Thursday, 26 June 2014

Reflections on my Year Abroad

It is with great sadness that I type the word ‘Reflections’ at the top of my page, this is simply because it can only mean one thing; the end. The end of my year in America. The end of my travels. The end of an era. But, without getting too nostalgic, it also represents the beginning. The beginning of summer. The beginning of reunions with friends. The beginning of a new me.

Going abroad as part of your degree is an absolutely amazing experience and I cannot recommend it enough. For any undergraduate students, or even students currently studying for their A-Levels, if you get the chance to go abroad within your degree, take it. Grasp it with both hands and don’t look back. If you wanted to take a Gap Year and didn’t have the chance this could be your perfect opportunity to develop personally, experience a different culture and gain a new academic perspective. But that’s not all you get from studying abroad, the list goes on and on. When I look back at the somewhat neat-freak, perfectionist, high strung student I was getting on my first transatlantic flight last August, I only have to look in the mirror to see how I’ve changed. Yes, my exterior may not have drastically altered - I still have faded tan lines and hair bleached blonde from the sun. But emotionally, I’ve become a little less stressed and a lot more laid-back.

By going on a Year Abroad and thriving under every opportunity to meet new people and travel to your hearts content, it demonstrates your ability to be independent and adapt to new situations, it shows your sensitivity and respect to other cultures and viewpoints, and reveals your desire to stretch yourself and step outside your comfort zone. If that doesn’t sound like a CV enhancing statement, I’m not sure what does.

I think it’s fair to say that a Year Abroad offers a wealth of personal and professional benefits; from making lifelong friends to growing in self-confidence, from establishing international contacts to enhancing your employability – this year truly has been the best yet!

So while I attempt to get back to the London time zone, slot back into my friendship group at home and of course detox my body from all those Reese’s Cupcakes I’ve been scoffing, I think I’ll end on a thank you. Thank you Parents for your undying support. Thank you Grandma for your never ending love.  Thank you Kent. Thank you South Carolina. And a huge thank you to every person at USC who went out their way to help me as I struggled with the initial culture shock of the South – from coffee dates to car rides, Off Off Broadway to Club Swimming, the Brits Abroad to my lovely American friends. I miss you all already. Come visit me in England!

I honestly have more pictures than I could ever want or need but here's a few of my favourite moments from the past year.

God Bless and Go Cocks!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

California Dreaming

In the words of Katy Perry “You could travel the world but nothing comes close to the golden coast”. From being picked up in a convertible mustang in the middle of Hollywood to go to the OC for the day, to surfing the shoreline in San Diego, from wine tasting in Napa Valley, to exploring the eerie Alcatraz, the West Coast really is a postcard perfect destination. The three weeks I spent in California will be remembered fondly as some of best in my Year Abroad. Perhaps it was California's laid-back, outdoorsy lifestyle or maybe the famous landmarks? The sun, sea and sand combination never fails to spark a humongous smile across my childishly excited face.

I flew from New York to San Francisco to stay with some of my University friends from home that were studying abroad at UC Berkeley. There’s nothing quite like being reunited with friends, we obviously had a ton to catch up on and spent the first couple of days in hysterical fits of laughter as we told stories about the various incidents we’d found ourselves in over the last year. From riding in the back of pick-up trucks to Fraternity parties to tailgating at American Football games, one thing that has become very apparent is that none of our experiences have been the same. The United States is so diverse and every state I’ve visited (13 of them!) has offered a unique perspective on life.

Berkeley, San Francisco, Sonoma, Napa Valley, Santa Cruz, Salinas, Monterey, the Big Sur, Santa Barbara, Hollywood, LA, The OC beaches, San Diego and the Big Basin Redwood National State Park…. I have over 1000 pictures of endless coastline, white beaches, vineyards, hunky boys holding surfboards, delicious Mexican cuisine, hair bleached blonde from the endless sunshine and trees so tall they can’t even fit in the frame!

