Stubborn like a bull: Chicago

I’ve always wanted to visit Chicago. Why? Well the two associations I made are its namesake musical, and a reference in Guys and Dolls. So women on death row and gambling were my main attractions…

Despite those pull factors, I left loving Chicago for many other reasons (you are perhaps relieved to hear, mum!) I believe it is my favourite city so far and one I could really see myself living in if I were ever to live in the US. Known as a city that’s surrounded by…well, not much else, (so argument goes- sorry Ohio and Indiana) Chicago brings all its own city vibes and a whole lot of personality to the state of Illinois in the mid-mid of the US. It seemed to me to be quite a young city (and not just by UK standards!), particularly as many of the people we met at the hostel were staying there until they could find a house to rent. There’s a lot of movement to Chicago at the moment, and I could definitely understand why. We met some (very lovely) Irish guys at the hostel who are living and working in Chicago “just cause” for three months. I was quite envious leaving them: didn’t sound half bad. The tips one would get at a pub with an English accent …

Chicago really is a city that has it all.

1) Great entertainment scene with music, theatre and, unique to the Windy City, improv shows, which are where many SNL (Saturday Night Live) comedians begin their careers.

2)Plenty of parks and green spaces between Millennium Park and Lincoln Park.

3)Good food and restaurants open till late in the evening (unlike Boston’s 9pm bedtime).

4) Plenty of water for my water and sky Instagram to really benefit from the new material (yeah..i went there: finsta, eat your heart out) with Lake Michigan, the harbours, the River.

5) and a lake that even acts as a sea

Sea or lake?

We arrived at the hostel after our overnight train (story pending approval: there’s gonna be a bonus transport blog and I know- I can sense your anticipation..) and after dropping off our bags headed straight back out into Lincoln Park area to find lunch. My bagel craving (I know-never had them before coming to the US) was satiated at ‘The Bagelers’, a cute cafe where I got much joy from my hot chocolate and chatting to the hot guy behind the counter.

We then met Charlotte’s best friend at BC, Natalie from Minnesota, who came to join us in Chicago and help show us around ,so with her assistance we headed straight to Millennium Park and Cloud Gate aka the Bean.

I mean…it is a bean

The poor artist: “Here I have designed a sculpture made out of reflective mirror like material shaped in a geometrically designed way to specifically capture the clouds and surrounding buildings and present them in an artistic way. It shall be known as Cloud Gate to reflect the way it acts as a passage for the sky and…”

Stranger walking by: “Hey! It looks like a Bean”

Artist: “Well it’s actually called Cloud…”

Stranger: “The Bean! Love it!”

The name stuck.

After some classic touristy shots, we went to a rather fancy restaurant (Cafe Luxe) with a lovely view of Chicago streets, the loveliest waitress I have ever known (she had to be well tipped!) and delicious looking desserts that unfortunately I was too full for 😦

The next day we got straight into the city to the shopping centre where I was fascinated by the American Girl Doll store. The politics and social studies behind THAT- fascinating. There was a whole area for American Girl Dolls to eat with their “Mom’s”, get a pet, go shopping for clothes, have a hair cut… I overheard one mum say to her real life walking and talking daughter “no she can’t have a hair cut today cause we didn’t make an appointment- just for her nails”. W O W. SHOOK

See the nail salon..for a doll!?!

That morning at breakfast I met a guy from Barcelona who joined us for our day in Chicago, and a little tired of shopping we walked out to the beach. “But Chicago is landlocked” I hear you cry! The lake really is a sea and apart from salt water, you still get the coastline feel, the wind on the face and spray of water. I guess there’s also not a tide. But the beach has sand, and a few guys walking up and down swinging a life belt in their hands, looking like college students regretting their choice of summer job. It was very grey that morning, but when we walked back there in the afternoon to then walk right round to Navy Pier and Millennium Park, the sun had really come out to shine.

Even needed the raincoat that isn’t waterproof
Almost- Millennials in millennium park

In the evening we tried some deep dish pizza which was the most filling thing ever and to be perfectly honest, I’m not really a fan. But it was good to try for sure! We also went to Ghirardelli’s chocolate store where I bought a wonderful bar of dark chocolate salted caramel- absolute favourite, and it’s proper chocolate for this proper chocolate snob.

The next day I was feeling most unwell with stomach pain that made me want to double over. I didn’t have much of an appetite and just kept drinking lots of water. Went for a wander round the park with Natalie before all heading out together to the Zoo, where we all realised how much we hate zoos that are more of an attraction than for conservation purposes, so we quickly left the screaming children to get on with it and went and got some frozen yoghurt. Natalie was leaving in the afternoon to go back to Minnesota so we all headed back to the hostel and I went straight to bed to sleep. Actually did manage a nap, and woke up feeling a little better. Chatted to the guy sleeping opposite me in the room from Nigeria, whose nephew just “graduated” Bristol school and is off to Oxford next! Love small world coincidences like that, especially in hostels! Charlotte came in suggesting a run and I decided that could be good for me too so together we had the wonderful run along the water. Half marathon training here I come…! (Actually very nervous – really need to get training once back home!) The lake really creates a coastline with beaches full of people playing volleyball and running or cycling along the coast path: it was pretty intense with so many runners and so few walking! We enjoyed a run along the coastline from our hostel to Navy Pier one evening, which was beautiful and really made us feel part of the community of fellow runners treating the coastal sidewalk as a runners’ motorway.

We got a little lost so got back to the hostel a little late, but managed to shower and turn around to go to the IO Theatre to see an improv show, or two.. They were fantastic and the whole vibe of the place is so fun and cool! Many young people and older people full of youth, the theatre was so full of life and improv was very funny. Also got chatting to two other travelers from Texas which was cool!

Huh?.. a beach?

The next morning I still wasn’t feeling 100% so we wandered to the park and back, enjoyed a light bite and iced tea in a beautiful cafe, where I called Izz Vivs for a boost, and I sat and read, collecting the energy I needed for our travel and flight that evening. It is crazy how relaxed I can be in an airport now, very much just seeing it as another mode of transportation and able to get through smoothly. Maybe I could become an air hostess after all..?! Charlotte is brilliant to go through with as well, and after Chicago public transport with our huge big backpacks, an airport is much easier!

