguese phrases, leaving our carbon footprints in the cobbled side streets of Ojen and grassy hillsides of Kerry County. There was no need to convince, no need to be brave—we were happy for every minute of those amazing journeys, until the landing of the plane awoke me with a jolt and I realized the damn pilot had tricked me yet again, returning me to the one place where time stands uncomfortably still, and I am forced to face that mirror every morning for another week. One of the few reliefs available during those times was the frequent flashbacks of the previous weekend, the re-enactments by my traveling companions of our PaddyWagon tour guide and our favorite Irish pub songs. But even those moments felt private, as though bringing them back to this house and openly sharing them was cheapening them. They were no longer mine, but the entire school’s. And that must be why when, every time I open my tumblr and see my own fluffed-up regurgitations of my fondest memories, my stomach sinks and my hand snaps the computer shut. I have cheapened and revealed, given away my only escape to a group of unknown people who don’t get the whole story. I have betrayed myself. I cannot bring myself to do this again, which may be very unfortunate in the long run.
I have refrained from writing anything this honest out of fear of offending those I respect who are deeply attached to Harlaxton, but now that my fifteen weeks are almost up I feel as though I must take the risk. I am convinced that these aforementioned people must see a different side of the school than students do, and therefore their overall experience is shaped by those positive memories of their times teaching and interacting within an entirely different circle and sphere. As a student here, I feel trapped, claustrophobic, such as a lab mouse must feel when forced to move against 149 other lab mice in an impossibly small cage for four months. I have felt that through my courses here I have been told what Britain is before I get to experience it, and those forced opinions do not in any way match up to what I have seen. I feel as though my mind and the minds of my colleagues have been forced shut when, really, studying abroad should encourage the opposite. I feel as though this place has tried to age me backwards, but in doing so has aged me forwards. Many people, I can imagine, study abroad to somewhat lose a part of their old identity, only to replace it with a new, experienced, European one. I would say that I have definitely lost a part of myself, but what has replaced it is fractured and very tender.
Europe, to me, has been everything outside of the UK. I cannot remember what exactly my expectations were at the beginning of the semester, but I know that from what I had heard of the program at home, I was expecting something more. I do not feel lied to, because that implies blame, but I do feel deeply disillusioned and misinformed. The worst part of it is that those back home who love this place are the last people I want to hurt or offend. And in saying that, I write this only in an effort to organize my emotions, to do justice to myself and tell the truth.
And to do justice to others, there are absolutely a number of people I have to thank for making this experience worth while: Dr. Caroline Magennis, who helped me at the very beginning of the semester by sharing her own story with me and encouraging me to reconsider my career path; Jayne at security, who proved to me just how much one can care about a total stranger; Seanie and the PaddyWagon group, who introduced me to the place I love more than anywhere on the continent; my group of friends and traveling companions, who, though times have been rough, have stuck together til the end; my family back home who have missed me and supported my academic and personal dreams; RyanAir and HouseTrip, who have allowed us to travel to cities I never dreamed of seeing; our adopted British family, who took us in once a week for a home-cooked meal and wonderful company; and, finally, my best friend, without whom I could not have gotten by, without whom all of those weekends would have meant very little, without whom my memories would fade in the weeks to come, for, as Christopher McCandless wrote during his final moments in the Alaskan wilderness, “Happiness is only real when shared.”
With only a couple of weeks left abroad, this phrase has begun to really sink in. I now realize that in sharing this experience with someone you love, both the painful moments and the wonderful moments mean so much more. Because I have had someone to suffer with, to laugh with, to cry with, to swoon with, I feel that I have grown. I suppose everyone says that of study abroaders, and that growth is different for each student. Though mine resulted mostly from disappointment, it is still growth, and now that I have said my piece and lifted many heavy thoughts from my mind, I will take this experience as a lesson for my future self—that being, I will never again find myself in a situation where I feel academically or psychologically oppressed (for being oppressed is far different than being challenged), will not allow others to think for me, will not give up the opportunity to fight for what I believe in and will not be afraid to challenge those who take on the role of being my teacher. Education is not a lake, in which water stagnates until it rinses dry, but more of a colossal, raging river, in which thoughts and methods crash into each other, merging at one particularly sharp boulder in the center of the stream, scraping along the bank and shedding off old ideas to combine with new ones. This river runs until it reaches another river, and those two bodies of ideas merge and continue flowing. I am excited to move on from this lake and plunge, head-first, into a new river, to shiver off these stale feelings, to crash into new ideas and feel myself flow and transform, finally allowing that sad woman in the mirror to shed her skin and be free again.