With California being the 3rd largest State in America (after Alaska and Texas) I could probably fill an entire girlie novel with my many adventures and mishaps. So instead, I’m going to give you my personal top ten things to see on the Golden Coast:

1) Walk the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

An absolute tourist must! The Frommers travel guide considers the Golden Gate Bridge "possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world". This iconic bridge stretches across the channel between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, and if you don’t fancy walking, you can always hire a bike!

2) Get drunk wine tasting in Napa Valley

Talking of hiring bikes…. When I was in Sonoma we hired bicycles on our first day of wine tasting and cycled between the wineries taking in the gorgeous scenery. Warning: you cannot be a lightweight if you choose to partake in this activity!

3) Drive down the breath taking coastline - Highway 1

The road trip of all road trips.The exhilarating drive of a lifetime down the twisting, cliff-hugging, 123-mile route along highway 1 is definitely not one to miss!

4) Surf in San Diego

You cannot go to California and not attempt to become a surfing goddess. Although, it definitely looks easier when some tanned surfer dude is riding the waves compared to little me getting bashed about by the strong rip current. Maybe I’ll attend surf school next time..

5) Nourish your body on Mexican food

I’m not talking about Taco Bell or Chipotle or any other Mexican fast food chain that will leave you with nothing but regrets and a poorly tummy. With the Mexican border only 16 miles from San Diego, California offers delicious one off Mexican cafes and restaurants up and down the coast serving authentic and incredibly yummy Quesada’s, Burritos, and Nachos. 

6) Hike up to the Hollywood sign

We took a hike up Runyon Canon and the Hollywood Hills, and the view from behind the Hollywood sign is pretty amazing. If you don’t fancy the trek to the top, you can always take a romantic picnic to the Griffith Observatory and watch the sun set behind the Hollywood sign. 

7) Tan on one of the beautiful beaches in the OC

Miles upon miles of white sand; Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach. I spent a necessary couple of days chilling under the bright blue sky and my favourite had to be Laguna Beach. Glass mansions next to quaint beach cottages line the cliffs above the sandy coves; I think a seaside house along this particularly scenic coastline would be rather lovely indeed. A little piece of paradise.

8) Get lost amongst the trees in the Big Basin Redwoods State Park

A great place for games of hide and seek. These trees are enormous! The Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the oldest State Park in California and has the largest uninterrupted strand of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco. 

9) Visit the eerie island ‘Alcatraz’

Alcatraz Island and Prison is one of San Francisco's most popular attractions. So if you like tourist days out this should definitely be on your list. Famous inmates included; Robert " Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud and Al Capone. The “rock” and it’s grim past as America’s maximum security prison was certainly an interesting and thought provoking place.

10) Watch the sun set over the Bay Area in Berkeley

If you don’t mind a steep hill (or two) it’s worth trekking up to the fire trails in Berkeley. On a clear evening you can see the entire bay area – the city, the University and even the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. I went up there on my last night in California which was an excellent way to end my road trip up and down the coast with a little time to reflect and watch the sun set in the distance.

And if that wasn’t a sufficient amount of reasons as to why you should press pause on life and get on the next direct flight to California, surely living in a sandy wetsuit and pretending to be half-hippy/half-baywatch model should be incentive enough to go to lie beneath the palm trees and compare flip-flop tan lines with your friends?

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

DC vs NYC: The Ongoing Debate.

New York City. Where do I even begin?  The big apple. The City of Dreams. The Concrete Jungle. It’s a place I’ve dreamed of visiting since I was a little girl, and my somewhat unhealthy addiction to the TV series ‘gossip girl’ certainly didn’t help.  Why wouldn’t you want to pretend to be like the beautiful Blake Lively living on the Upper East Side with Manhattan at your doorstep? The flawless, bright shops, the bustling city life and the glamorous apartments and hotel suites. With so many films set in New York, I felt like I basically knew all about the city without even visiting it! But perhaps ‘gossip girl’ was a rather skewed version of what New York is really like, that is, unless you’re incredibly wealthy and can afford an overly extravagant lifestyle. The show basically glamorizes rather harmful behaviour, whilst portraying an unrealistic beauty ideal, and over sexualizing young girls. But, I’m diverting from the point of this blog. Before my feminist brain takes over and writes an entire piece on how television shows are misrepresenting young females, glamorizing sex and using it as a way for teenage girls to manipulate boys (or vica versa), I wanted to blog about my trip to New York and also how it compared to the nation’s capital; Washington DC.