Overall a successful trip in a brilliant city.

Digs the pigs

P.S.- Not for the fainthearted

Unfortunately we didn’t manage to do quite as much in Chicago as I would have liked because I wasn’t feeling very well. I had a cold, although that alone wouldn’t have stopped me: it was the tummy pain I was experiencing that really held me back. It lasted 2 days in Chicago and carried on in my next trip (next blog!) so I went to good old CVS to find out what it was all about at a consultation. Their verdict: trapped wind. From the Windy City, this ailment seems quite apt. The sad irony.

Will keep you updated on my progress of releasing this trapped being. Poor Charlotte is on tenterhooks…scared of being blown off the face of the earth in anticipation of me releasing this wind.

And the cause? That water bottle that I was drinking 10 litres of water a day from…

The guilty culprit
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Washington DC: Take 2 (for the price of 1)

Politics with a Capitol P

Travelling takes us to Washington DC.

In that little hiatus of no writing between March and May-well no blogging; I wrote about 70,000 words at least in those 2 months I reckon- I went to Washington DC for Easter Weekend, and my long-standing enemy-friend-best friend-rock and lifesaver Maha came to visit. That deserves a whole blog to itself for sure, her trip including the first Cook-out of the season, Marathon Monday, and being a tourist on the first sunny summer week in Boston, but I shall include both of my Washington DC trips in this nod to the Capitol.

Therefore, this blog features Royston, Keiko, Suzuka, Daniel, (BC international year abroad bffs), Maha (newly accepted international student), Logan and Tim (2 kiwis from the hostel: 48hrs going on lifetime friendship), Wendy (current DC resident, past BC international student, future Ecuadorian leader) and Marnie, Eilidh and long-standing member of this journey Charlotte H, British lads on (summertime) tour.

Team 1: BC Internationals + Maha
Team 2: Limers for life, Tim, Maha and Logan
Team 3: Brits together, United (Kingdom) front, for now…

Well, with introductions complete, let’s get cracking with this Tale of One City.

Washington DC is a strange place in many ways. Built by slave labour as the Capital city for freedom and liberty, the contradictions and challenges of the US are highlighted by this beautiful city. Even the railway station, once upon a time the busiest in the world, was affected by budget cuts in its construction, a fact reflected by its clocks which have the Roman numeral for 4 written ‘IIII’ throughout the station. Washington DC is a tourism destination for Americans as well as internationals, and the whole city stands as a reminder of what America set out to be: land of freedom and liberty founded on a Constitution that demands civil rights for all. Then you remember who currently resides in the White House…

Politics

Let’s start with the big one. My first visit took me on the Capitol Hill tour run by the hostel. We walked to the Capitol from Union Station, went inside the Public Library and Supreme Court and learnt all about the political system of the US. On the first visit we took a tour inside the Capitol Building, seeing all the statues of all the states and presidents. Fun fact: all the security cameras are turned off on New Year’s in the hall of statues to allow the statues to have a party. (Or is this a trap?!) We also got passes to see Congress and the House of Representatives but after waiting an hour for the passes, turns out Good Friday afternoon, even the politicians take the holiday off and the doors we had just been given access to were closed!

Facts that shocked me: firstly, residents in Washington DC don’t have a vote in the House. The city is supposed to be “neutral” so it has no seats in either House. Yet 93% of the city voted against Trump. Many car plates protest with number plates saying “No Taxation without Representation” but while Republicans are in power, nothing is going to change to create a blue seat.

Also, you don’t have to be a US citizen to sit on the Supreme Court. You don’t need any qualification in fact, other than a presidential nomination. So an endorsement that you don’t understand justice and morality. Currently also helps if you are over the age of 105…just joking.. 51+.. Also it’s much easier to get inside Congress and the House of Representatives when you’re NOT a US citizen; just flash your IDs, which they didn’t even check carefully, and get a pass for ‘Exclusive Access’. If you are a US citizen, you have to go across the road to find your Congressman or Representative and get a pass from them.

The second visit with British gals was a little more directly involved in politics. Firstly by accident. The Secret Service police were blocking off a road, stopping all the traffic. Eilidh, Marnie and I, deeply engaged in a conversation about school, with me telling the story of the time I forgot to take the bun box back to the school kitchen and the ENTIRE sixth form was left without buns one morning break, resulting in silent treatment for a day (talking big politics here clearly), started crossing the road completely oblivious to the fact that clearing the road included pedestrians too. When the SS uniformed officers realised that the 3 of us were crossing, “shouted” is an understatement. “MOVE IT, MOVE IT! RUUUUUNNNNNN.” All armed. All very angry. All very good looking. But it wasn’t really the time to blush.

We stayed to find out what all the fuss was about and watched an armed escort of police cars, led by one long black car with the backseats that face eachother (the mark of a politician) proceeded by many other black cars with tinted windows for back seats pass by at a pretty pace on the road we had just crossed over. The first car had someone waving in the back seat. Was it Trump? All I’m saying is, why so much security if it wasn’t?

On our second DC day we became involved with an Impeachment march calling for the man’s removal. Details will be given to those who ask once I’m safely back on UK soil. But I will say, time well spent.

I remember the first time I visited the White House on my Easter visit, I got very emotional watching an interaction between a Black Man holding a “Build A Wall” sign and a White Man with his religious collar and black t-shirt covered in messages of hate against the LGBT+ community and Pro-Choice women. It confused and scared me that these two men could agree on such a stance of hatred. There’s also a man who has been camped outside the White House for 30+ years in an anti-nuclear protest, a stance I strongly support and respect after my Just Peace theology class making me much more aware than I was previously. The political feeling in that 20m^2 is unlike anything I have previously experienced.

