Tuesday, July 31, 2012

(From "Random Reflections") My English Adventures, Part 2: The First Days

On June 19, around 9:30am (4:30am America time), our plane landed at the London-Heathrow Airport. We fetched our luggage, exchanged our American money for British pounds, and finally stepped outside and breathed in our first breaths of English air. The sun shone, the temperatures were warm, and our surroundings looked beautiful. Okay, they actually didn't at first because we were standing outside the airport doors, and how attractive are airports, really? But we soon piled into the charter bus that would cart us around all over England for the next ten days (many thanks to our driver, Steve) and drove out of the industrial airport area into more of the English countryside. I had my eyes glued to the window, taking in all the pretty scenery and trying to let the fact that I was really in England register in my brain.

We jumped into our sight-seeing right away, making our first stop of the trip at Runnymede, the field where the "Magna Carta" was sealed in 1215. It was a big, beautiful, grassy field that was really fun to frolic through. At this site there was also a memorial to the Magna Carta, as well as a memorial to John F. Kennedy given to America by Britain. It was also at this site that we saw our first random pasture of cows. This initiated us into the realization and awareness that cows, as well as sheep, are everywhere in England. 

After a short visit at Runnymede, we continued on and reached our next stop: Windsor Castle, the oldest continuously inhabited castle in the world. It was a magnificent castle with gardens that took my breath away. We spent a fair amount of time there, taking in what was for most of us our first time seeing a real-life castle. There were limited places open to the public inside the castle, but we were able to go into a chapel and walk around outside on the castle grounds. We got to see one of the guards dressed in a red outfit and black hat, standing still and stone-faced, occasionally marching back and forth in front of his spot. We also got to explore town, giving us our first taste of adorable English buildings, streets, and shops. I also had my first piece of real English cuisine: a sausage roll. It was super yummy.

Windsor Castle
One of the beautiful gardens alongside the castle
The guard
After our afternoon in Windsor, we drove to Warwick and checked into the Warwick Arms Hotel, which would be our home for the next five days. Located right in town, it was a quaint hotel in which no part of the floor was even and no room looked the same as another. After settling in, some of us somehow mustered up the energy to go explore town. There were lots of cute shops and places to eat, along with a lovely church called St. Mary's and a racecourse that we would visit later. Warwick's atmosphere was, overall, calm and quiet. The town was small and not very busy, and we felt safe there. It was definitely an enjoyable place to stay during the first days of our trip.

Me in front of Warwick Castle
That night, I crawled into bed at what was about 6pm in America and 11pm in England, after having been awake since 7:30am (America time) the day before. Thus I had been awake for almost 36 hours, except for two hours of not-so-good sleep I had managed to get on the plane overnight. Needless to say, I slept like a baby that first night in Warwick!

The next day, June 20, we spent the day at Warwick Castle, another large English castle that was built as a fortress by William the Conqueror in the 12th century. Since it is no longer occupied, there were more areas inside and around the castle open to visitors. We got to watch many cool demonstrations, including the raising of the portcullis, the firing of the trebuchet, and the flight of the birds of prey. We were able to walk through sections of the castle's interior which were set up to look exactly how it would have looked in a certain time period, like medieval or Victorian. History definitely came alive as I explored those areas. We also got to see the castle dungeons, which were interesting, but sufficiently unpleasant. The most amazing part of the day, though, was when we got to climb one of the tallest towers of the castle (it is the tower behind me in the picture on the left-hand side). The staircase was long, narrow, winding, and took forever to climb, but when we finally got to the top, the view was utterly breathtaking. Below are a few shots.

After an exciting and eventful day at Warwick Castle, we returned to our hotel for the evening. We got our beauty sleep to get ready for the next day, when we would visit the home and the final resting place of one of the greatest authors of all time. 

And here is where I'll stop for this post. Coming up next: Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford. Stay tuned!

As they often say in England, cheers!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

(From "Random Reflections") My English Adventures, Part 1: Fun Times at Hillsdale College

Hello dear readers!

I hope summer is treating you well! I promise that this time I have a good excuse for failing to write over the past couple of months. In fact, it's such a good excuse that it's going to be the topic of several of my upcoming posts, starting with this post!

Last month, I had a very unique opportunity to go on what one might call the adventure of a lifetime (at least that's what my mom calls it). I participated in a High School Study Abroad Program through Hillsdale College, and went on their trip entitled, "O For a Muse of Fire: The Land and Literature of England," which studied the works of British authors William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, and William Wordsworth. In order to be a participant, I had to submit an application (complete with an essay, letters of recommendation, and all that good stuff) to Hillsdale College back in the winter or spring sometime. I am so thankful I was accepted! A couple months later, I received an assignment from Hillsdale to be completed before the trip which consisted of a lot of reading, as well as a 1200-word essay on the topic of what constitutes a good life. I somehow managed to get all the homework done, and on June 15, after a lot of shopping and packing, I arrived Hillsdale, and the trip commenced.

The first few days of the trip were spent on Hillsdale College's beautiful campus. Participants stayed in a residence hall, ate meals in the student union, and attended lectures on the authors and works studied during the trip. These lectures were presented by Hillsdale professors Dr. David Whalen, Dr. Steve Smith, and Dr. Patricia Bart, all of whom had their own hilarious senses of humor, and were obviously very learned in their subjects. Their lectures were deep, interesting, and helpful in understanding the material, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. In case you're wondering, the works we read were: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare; Persuasion, by Jane Austen; parts of The Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer; parts of Paradise Lost, by Milton; and various poems by Milton, Wordsworth, Eliot, and Yeats. All highly recommended.

Going into this trip, I did not know anyone. I was about to spend two weeks with all new people, with literally nobody that I knew. This made me rather nervous, as this kind of a situation is very out of my comfort zone. For weeks before the trip I prayed for friends, and that I would come to feel comfortable around these new people quickly. I can definitely say these prayers were answered! There were 31 high schoolers from all over the country on the trip, and it turned out that nobody else knew anybody either - so we all made friends pretty fast. We all shared similar beliefs and opinions, as well as a common nerdy love of literature. For example, I'll never forget when an attempted boy conversation among some of the girls turned into a discussion about the characters of Jane Austen's novels after about five minutes! Needless to say, I came home with many new friends.

When we weren't attending lectures, we found plenty of fun stuff to do. Apples to Apples and other games, walks through the arboretum, and socializing and getting to know each other were all popular pastimes. Nightly trips to the ice cream place became a tradition which my friends and I continued during our time abroad. Skits were also a fun activity which took up a lot of our weekend at Hillsdale. We were split into several groups, each of which was given a scene from Hamlet to practice and perform for everybody. This made for good times and good laughs. 

After three days on Hillsdale's campus, the day we had all been waiting for finally arrived. On Monday, June 18, we repacked our bags and headed to the Detroit Metro Airport. We first flew to Atlanta, then hurriedly hopped onto an international plane bound for the London-Heathrow Airport. This flight went overnight (and let me say that sleeping on a plane is not the most comfortable thing in the world), experienced a small amount of turbulence around 1am which scared the daylights out of me, and landed in London early in the morning on June 19.

And this is where I will end this post. I know, I'm leaving you all in suspense. Next, I'll continue the story of my adventures, starting with my first experiences of England.

Happy Saturday!
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