The D.C. vs. NYC debate is one of the endless, perpetual discussions among East Coasters who seamlessly forget that there’s a world outside the little strip of Coast line from D.C. to Boston. I’ve heard it remarked upon that DC is continually overlooked by New York. Everyone raves about how fantastic New York is, from the theatre scene to the pizza and bagels, so although I my stomach was secretly in knots, excited to finally see the concrete jungle for myself, I decided to keep an open mind, and low and behold I fell in love with DC instead! Whilst it’s not like I’ve lived in both cities for a considerable amount of time and can actually make a well-educated opinion about one or the other, I can talk about my first impressions and what my expectations were.

I spent a total of three days in DC followed directly by three days in New York and I honestly wish I had more time (and money) to spend in both cities. To point out the obvious, DC has a much more chilled out vibe, it’s slower paced and the people are less frantic than in the Big Apple.  It’s filled with 20 something year old young professionals going about their day to day business, minds heavy with provoking thoughts and faces noticeably less wrinkled! Although I was only there for a short time the subtler, less obvious differences included things like the museums are all free in DC, and that the streets are super clean and lined with trees. Basically, whilst everything is a little more on the conservative side, it’s also considerably less crowed.

Even the Metro was fairly clean, which is saying something considering I’m used to the tube in London. I didn’t see a single rat and unlike NYC’s subway system there were no preachers telling me I must “follow the word of God in the sacred Bible” or beggars or even the hourly ‘show time’ with break dancers and beat boxers trying to rattle commuters for a dollar or two. The unquestionably charming townhouse-restaurants that line the streets of Georgetown add to the beauty of DC, and sitting outside overlooking the Potomac River munching away at the one of the famous DC cupcakes is definitely one way to spend a long summer’s afternoon. But, perhaps the glorious sunshine I received in Washington DC swayed my opinions as I was met with constant drizzle and cloud in NYC. Then again, I did leave my beloved pink ghd straighteners in DC (which, by the way, has been a nightmare living with beach hair the past month) so perhaps having bad hair affected my mood more than I thought!

Don’t get me wrong, I did love New York and I really want to return when I’m not on a student budget so I can stay in the Plaza hotel or the St. Regis, instead of an international hostel at the top of Central Park (although the hostel was actually rather nice as far as hostels go!) I rammed as many touristy attractions in as possible; The Empire State Building, Times Square, Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero, a Broadway show, the Brooklyn Bridge, the High Line, Grand Central…. And I can go on!

Special thanks to Rachael Mitchum for being an awesome travelling buddy and running round these cities like mad men on a mission with me. From losing my lock to missing subway trains, from fro-yo dates to cupcakes, in glorious sunshine and with wonky umbrellas, this girl kept me sane and kept me laughing as we re-enacted  strutting down 5th Avenue like Carrie Bradshaw and Samantha Jones from ‘Sex and the City’.

Till next time, xoxo. 

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Problems of being ‘dreadfully’ British in the US of A.

If you’re ever in doubt about your heritage, or your background, or your nationality, go spend an entire year surrounded by patriotic, nationalistic American’s. If you don’t feel a sense of pride or rather, dismay, about your home country then perhaps you haven’t been experiencing the true feelings of being abroad.

I’m trying to decide whether living in the States has made me feel more British or just simply, ‘foreign’. There’s definitely been moments where I’ve caught myself being stereotypically British, and had to just laugh at how ridiculous I sound! From pronunciations such as ‘tomarrtoo’ instead of ‘tomaaatoe’ and having sudden urges to drink gallons of Twinnings English Breakfast tea. I’ve always had people make comments such as “Alice, you are so incredibly British”. Perhaps, it’s the silly old sayings that have been engrained into my personality, such as; “spend a penny” or “Gordan Bennet!” The looks I receive off anybody and everybody are always ones of utter confusion, and I realise that to them I’m speaking utter gobbledy gook.