This recent summer trip, I watched a Republican boy (and I will say boy because he didn’t look over 21 and wasn’t very mature in his politics or manner) squared up to democrats screaming with a stupid smile plastered on his white baby-skin face (this blog is always unbiased and neutral of course- as neutral as Washington DC is anyway…) “Build a____” only to be cut off by Democrats responding “BRIDGE”.

Museums

All Smithsonian museums are free, amply making up for the slightly more expensive food. My favourite museum is the American Indian Museum: beautifully laid out with powerful testimonies and important lesser taught, and therefore lesser known, history. I went to this museum on both trips and there’s still a whole floor I’m yet to explore. You learn about the different tribes and beliefs, languages and cultures as well as the genocide that occured on American soil and continued injustices over recent decades. The various exhibits cleverly encourage the visitors to think and consider the facts and stories for themselves: why are so many images in popular culture referencing Native American culture? Why are so many sports teams using American Indian names? When did the term “American” have to be further qualified by becoming “American-Indian” or “Native American”?

The museum also digs deep into questions of identity and the way we discuss identity. Did you know that the word “stereotype” originates from the technique in the printing process that consistently reproduces an image, while the word cliché meant the sound of molten metal hitting a stereotype printing mold? Etymology often uncovers the reasons for why we talk the way we do about different ideas.

The Natural History Museum is also well worth a visit. Again very big, 2 visits still didn’t allow me to see it all, but I feel I saw as much as I wanted to there now. I became fascinated by the Precious Gemstones, suddenly wishing I still did chemistry when reading the chemical formulas…not even a liberal arts degree could give me that. The “Our Health” exhibit is great, exploring how environmental, animal and human health are all interlinked, as reflected by recent epidemics and pandemics.

My first trip also included a visit to the African American histories museum with another fantastically put together museum celebrating Black Lives in sport, the Arts-music, theatre, dance etc-, fashion and culture generally. Again, I need more time in that museum and as one of the most popular on the Mall, I didn’t manage to book my slot to go back the second time round. However, I was very over-awed to be standing in front of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet though, having grown up listening to his CDs on my MP3 player with music chosen by my dad. A real jazz and blues lover’s highlight.

Transport

The Circulator. Sounds like a new DC villain. Is actually my favourite mode of public transport in the US, ever.

I say ‘public’ because Lime Bikes are hands down the ultimate best mode of transport ever. Looks at these happy faces. I sacrificed my bottle in the pursuit of happiness on these bikes. Will retrieve Bertie Bottle this Christmas though 😉

Faith and community

Both visits to DC were over weekends so both times I was able to join Wendy for Sunday worship in David’s Tent on the National Mall, where there has been 24/7 worship for the last three years. My church in Boston is part of a family under the name Antioch so I attended Antioch D.C. services. The first was on Easter Sunday when they were given the tent for worship as a special event, and then this first Sunday of June they were celebrating being given use of the tent for Sunday services throughout summer, having been meeting above a Starbucks for many months now. D.C. is the second loneliest city in the U.S, something this church family really wants to work against. And with open door services on the Mall, literally, the tent doesn’t have walls in summer, let alone doors, the warmth and love of this community is powerful. The testimonies shared in the services are further proof of that and both times, people walking round the mall are able to just join the community and find out what it’s all about.

Food

Chinatowns in any city are always great for not too expensive, generously proportioned plates. With our new NZ pals who both had good knowledge of South-East Asian cuisine and what to get, the four of us had a fantastic late night in a restaurant with garlic eggplant (delicious…and I don’t even like garlic) and rice and noodles. 3 of us even managed with chopsticks (thank you Suzuka- you taught me well that skill for life).

Down by the Wharf there is a $3 falafel sandwich, $4 falafel bowl place: delicious, filling and best of all- the profits go to supporting refugees. Again, a twice-visited favourite.

Then with the money saved on a cheaper lunch, the gelato cafe on the Wharf is well worth a visit, especially as there isn’t much shade by the water so summer months get HOT. The ice creams and sorbets burst with flavour.

And in the interests of my niche market with a pizza theme running through these blogs, near Washington University, Home Slyce pizza is gooooddd!!! (Also, Chicago is our next stop so pizza theme certainly continues…)

My first visit also enjoyed trying the well-priced museum food (remember how ALL museums are free and it’s not so bad..!). The Capitol desserts inspired a particularly jaw-dropping reaction with all that historical awareness.

Monuments

There are many memorials around DC. My first trip I visited them during the day- the second time, at night. The Korean War memorial which is designed to have a soldier looking at you from wherever in the memorial you are standing was particularly poignant and atmospheric. As the ‘Forgotten War’, the statues of soldiers seem to be directly demanding remembrance, a powerfully designed war memorial.

The Vietnam War memorial is a mirror of names, so that when reading the thousands of dead and missing American soldiers you see your own face reflected back at you and are reminded of their humanity. Seeing veterans finding names of friends and comrades on the wall reflects the continuing echo of the suffering this war caused.

The Lincoln memorial is as impressive as it is iconic. Seated in his big chair, he towers over the city stretched out on the National Mall in front of him, overlooking the Reflecting Pool, the World War memorial, the Washington monument and the Capitol building. On the steps are also written the words “I have a dream…” indicating where Martin Luther King stood when he made the speech that filled the mall with …. people

Martin Luther King’s memorial is located along the river, his towering torso looking out to the water and the Jefferson memorial. The wall engraved with his words show the incredible timeless power of one man’s rhetoric with so many words calling for justice and equality. Inspirational.

Running round the reflecting pool on one of the mornings of my second visit, an American mother walking past me remarked to her family “imagine being a local and being able to run here in the mornings”. Top tip for tourists wanting to blend in: go for a jog!

Georgetown

Great area to visit and experience more of the vibe of actually living in a place like BC. Tour from the hostel wasn’t great for historical information but was great for making friends. Highlight? Walking up 100 steps to be told “we thought this was George Washington’s house, but it’s not”.