Imagine the looks of horror that come across the faces of four young students trying to fly to Brussels for the weekend when they find out they booked their departure for the wrong date. And that it’s going to cost them 200 pounds for a new ticket. Each.
It was a horrible look. One of defeat, shame, depression.
Now imagine the looks of wonder that come across the faces of four young students stumbling into La Grand Place in Brussels City Center, 200 pounds lighter, but completely enamored with the winding alleys and huge plazas that caught our fall after taking that 200 pound leap. In three words: totally worth it.
For me, Belgium meant something more than anywhere I had been before (even Paris). It treated us so well, both in Brussels and in Brugge.
After eight hours of twilight travel, we fell onto the beds of our four star hotel (thank god for lastminute.com, who allowed us to pay only 50 pounds a night instead of 250), located right in the middle of the European District on Boulevard Charlemagne.
Upon entering the city, we made it our goal not to buy a single tram pass throughout the weekend—my feet may never feel the same but walking around the city for four days was incredible, even in the rain.
Now as the title of this post suggests, I gained pounds back during my stay in Belgium: both monetarily, by finding ten euro stuffed in between the couch cushions of our favorite cafe, and physically, by consuming at least 5,000 calories in fries, waffles, and delicious Belgian ale.
Let’s start with the fries, shall we? Our first encounter with fries was at the restaurant in la Grand Place where we celebrated Anna’s birthday. They were nothing like English chips, nor were they like Beef-a-Roo fries. They came in a paper cone, held up by a metal cone, and they tasted of pure, unadulterated love. They were so good, in fact, that we were to have them again another four times.
And the waffles. Sold from little street vendors, the smell intoxicating, we tasted our first Belgian waffle after, ehhem, “celebrating” Anna’s birthday for a good three hours. Topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce, it came to us in a little paper bowl with two of the littlest plastic forks you have ever seen. It didn’t stand a chance.
Now, I never used to drink beer. Dating Tim has done a great deal in changing that, and I’m glad for it. I’ve noticed that each European country takes pride in a certain kind of beer, and for the Belgians it is ale, 10% alcohol-containing ale.
Ale with dinner, ale with fries, ale from a festival, ale from a convenience store. Ale on a bridge, ale in the plaza, ale overlooking a canal. Ale ale ale. Delicious ale.
Oh—I can’t believe I almost forgot—we did stumble across a few chocolate shops in town. (And when I say a few, I mean hundreds.) What’s so fantastic about chocolate shops in Belgium is that when you walk in, there’s an apron-ed chocolatier waiting to greet you with a tray of assorted chocolate samples. White chocolate, milk chocolate, liquor-infused chocolate, chocolate covered orange peels, chocolate covered espresso beans, lemon chocolates, cherry chocolates, chocolate pumpkins, chocolate squirrels, chocolate coins, chocolates in the shapes of male and female reproductive organs, chocolate mushrooms, chocolate apples, chocolate acorns, chocolate leaves, chocolate whatever you can possibly imagine.
The night life in Brussels was electric. Because things are so centralized around the heart of the city, you don’t have to be far away before you feel the current of energy and it sucks you into a seven hour partei of absinthe bars and three-for-two mojitos. We were fortunate enough to be in town during Nuit Blanche, a twelve hour festival taking place during the hours of 7pm and 7am. The entire city buzzed. Whole families pitched tents along the street and served fresh fries, rice dishes, and waffles. Events were set up all over town—everything from holographic images of people dancing displayed on old arches and sides of buildings, midnight tours of cathedrals and museums, and watching two men clothed in black spray paint a twenty foot long canvas.