Spending so much time amongst Americans, whether in the classroom, at rehearsals, swim training or socialising, almost made me forget that I stood out and sounded different, with my so called ‘Prime Minister Posh’ accent. It always takes me by surprise that every server in Starbucks notices I say “Mocha” with exaggerated vowels and then persist on asking a million and one questions as to where I’m from, how long I’ve been here and what I’m doing. It got to the point during last semester where I just couldn’t be bothered to be cross examined every time I needed coffee, so I would just ask one of my American friends to order for me or fake a rather obnoxious accent. Neither worked particularly well.

Perhaps it’s my dry sense of humour that makes me feel more British. Travelling around the country and staying with some of my friends from University at home has made me realise the difference in our sense of humour. We’re incredibly sarcastic and continually ‘take the piss’ out of one another, to the point where it’s basically bullying. In the same circumstance, American’s would tend to get defensive, whilst us Brits, take it with a pinch of salt and know we’re only joking. So tongue in cheek!

The worst is when you’re texting someone. Half the time the messages I receive come across as super blunt. Which I like, to some respect. I can remember when I first arrived in the States that I was kind of shocked when I never received any kisses at the end of messages. If I just sent a text message to my friends at home saying “Where are you?” it may come across as hostile, so we tend to add kisses at the end to soften the blow. Lindsay earnestly asked me once, “why do you put all those x’s at the end of your texts?” so I had to explain why. Gosh, it’s difficult sounding sarcastic all the time and not wanting to add a silly emoticon to show I’m only messing around.

So whilst I’m not trying to lay claim that every American is loud and blunt, and all British people have a sarcastic sense of humour. I guess I’ve just realised that these obvious differences have made me feel all the more British; saying my pleases and thank-yous, apologising for almost everything and realising that if I don’t speak up, at least ten people will speak over me because almost everyone is vocal and to the point. I like it. I like it a lot. And I think I’ll be taking this new found confidence to speak up and be heard right back over the pond with me!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Not so street wise?

“Studying abroad will make you more worldly, more street wise” they said. “It will open your eyes to things you may or may not have brushed over previously”.

When I first heard this, I thought; “yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve been told all this before”. Whilst I’ll be the first to admit I’ve had a rather sheltered upbringing when it comes to violence, gun crime and gangs. I never would imagine that I could feel so out of place in stereotypically safe areas. Living on a University campus is ‘meant’ to be safe, with its own personal police system in force and emergency buttons sporadically placed all over. But with the UC Santa Barbara shootings just two weeks ago it made me reflect on my own safety, not just as a student but as a female.

After constantly travelling for the last month I have managed to see the highs and lows of many cities. But, exploring a new city with neither map nor internet usually ends in taking one wrong turn and getting lost. Just walking two blocks away from the financial district in LA made me feel vulnerable and exposed as I noticeably stood out with my blonde hair and fair skin. Furthermore, I do not advise anyone to walk around West Oakland in the dark after 10pm where abductions and kidnapping appear frequently on the news. That’s not so much fun! So Columbia, you would assume, is just as safe (or dangerous) as anywhere else. But, in actual fact, South Carolina has the nation’s fifth-highest violent crime rate, with an evident relationship between lower income and less education and higher crime rates.

Whilst waiting for a Megabus at Columbia Transit station to take me to Washington DC at 12.30am a couple of weeks ago I appeared to undergo a bit of an eye opener. It’s possibly one of the more sketchy places in town, situated next to the homeless shelter. So whilst I sat with my gigantic suitcase on a bench outside the bus station in the early hours of the morning I saw the most strange, weird and wonderful characters. Racheal and I were dropped at the station at 12.30am, with our bus due to depart at 12.45am. We had received an email stating that our bus was up to 45-60mins delayed but with no number to call we had no way to check and no other option but to wait it out. It didn’t arrive until 1.45am… so in that hour we sat and chatted in the 21 degree humidity of the night. Guys asked us for cigarettes, whether we had internet they could ‘borrow’, what we were doing and where we were going. Boys with trousers dropped half way down their bums with baggy t-shirts, boys with bikes, boys clutching plastic bags with little else. I did not feel safe. I did not feel comfortable. But, thank god Racheal was there with me. We laughed most of it off, making eye contact when they appeared in packs and keeping our personal belongings close by. Delirious and sleep deprived we longed for the safety of the bus and when it came we thanked our lucky stars for making it through the hour alive. My imagination raced as we intricately discussed what we would do if one of them had a gun, or threatened us, or tried to steal something. What if, what if, what if.