Monument Quilt

One of those most breathtaking sites came on my second visit when the National Mall was covered in quilts made by or for survivors of sexual violence. All on red backgrounds and laid out to spell “You are Not Alone” in both English and Spanish, the power of this public art display was inspired. Now with my own story and experience of sexual assault (one of the more challenging parts of the year abroad) the power of stories and resilience and messages of strength and power and faith and anger and hurt and forgiveness really covered the multi-dimensionality of such an issue. You are not alone. No estas solx.

Skies

Watching the sun set wherever you are in the world is often beautiful. The skies in the US really are vast and colourful. The first visit, watching the sunset from the Kennedy Center balcony was one of the happiest moments of my life: utter contentment, pure and simple. Listening to music, learning NZ classics such as “Without your Gumboots” and seeing the sun set was exactly how travelling without care in the world or any set agenda should be.

The evening of our first full day on my second visit, we went round the memorials just as the sunset, making it up to the Lincoln memorial as the sky bled orange. Pictures only go so far but again, a moment to cherish with friends I love.

Tying up loose ends somewhat

Overall I love Washington DC. I want to go back with my mum and sister one day, hopefully when a president I want to support resides in the White House. Such a city encourages everyone to be a student of politics, history, art and science *ahem* =liberal arts.

When in one of the slowest elevators I have ever had the pleasure of travelling in, on our first trip’s rush back to the hostel to just about make our train, we expressed our dissatisfaction with the lack of speed. The man in the lift with his younger daughter quipped “That’s Washington DC, always lets you down slowly”.

As a tourist you don’t notice it so much as you can be fully enraptured with the wonderful hopes aspirations the US was founded on. But reality slowly creeps back in at some point… However, it’s always good to dream. They’re what reality should be made of.

Goodbye for now

To Wendy, my Ecuadorian sister. I’m so glad you decided to extend your semester abroad to a year, and that it meant our international experiences collided. And that you extended your stay in the U.S. with your Washington DC internship so that I could come and visit you not once but twice! So I’m extending out an open invite to you with no “use by” date whatsoever to come and visit me wherever, whenever! Keep heart, keep faith, keep in touch ♥️♥️♥️

Philly: the real deal

When I went back to the UK for Christmas and New Year and friends would ask me “so…how’s America?”, I didn’t feel very qualified to answer that question. By that point, I had only been living in America for 4 months, been a student the whole time, had only seen Boston, New York and a lodge in New Hampshire, and the main thing I’d learnt about America was that I had way more to learn about America. Or indeed the United States of America specifically, different from ‘America’ which includes Central and South America.

Being in Philadelphia and hosted by the realest of real friends Michael Quinn (remember that name cause he’s gonna take the world by storm now he’s graduated) I feel the most ‘in America’ I’ve felt in America. A very authentic experience of being a student in the summer between classes. Philadelphia is also a very real city I think. Good food, good people, real problems with real honesty: America uncovered.

The man himself in the city itself

Charlotte and I arrived in Philly to meet Marnie and Michael who had just got back from the Shore aka Jersey Shore! It was a hot, sticky evening so we piled into the Jeep and drove out of the city, passing Liberty Hall and a beautiful stretch of river houses to head to Michael’s house in more rural Pennsylvania just outside Philly. His front porch has a beautiful view of green space and trees, where we sat chatting and napping as a thunderstorm broke around us, clearing the humidity a little. There are such simple, honest wellbeing benefits to be gained from appreciating such unblemished natural beauty. The sun set and with the mosquitoes starting their nighttime attack, we went into the hot tub with some bottles of wine by our side. Reminiscing with Marnie on the hard work that would go into making paddling pool water warm enough to dip a toe, the hours and hours of going to and from the outdoor tap and kettle before letting the water heat in the sun before summer afternoons in the “pool”, really made me have a “what would 10 year old me say?!” moment. Under the stars, sipping wine, swimming in the pool and bubbling in the hot tub: just surreal.

It’s apple juice only Mum

The next day, after a wonderful swim in the pool reassuring me that I’m still able to remember how to swim following a year with no swimming, we got out into Philly the city. Hoagies and cheese steaks are just one part of what the city offers (so vegetarians don’t be put off!) Walking round the city, going in and out of bookshops, cafes and thrift stores, past all the street art and murals and trying some more wonderful ice cream (ice cream places in America really are plentiful and not short of choices or quality) Philly is a city that rewards all the senses.A slice of pizza from one of the top 10 pizza restaurants in the US (according to an article on the wall) did rival that slice in NY. Different type of pizza – I still rate that NY slice slightly higher because I found the tomato sauce was too sweet..! Maybe I should consider a pizza blog?! Best slices in the US…readers?

Not a cheese steak in sight

I also think travelling makes you very conscious of the privilege you have. Homelessnesss in the US is something that has troubled me greatly all this year. It troubles me in the UK too, and I know a lot more needs to be done about supporting people who find themselves in a position where they don’t have a home. But in the US, I really do think there is less potential for social mobility which is seriously troubling. My privilege to be able to travel around the US and visit different cities hits me. Which is why I feel it’s also important to share my experiences as openly as I can on here. In Boston it’s a big growing problem, New York is tough with people who have been stuck on the streets for what seems to be decades, in Philly there’s a growing population of those experiencing homelessness too. I picked up a book in the bookstore called ‘The life you can have’ and from just having read the introduction, it’s a book I intend to read over summer and one I think perhaps everyone who can comfortably buy a book without thinking too much about it should be reading.

The next day we visited Philly’s Art Gallery which was a beautiful building with a very impressive collection of Monet, Manet, Renoir and, my favourite, Degas. Unfortunately I didn’t appreciate the staircase being where the film Rocky was shot having not watched the film, but it was lovely to walk round so many of the impressionist paintings I recognise from those art lessons when I was 7 or 8. I feel like we never studied different painters in secondary school- I only remember lessons looking at famous paintings in primary, and then university! One day, I want to be able to answer all the art questions in the picture round of University Challenge.