On Sunday we took the train to Brugge, the Venice of the North. We walked into town from the train station and noticed how quiet it was on a Sunday afternoon. Everything was still—all the old houses built over canals, the bikes chained to windowsills on the sidewalk, the lilypads floating on the water. It was sweet.
Not ten minutes later, we reached the center of town, where we found an old man spinning an old carnival instrument, occasionally tipping an old bowler hat to children as they ran past him.
Not far past that, we found an antiques flea market along the water, where the people flocked and roamed in Bruggian leisure. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the square, where we ate (an absolutely horrid) dinner, but finished off the night splendidly by sitting and chatting on a small bridge on the outskirts of town.
We ended the trip by completing the vicious circle we started at the beginning of the trip. Our flight was delayed by an hour, which put us into Manchester just ten minutes too late to catch the last train to Grantham. We counted our losses, called a taxi to pick us up from Nottingham (a 60 pound taxi ride), found some dinner in the Manchester train station, and fell asleep aboard the train which was to take us to Nottingham. Even this couldn’t have been that easy. Not an hour into our journey, we received word that a freight train had derailed just in front of the Nottingham station and that we would have to turn around and await orders. So. We went all the way back to our previous stop, sat for a half an hour, then took off again for our destination. By the time we reached Nottingham, our taxi driver would have to have been waiting for forty five minutes. Completely convinced we would have to find some other way home, we walked silently out of the station only to see our taxi patiently waiting for our late arrival. Exhausted, extremely grateful, and ready to get to bed, we climbed into the cab and sailed onward.
It was an incredible weekend, one spent with good friends, good food, and good ale. For those looking for a weekend getaway, I highly recommend checking out Belgium.
The trees brought life, the river a steady rhythm, the cobblestone the perfect dance floor, the tower a beacon.
The beautiful women and their babies, old men carrying baguettes home to their wives, the young couples huddled on park benches—
the perfect chilly weather that allows you to wear trench coats and scarves—
the metro that brings together every language you could possibly imagine hearing in a single space—
the Moroccan students who teach American students how to curse in their language—
the dogs who keep their owners warm at night on the street corners—
the young landlady who, though assisted by her mother and father, helps five young Americans settle into their new French home—
the city that, by quick degrees, makes us forget about school, and work, and reality, and allows us to just be enthralled by the beautiful and slow-paced French atmosphere.
I worry about appreciating it all.
I worry about remembering it.
1. If you think the taxi drivers in Grantham drive erratically, try taking a taxi anywhere in the Lake District at ten o’clock at night.
2. Coaches follow that observation, as well.
3. When you think you’ve found the narrowest road that will accommodate two moving vehicles at the same time, think again. You would not believe the number of shattered side mirrors littering the ditches on either side of those winding roads.
4. The best places to find breakfast are often the ones where the women behind the counter call you “dearie”.
5. When the sign says “2 and 1/2 miles to Ambleside”, prepare for a good three or four, or five miles of hiking.
6. When the bartender offers you a pint of ale with your dinner for an extra 45 pence, you don’t say no.
7. There are several types of moss.
8. Moss Man and Scrumpy Jack are no myths; they exist in the wilderness of Low Rway Campground.
9. When looking at campgrounds, check into rules regarding individual open fires.
10. Bring two pairs of shoes: one to hike in, one to change into once you’ve reached your destination.
11. Purchase an “Explorer” day pass for the local coach; they loop around to every town within the Lake District. Trust me, it’s worth it.
12. Either practice setting up your tent before you arrive at the campsite, or don’t arrive when the only light source you have is a flashlight or the lit end of a cigarette.
13. Rowing a six person boat is harder than it looks and requires brute strength. (Clearly, as is shown below.)
14. Telling stories around a picnic table with a few bottles of wine is the perfect way to end a night.
15. Don’t worry so much about spending money; spending it is what you saved it for.
16. “Sheep. They were there.” -Chet Leopold
17. When you’ve woken up next to people you’ve only known for a few weeks on the muddy floor of a tent, looking your worst after not showering for three days, and they proceed to be your friend once you return to civilization, you know you’ve met someone wonderful.