But then street art and murals are pretty cool too …

In the evening, before Eilidh (fellow Bristol Lib Arts-er) got off her delayed greyhound bus (10 hour journey from Boston) we went to a wonderful Italian restaurant in South Boston- absolutely delicious. After picking up Eilidh, the 5 of us drove down to the Jersey Shore beach house, in a cracking (literally) thunderstorm, the road illuminated by lightening and car shaking from thunder. You might be noticing a theme of poor Michael doing a lot of driving on this trip, and driving in the US really is intense. No one lets anyone else in on the roads, and no one slows down for anyone else: so big thank you to MQ for ALL the driving he did, especially as someone who doesn’t like driving. Next time, I will make sure I have passed my test and know how to drive… and will be your chauffeur.

The Shore was beautiful. A whole day there, on the beach, in the sea and sunbathing on the sand was truly a holiday in the US, and not a tourist spot one but more a holiday for the locals. We hit the beach cafe and Wawas (a fast food place but with loads of options for food prices, only to be found in NJ and Pennsylvania, although 1 in Washington DC I believe) and had our own little beach party in the evening. There was also another thunderstorm- so beautiful. The lightening is so impressive and striking (literally) as it illuminates the whole sky and ground beneath, the thunder roaring: much more dramatic and purposeful than a British thunderstorm. It has real power and intent- a true beast.

Our sejourn in Philly and South Jersey has been a very chilled college student summer hang-out and to have friends I can share that with in the US makes me feel truly thankful for my year abroad experience.

Good lookers, big hearts

MQ- see you in Bristol you GRADUATE xxx

Why you should never judge a book by its cover: Dirty Jers

New Jersey. The next stop on our expedition. Whenever people ask where we are travelling to and I say “New York, New Jersey, Phila-”

“New Jersey?” Always an interruption

“Yeah- my friend Rachel lives there”

“Why New Jersey though?”

“We are going to do some hiking and jam with another friend Alex”

I am often met with a less than impressed, unconvinced “Fair enough”. Even Rachel kept on reminding me again and again “there’s literally nothing to do in New Jersey” and I kept reassuring her: “I don’t mind- I just want to spend time with you and see your home and have a New Jersey bagel”.

Well we did all of that and more. And that’s why this blog is an ode to the underappreciated, undervalued, unloved State of New Jersey.

We took a bus from New York to P____, a slow bus considering the distance but Charlotte filled her time with a sudoku (always a sudoku!) and Rachel and I chatted away the whole journey until it dropped us off pretty much right outside her house. Very funny- UK buses go to stations and areas to drop people off, US buses are so slow because they go round the block to all the homes. In our case, this was great as we only had to carry our life-size bags (as in so heavy they have their own life force) for two minutes. We were welcomed in by Rachel’s adorable dog Penny (almost as cute as Puck…high praise indeed) and then headed back out to one of the many malls in New Jersey, and one of the biggest in the US, which didn’t feel the 2010 recession at all (didn’t realise how much general knowledge you’d be getting from this blog? Well buckle up…this gone be a ride)

The mall was fun: Macey’s was a particular highlight as we tested the mattresses (should look into that as a potential summer job) and had a rehearsal for Abbie’s future garden party (see rehearsal shots below). We stayed till close (like the cool rebel kids that we are- first the museum, then the mall) and headed back with $5 worth of chocolate in a bag, and $5 worth in our tummies, and some frozen yoghurt.

‘Having fun’: Charlotte and Rachel getting into character in Maceys

On Friday morning we got breakfast at the best Bagel place for miles around. Well, we traveled 20 mins, driving through the most expensive zip code in NY, to Rachel’s favourite for some wonderful hand rolled bagels in a local Bagel bar. Once again, her recommendation did not disappoint. HOWEVER Charlotte decided to expose us as the tourists we are by asking in a cafe SPECIFICALLY for bagels, “Do you have cream cheese?”

Dun dun dun…

Fun fact (if you were wondering aka are not American and haven’t visited America): a bagel place in the US will ALWAYS have cream cheese. If there isn’t, I’d say you best start preparing for the apocalypse cause it’s coming.

Anyway, after our bagels (complete with cream cheese; many flavours are available) we went to the boat basin with our picnic of fruit. The view of City skyline was beautiful and we realised that if we can see NY, NY can see us. I don’t want to get too excited as we are are still waiting for the talent scouts to get back to us, but I reckon our picnic dance party sing-along attracted enough attention for us to be hearing from them soon…

We then went on a little hike round the woods, didn’t get too bitten by insects and sang in beautiful tuneful never a wrong note ever three part harmony as we “hiked”. I say hiked, more leisurely strolled, but we built up enough of an appetite (particularly after all our dancing) for us to decide on our way home to have a cook-out aka barbecue. I took charge of the cooking and managed not to poison anyone- no mean feat considering I haven’t had to cook meat in a while. I had soy processed veggie burgers which were actually very good! Also corn on the cob- my favourite barbecued food! When I’m older I’m going to be like Queen Latifah in the film ‘Last Holiday’ and own 3 big grills, hosting lots of summer parties.

In the evening we… ombre d my hair. Don’t think it’s showing up much in pics but it’s pretty pink on the ends- a little summer look! Penny was particularly fascinated- I think she wanted a pink tail.

The next day in New Jersey took us to Morristown to catch up with one of my favourite human beans: Alex (Wait for it) Eichler.

Morristown is a lovely little town with loads of little shops and restaurants and cafes all around. We also did a bit of culture, stopping by to look at the park statues and Civil war memorial, and dropping in on the woman’s club. Alex also got a metal expandable straw which was pretty exciting I have to say (it telescopes out and everything!!).

Now I met Rachel through theatre but we became close through Jammin’ Toast, which is where I met Alex, so it was only right that we had a jamming sesh. Only thing is, I didn’t bring my violin on this US tour so I had to learn the ukelele. To be honest, I might have found my instrument and we shall see how I transition back to violin playing after my clear natural talent on this little musical device… (Well, let’s just say, maybe it is more a work in progress, but I intend to find/ beg borrow or steal my own this summer). We went to Alex’s old school, which looks like a college campus it is so beautiful, and that’s how ‘Outside Voices’ came to be. Available for hire at an all-boys school near you. Many songs are available.

The evening developed into another cook out plan (no-one was complaining!) at Alex’s, this time with hot dogs and corn on the cob, and line nachos- a FEAST! Also included some wine, and I must say, a year of near sobriety has made me very merry after 2 glasses- I’m gonna have to be careful at THE wedding (if you’re reading this, firstly WOW- procrastination is real, secondly, keep the wine down the opposite end of the table perhaps, or sit me next to a heavy weight 😉 )

Now the last part of the evening was quite an event. We went for ice cream. At 9pm on a Saturday eve. In the middle of nowhere. Down some dark dirty Jersey lanes. Until we reached this place with a line of 15 minutes long. Quite a spectacle.We just about managed to avoid getting into a fight, and I mean just after a group of youths opened their car door so carelessly it banged Alex’s car door and they didn’t even stop to apologise, despite us all being in the car at the time! Dear me! Anyway, fights avoided, the ice cream was fantastic and ended one of the most wholesome days of my life.

Saying goodbye to Alex required 2 hugs and 2 of those squeals Jelly Babies make when you put them over a Bunsen burner in chemistry class at school. It isn’t goodbye, but it is see you later, and the later is later than the sooner I want it to be. And now we’ve said goodbye to Rachel too and are on the bus to Philly where the next stage of the adventure begins!!!! (Relieved to be on the bus after the driver kindly snuck us on after we arrived at the wrong bus station on the other side of NY to the one our ticket was for! Lucky!)

But I think I’m now realising how emotional this trip is going to be. I’m visiting my best friends from BC, getting to spend more time with them and loving them even more, and then I’m on my way to the next stop. So far, a lot about this holiday feels surreal. Because I’m doing stuff that I’d do in England, like driving around with friends, visiting their homes, meeting their families and dogs and going for ice cream, and yet it’s all in America. With people I have mostly met this term. Who will be across a big ole ocean from me in a month. BUT the world is a wonderfully connected place now. Particularly when you’ve experienced being “international”. I want to be someone who is “international” all my life: always curious, always learning new things, always experiencing new moments, with a comfort zone that keeps extending out.

P.S. TAKE 3

Wow- I love every single one of yas so much with all my heart, and cannot wait to host all of yous in the UK to return the favour and see you sooner.

Rachel- you are the most generous beautiful friend inside and out, and most of all YOU ARE HILARIOUS. Go be an actress-musician: dream big and reach for the stars (like S-Club 7 taught British kids). Love you loads girl.

Jammin Toast tour 2020. It’s happening. Gofundme page to be launched soon. Please give generously.

Golden delight: the joys of the Big Apple

First stop on the US travel adventure: New York!

The city, not the state, although it is in the state. But it’s not the capital city of the state, cause that’s Albany, but it’s a pretty impressive city nonetheless.

This is my third trip to NY and my favourite (so far…!). Charlotte (my travel companion you will likely be hearing a lot about over the course of this series!) and I touristed around with Rachel, one of the most generous and kind hearted people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and a best friend from BC. We resided in her grandparents’ flat in Flushing, the Chinatown area of Queens. Such a cool area on the end of the 7 subway line and a wonderful place to stay we wouldn’t otherwise have visited, but a place I would highly recommend. We enjoyed skipping along (literally!) to the various Chinese bakeries every morning to get our little buns: tried taro, sweet red bean and pineapple! One morning we even bumped into one of my friends from BC, one way to really feel like a local.Bump unexpectedly into a friend on the streets of NY: Big year abroad bucket list ✔️

Discovered on the streets of NY

The first day we arrived around 2pm and after locating Rachel under a McDonald’s flag, following some confusion created by the fact that there were 3 McDonald’s located within one block, we dropped our 100 pound plus suitcases at the flat and headed back out into the City to chill out in Central Park. We collapsed onto a patch of grass near the children’s play area where we lay down and chatted, somehow managing to avoid the balls being kicked around our heads.

Blissfully unaware

We then walked a bit further into the park, rambling round the aptly named ‘Rambles’ before realising how hungry we were, so we got onto the subway to head back to our Chinatown and get some food. We went to the food mall in Flushing and I managed to find a vegetable noodle soup (although whether the stock truly was vegetarian, I am a little less than convinced and decided after eating it I’d rather not ask..!)

Continue reading “Golden delight: the joys of the Big Apple”

I’m back!!!

Well hello there! Did you think I’d given up on the blog? Been swallowed up by the American college system never to return? Gone off travelling around the US with no connection to the outside world… ? Well no, not quite! I’ve loved keeping this blog throughout the year, for my own state of mind more than anything, and with some time to myself and a desire to record a little of what’s happened over the past few months, here I am, back again to share a few of my ruminations…

I got through my second term of Boston College, and honestly, I count that as a major achievement because it’s such an intense and tough place in so many ways: a seemingly relentless workload, an all-encompassing campus life, countless extra-curricular activities, endless extra talks to attend and many other busy people to try and spend time just hanging out with, which can be the most difficult task of all.. but I have come to the end of my year abroad and honestly – I wouldn’t change a single moment of it. (Or, well maybe I would, but then I’d miss out on some of the lessons I learned and resilience I developed from the mistakes!!!)

Seeing a lot of my senior friends (and hillside regulars!) graduate wearing their beautiful white dresses and jumpsuits and smart suits under their black graduation robes as families and friends travel miles to support them made me feel really proud of them all, and excited for my friends graduating in Bristol or indeed any universities around the world this summer. I also felt rather emotional seeing the graduation events happening around campus because it really hit home that it’s the end of the year, and I’m mini-graduating myself. I even took a few Gasson grams to prove it- the essential rite of passage for a BC student!