18. It is whimsical; it is enchanting; it is the mist and fog and pastures; it is Wordsworth country.
Can we start with the tube? Let’s start with the tube.
What an incredible example of public infrastructure. Seven quid for an all day pass, and I cannot count how many times we used it. It seemed as though every few seconds another train came flying through. It allowed us to travel freely, not tied down to a set schedule; there for us at 7 in the morning and again at two in the morning. The only way to travel in London.
Let’s move on to food.
It’s very easy to forget to eat while traveling. And to drink water. If you’re going to budget your trip, do not forget to budget for these things (or overbudget, which works best). When it comes time to looking for a good place to eat, keep a few things in mind:
Then there’s the ale. Served as a pint a bit taller than those in America. Sometimes served at room temperature, with a perfect foamy head.
It’s true when they say that pub culture is very unlike the bar scene in America. Ale is not ordered to be consumed; it is ordered to be savored. In some pubs, a pint is offered with a meal for just a few pence extra. Take advantage of it. Some pubs make their own brews; be brave and ask questions. Walk away knowing that you learned something new and interesting; walk away with that bit of culture still swimming around the bottom of your belly.
Museums are nice, and what they tend to hold are objects that you’ll only have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see. That being said, DO NOT spend your entire stay roaming around them. You can only handle so much past before you have to be out in the present again; don’t get stuck in once place for too long. Mix it up. Most museums in London are free admission; find out what exhibits are being displayed and decide which ones you want to see ahead of time.
Oh, Camden. A really unique part of the city, though not one I would roam about in alone. I would’ve loved to have seen what the streets looked like from the air—the rhythms of the masses of people moving in and out of open air tents, in and out of alleys, in and out of pubs and parks and the underground. It was a town of disappearance and reappearance, of total immersion. Five minutes into the depths of the Camden Market and I felt as though I was in India, weaving my way through the colorful and crowded streets of Mumbai. So many languages, so many accents, so many different smells and tastes. Stands displaying everything from magic tricks to handmade jewelry to freshly-squeezed orange juice. It was intoxicating. To try and reject the flow of the masses was pointless; Camden was like one very large, very complex dance, though you learned the steps quickly. A rhythm, there was a rhythm to the way we moved. It entered your bloodstream as soon as you emerged from the Underground. Relaxed your muscles and opened your eyes and ears. It was everything you’d hope to experience in a new place.
What is so amazing about a city like London is that you can step into the Underground in Picadilly Circus with a certain multi-sensory memory or image of what the city is, then step off the Underground in Notting Hill Gate only to have that image transformed. A trip to London cannot be summed up by stating that “London” was anything, but rather that “Camden” was one thing and “Hampton Court” was another. It’s better that way, I think. To experience London is to experience its parts as parts, not as a whole.
I am living in a castle. (Technically, it’s an English Manor House, but I have yet to meet a student who doesn’t secretly wish we were wearing robes and flying around on broomsticks.) It is a beautiful castle, built by Gregory Gregory in the early nineteenth century who, when he built it, “built it perfect.” Its windows are tall, its staircases magnificent. My classrooms are not classrooms but drawing rooms, galleries, and sitting rooms plated with gold and beautiful moulding. I glance around and see dragons, cherubs, and coats of arms. I study not by fluorescent lights but by chandeliers that look like giant snowflakes if you stand beneath them. Class does not commence by a bell but by a gong. I play not pool but snooker. I eat not in a cafeteria but in a refectory. I play not frisbee in the quad but croquet on the grounds. I live not in a dorm hall but in a carriage house. I study not in Illinois, but in England.