The last weeks of term, I was quite numb to all the changes happening and the “ends”, “lasts” and “good-byes” (perhaps in quotes because I’m still in denial: can be translated into “starts of new things”, “lasts for a while”and “see ya later”) We had about 4 theatre events to say goodbye to the seniors and my fellow exchange theatre friend (and wife) Marnie were involved in the events and given goodbyes too, which meant a lot to feel really included and part of the community. Yet I was rather emotionless about leaving because it hadn’t really hit me yet. I think I probably seemed very nonchalant about it all, with a “well I always knew it was only going to be a year” attitude. I also still had 4 big deadlines to meet so that probably played a part in this “shrug your shoulders and move on” approach: there was no time to cry! Believe me, any BC students reading this, when I say it wasn’t a lack of feeling, just an inability to process.

Then I had the workload hit me and it was a week and a bit of intense writing. I wrote around 20,000 words in one week, and 110 pages worth of playscript material (I won’t say plays as they are works in progress so don’t ask to read them yet..!). I also managed to mostly keep a healthy routine, going to Zumba and yoga classes and taking my laptop to cafes. I also saw some friends end term in a very unhealthy, frankly almost dangerous way, and it scares me how much the needs of our bodies are pushed aside for deadlines at the risk of our health, while I sometimes felt like I was screaming into a void saying “put yourself and your health first, listen to your body, it’s not worth it in the long term”…

Anyway, we made it out the other end…

And submitting that final essay, it hit me that this was the last piece of work I would ever submit to Boston college. I didn’t know how to feel. I just sat on my friend’s sofa until I knew I had to submit it, then went outside (midday) to go home but really didn’t want to go straight back to pack on my own, which was my original plan. Instead I bumped into a fellow international friend who convinced me to go to playa bowls to celebrate end of exams with a smoothie bowl. Here’s how the convincing went:

Jess: come to playa bowls!

Abbie: I really shouldn’t. I have a lot to do this afternoon with packing and I haven’t slept much so should nap before evening plans and I just need to get back cause I haven’t been at my own house for 3 days

Jess: oh please come

Abbie: oh ok then

Top tip- convincing an extrovert to do something social doesn’t take much…

Anyway, I got to celebratory frozen smoothie bowl place and sat there for half an hour trying to decide what I wanted to get, before realising that what I really wanted was the bitter taste of a pint in a pub. Shame about being under 21.. so instead I just sat there, chatting away to Jess and Fian about our summer and travel plans!

I then walked home in the sun to decompress with a 40 minute walk back, eating the brownie I’d picked up in the library the night before* and catching up with my Bristol sister Ffion. Exams ending also signalled a freedom to call friends and catch up, having felt rather out of touch with everyone for a good few months- hence the void of time without blogging too.

I remember before coming out here, telling Ffion all about my plans to journal and scrapbook and blog and do a second a day and her reaction of “Good God woman, you aren’t going to have time to live things to write about if you’re doing all that”. Well turns out she was right and I chose to live everything to the full so my blog may not be the world famous money earning one I intended it to be, but I’ve got plenty of experiences left to write about (or whisper to friends over much wine glasses!!) And as long I have all the memories, BC isn’t just a dream and it’s an amazing reality I actually lived for a year. I’m gonna be that person who says “when I was on a year abroad…” ALL THE TIME.

You’ve been warned…

Honestly though, I feel so fortunate for my time at BC. There are many things about the place I find challenging and difficult and disagree with, but it truly has been a place where I’ve been able to flourish and develop, become truly independent and feel more confident in myself that ever before. My interactions with professors have been unlike anything I’ve got from Bristol, and enabled me to push myself and feel more engaged in the intellectual side of college than ever before. I love history and learning and lib arts education and actually love nerding out on the subjects that interest me. I am a proud nerd now.

So what do I want to say in this final blog signalling the end of my journey at BC? What have I learnt? What shall I reflect on (now I’m all Jesuit influenced)?

I guess sometimes it takes going to a place where you feel completely not at home, somewhere you’d never choose to put yourself if you had done your year abroad research properly, that makes you go out of your comfort zone and understand who you are even better.

I have loved my time at BC. But equally it isn’t a university that is a good match with me in many ways. I miss a city and find campus too intense – the BC bubble can feel more like glass than liquid soap. I am challenged by the lack of diversity. I am definitely liberal and BC is stiflingly conservative. It’s rather small, and I like a bigger place. Students are often guided in activities by teachers and professors rather than student led and organised activities e.g. music groups and many theatre shows

At the same time, I love the culture around learning and finding so many people loving their classes and studies and wanting to talk about them outside of class is really refreshing. It is much more like a business but with that comes the idea of a catalogue of classes that you pick freely from, able to choose whatever interests you. The hard work ethic and desire to get as much as possible out of the college system by being as busy as you possibly can be does suit me, once I recognise it shouldn’t be a competition of who can be the busiest and who should do the most, because many of these students can beat me hands-down. I concede defeat!

And I have found myself. A chronic extrovert who can now be alone. A lover of music and theatre who is a big old nerd. A family girl with newfound independence. And a desire to please others and make others happy with an ability to keep myself content. And a daughter with a strong faith and penchant for reflection 😉 !

I am in a “sad to leave but excited to go back” place, and that really is the best case scenario. Currently halfway through my first trip on my holiday in NY, I can’t believe how blessed i am to have made such incredible friends and the thought of saying goodbye to my host Rachel in 4 days is enough to bring tears to my eyes.

But none of this is goodbye. I’ve made too many friends this side of the pond for this to be a goodbye.

*In the library during exam season, there is a delivery at 10pm for those still there for a long night. This rather hilarious BC experience involves students who are otherwise lurking in the many corners suddenly emerging from their hideouts at 5 minutes to 10, and congregate on the main library floor to get cookies and brownies and some awful tasting coffee…! The library floor goes from empty to packed full of people waiting for those all important pick me ups. I’ve never seen anything quite like it… Just so you know.

“It’s just not me”: culture shock dress shop

I feel like I’m in a dress shop where none of the jackets I’m trying on quite fit. All of them are different and some of them are quite nice and I really like them, but they still don’t seem to fit me right.

That’s culture shock.

It’s hard to describe. Because it’s not exactly homesickness, although that can be a by-product. And it’s not like it is always all-consuming or makes me feel antagonistic towards all those who identify within that culture at all. Particularly in America where the culture is so varied anyway..and what is culture?! My friend from California said that 3 years into her degree and she still feels culture shock living in Boston.

It’s like a little niggle, almost an itch, that starts as something small and insignificant, a minor irritation and something to shrug the shoulders at, but then the small irritating moments become greater and more common and more irritating until you feel yourself experiencing waves of disgust and upset and distress that seem disproportionate to the situation. And I realise I’m feeling angrier at something that I want to, and very frustrated and when I realise what it is frustrating me, I realise it’s a symptom of what we call “culture shock”.

For example (we love a good example 😉 ) , in one of my classes, a boy had an iced coffee in his hand at the desk. Now there are three things wrong with this image. Firstly, the iced coffee is in a plastic cup with a plastic lid and a plastic straw. Strike 1. Secondly, he has finished the iced coffee but is persisting in trying to slurp up the last dregs of what it really awful coffee flavoured cold water in his straw, with no consideration of the lecturer having to talk over the shlurping sounds. Strike 2. And thirdly, he continues to swill around the ice cubes in his cup, before proceeding to take the (plastic) lid off the cup and pour the cubes into his mouth to crunch on the ice. Strike 3. Am I being overdramatic? Perhaps. Did it bother me to the extent that I wanted to walk across the classroom to snatch this cup out of his hand, pour all the ice cubes over his head and stuff the plastic into a place where it can never be seen again? For sure.

Violent reaction? Don’t worry. I have enough British reserve remaining to prevent me from truly speaking my mind and saying what I think. If I were Dutch, perhaps it would be different (SH- I miss you ❤ ) But I still found myself walking out of class feeling like I wanted to run and scream ‘Aaarrrgghhh whhyyy?!’ Instead I made the little scenario into a comedy sketch and performed it to an international friend, making us both laugh at the ridiculousness of what we see as odd life choices and my disproportionate reaction to it.

The culture shock is exacerbated by being in a homestay I believe too. I think that being in such an intense living situation in a family home means that I can’t escape the culture shock at home either. Especially when I’m showering in a bathroom that stinks of weed and cooking in a kitchen with no compost or recycling. These things become more and more challenging when you’re already tired from a day of experiencing ice crunching and seeing plastic straws everywhere and Air pods in so many ears and hearing people talk about midterms and class and A grades and meal plans and 10 minute Uber rides being “worth it”. It all starts to culminate together to become one overwhelming mass of culture shock.

It’s so strange and frustrating to be experiencing culture shock so far into my year abroad. I certainly found it challenging at the beginning of the year, as reading my previous blog posts remind me, and yet it feels all the more striking at the moment. Why? I think my frustration with the study plays a part. I also think I have grown up even more and matured more (what am I- 80 years old now?!) which makes me feel older and older than American students who do seem younger and more immature, a fact the students in my favourite class of the week- playwriting – have also said to me and the other exchange student. They, however, I don’t actually feel older than as they inspire me every class and keep my week ticking over by being lovely people to have the pleasure to spend 2 and a half hours a week with. And the third reason I’ve identified is that in my Spring Break I had a taste of another different culture in Canada, but one I felt more attune with. Visiting family in Canada was brilliant and I felt so at home with relatives I’ve only met twice before, and only once that I can remember, that it was an amazing reminder of how I feel when I’m truly comfortable, particularly in a homely setting. The same settled feeling was also noticeable when seeing a friend I haven’t seen for 2 and a half years, and yet we were able to pick up exactly where we left off. I felt completely at ease in an environment that felt truly familiar. Then I returned to Boston and the contrast felt all the greater having experienced a ‘home away from home’ feeling in Canada. I realise how much I am in survival mode in Boston. And while that is great and is making me all the more resilient and stronger as a person, it is also a struggle sometimes, and exhausting. I suppose it’s only natural that the cracks start to show. I find myself more edgy and irritable and distressed by the smallest things I see and hear.

At the same time, I really don’t want this blog to come across as patronising or filled with some sort of UK superiority complex. Honestly, with Brexit going the way it is, who’s to say I won’t be experiencing a culture shock in Britain when I go back?! I also don’t want it to take away from the amazing friendships I have made here with some amazing wonderful Americans. Three out of my five classes this term are filled with students who inspire me, make me think in different ways and keep discussions flowing, making the classes all the more interesting. Three out of my 5 classes (slightly different 3) are led by professors who truly inspire me and facilitate good discussions. Hillside is filled with wonderful, amazing people I love chatting to and hanging out with at work (see my interview for BC’s progressive student voice newspaper ‘The Gavel’ http://www.bcgavel.com/2019/03/21/an-eagles-eye-on-student-employment/ ). There’s a lot about people here I love and I will be so sorry to leave. This culture shock isn’t making me not want to be here at all, and I’m so glad that I will be staying in America until mid/end June and am very excited to be planning my travels around visiting wonderful, generous friends. I just look forward to experiencing their different cultures and being away from BC culture (not the place), which I can honestly claim to have discovered I don’t like, and the culture of my homestay, which is just not my own.

Because it’s the BC culture of intense work patterns, focus on miniature assessments, Canada Grey Goose Jackets, consumerism built off the inflation of meal plan money, the plastic starbucks cups and straw everywhere and the lack of attention to recycling and sometimes just others around you, because everyone seems to have a lot of tunnel vision, which is so dangerous really. This isn’t an accurate representation of the BC students I know and love, but it is the way the culture encourages its students to be.

I very much write this blog for me, and for my own peace of mind. Its primary purpose is in helping me to process my thoughts and feelings. I guess its secondary purpose is in describing my experiences in the hope that someone else can relate to it, and it adds words to feelings that seem confusing, or provides an insight into the up and down roller coaster of a year abroad. The highs are wonderful, but the lows can be unexpected and sudden. Therefore, I feel very fortunate to be in tune enough with my feelings that I’m  able to attempt expressing them in writing. Writing this has helped me. I hope it helps someone else too..