England, where it already feels like fall. Like what fall used to feel like at ten years of age in the country. Sixty degrees never felt so good. I don’t even miss the sun most days. The rain is more drizzle, more romantic. Five minutes into the woods and you’re lost in the English countryside. On an early morning hike my first Sunday here, I wandered all about the forest behind my new home. Several loud noises made me stop and listen, and most of the time it was a large bird or squirrel. I did manage to see not a rabbit but a hare, a fully grown hare, and for a moment I felt like I was in a storybook. (That feeling occurs quite often, actually.) Lizards in Spain, hares in England.
And the little town of Grantham. Just a coach lift (or a very intense taxi drive) away. Littered with market places, charity shops, pubs, tea houses, and some of the most friendly people I’ve come to meet. Looking around one of the many charity shops on the square, I was approached by the owner who had found my name from one of my friends and addressed me with, “Katelyn? I just had to say that I love your haircut!” (Of course, she said it with that charming English accent that I can but poorly imitate.) I was so flattered and taken aback all I could do for a moment was smile and laugh (and blush a crimson red). I then asked for recommendations as to barbers in the area, and she not only gave me directions to a barbershop around the corner but told me to ask for her daughter’s first boyfriend, “a very charming young lad”, who would cut my hair well and perhaps even sweep me off my feet. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful afternoon.
And as I sit in the library, preparing my first presentation for British Studies, I begin to realize how collective an experience this really is. Around 150 students, all broken down into groups, working on similar presentations at the exact same time, clustered into corners of the house, whispering excitedly about their first impressions. All meeting at 8:30 every Monday and Wednesday morning together in the Long Gallery for lecture. All making plans to visit Ireland and Paris and Italy. All so terribly excited for the trips to be planned, the adventures to be had, the friends to be made, all waiting for those long weekends when we can really get out and stretch our cramped American legs. There are so many miles to walk, all across this vast continent, and I, for one, am ready to explore.
She came to me in the twilight hours of a Friday evening.
Tired and sore from ten hours in the air and six hours of dozing off in airports, Spain offered herself to me, the dust in the wind kicking at my heels as I strolled down Barcelona’s cobbled side streets. She greeted me in the morning with un cafe con leche, put me on a train that cut through her country side, and let me off in Malaga.
Malaga, where we first discovered how easy it is to lose our way through the palm trees in a shiny rented Mercedes. Had it not been for Carmen, our British GPS and first foreign friend, we’d have never made it to Marbella.
Marbella is really where I first was able to appreciate where I was, to realize how many hundreds of miles I had traveled from central Illinois, to realize that all of the passing faces, the strange accents, the smiles and tears and wrinkles I had seen in my travels had been but brush strokes, simple, small brush strokes, to this amazing European portrait I had begun to paint the second my plane took off in Chicago.
The photos you see in magazines, and on post cards, and on travel shows, those all had to be taken somewhere. So as we stood against the car, each of our jaws numb with awe, taking in the raw and completely unreal external view of the little village of Ojen in the side of a mountain, I couldn’t help but think I was simply staring at the centerfold of a National Geographic. That little village turned out to be the most real experience I’ve ever encountered.
Cobble stone streets that wound and hugged the hillside, little boys chasing their dog down the alley, old men sitting on benches outside churches smoking cigars and shaking their canes at children, time-worn women in their eighties filling up buckets of water from the fountain in the middle of the city, young men in their twenties putting the final coat of white paint on a building ten times their age, waiters running across the street to fetch an umbrella and a fresh loaf of bread to accommodate his thirsty, sweaty American friends—even the humidity, which climbed the higher we did, seemed only to add to the lovely toxicity of it all. It was a village of tongues, of Spanish and German and French and only a bit of English. It was nothing I had imagined it to be.
Spain, to me, became something else after that. It became a quest for these moments, for these realizations, for that mezcla of age and beauty and tongue.
And just as soon as I had come to truly let the Spanish sun die my skin, I tried to think of something that would force me to stay. Time is always against me; she kissed me and I left her.
“A person belonging to two different nations (E.G. native of one and resident in another). Also, one who takes part in an international contest; the contest itself.” -Oxford English Dictionary
“A person who is engaged in or addicted to study.” -Oxford English Dictionary
“A person who is addicted to taking part in an international contest.” -An International Student