Perhaps this blog shows my naivety. Or some might call it stupidity. When I told a friend I’d got lost in West Oakland her reply was along the lines of, “Oh my god, are you serious?! I never go there; it’s filled with gangs and violence”. Whoops. Sorry mum! Of course, I’ve always kept a straight head on me, abiding by my parents cautionary warnings; “Keep an eye on your handbag,” and “Text me before I go to bed so I know what time you’ll be coming home.” So although the situations I’ve managed to get myself into this year haven’t been incredibly frightening or dangerous, they could have turned into something a whole lot worse.

I guess it’s just a matter of perspective. Or right timing, right circumstance. The students at UC Santa Barbara weren’t so fortunate. Six innocent students were killed by a 22 year old, son of assistant director of ‘The Hunger Games’, who went on a rampage of ‘revenge’ in Isla Vista after being continually rejected by girls. He created a manifesto and posted an online video stating what he intended to do; "On the day of retribution, I am going to enter the hottest sorority house at UCSB and I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blonde slut I see inside there. All those girls I've desired so much. They have all rejected me and looked down on me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance toward them, while they throw themselves at these obnoxious brutes".

I stayed on the very same street of the shootings two nights after the event, and I couldn’t help but think that if I had started my road trip down the West coast a few days earlier that I would have been there on the night of the shootings. This event came as a severe reality check. Life can be taken away from you at any given minute, and after having the best year studying abroad, it made me even more thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given and the places I’ve been able to travel to, safely.  My heart goes out to the families and friends affected by the shooting, parents who sent their children to college expecting they would return home in one piece. Gun violence has no place anywhere, least of all at schools and college campuses. I just hope America’s government will open their eyes a little to see that new laws are needed, not only to insure that these dangerous weapons are kept out of the wrong hands, but also, that an increased access to mental health services are desperately needed.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Tennessee way: Nashville and Memphis

Home of Country music, renowned for its vibrant music and entertainment scene and known on the map as a centre of the music industry, earning it the nickname "Music City", I immediately fell in love with the bright lights of Nashville. Although, it was a little on the touristy side for my taste, the gorgeous girls sauntering around in cowboy boots and floaty dresses singing Shania Twain in the bars had me hooked at “Hello sweetheart”. Every bar was buzzing with musicians performing at all hours of the day and night – guys wearing flat caps strumming country music on their guitars and girls in garish red cowboy boots jamming away on violins – there was never a dull moment. Of course the cuisine was just as I expected; deep fried and full fat. But after living in the South for an entire year I’ve come to love the ‘wholesome’ home Southern cooking. Although, upon my return to old blighty I’ll be strictly eating steamed vegetables to bring my cholesterol levels back down to normal. The hostel we stayed in was particularly fab, and despite the squeaky bunk beds I managed to pass out each night in a rather timely manner.

I visited Nashville with a few other British exchange students who had also been studying abroad at South Carolina. Whilst in Nashville we peered into the Ryman Auditorium (which was home to the Grand Ole Opry until 1974 when the show moved to the Grand Ole Opry House), we danced the night away in numerous music clubs and honky-tonk bars in downtown Nashville, ogling at the young, good looking musicians (side note: why is it that when a guy plays the guitar he becomes immediately more attractive?!) and we visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Although the museum was mainly aimed at tourists it held a wide collection of crazy goofy costumes that country stars such as Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton had worn through the years and a range of props, shoes, and records. My favourite item was probably Taylor Swift’s incredibly sparkly guitar covered in silver sequins! There was even a hands on exhibit where you could record your own country song and design your own personal record cover – mine and Eveie’s version of “We are never ever getting back together” by Taylor Swift was particularly tuneful and I’m sure will be making its debut online in the near future!

Whilst in Tennessee, we decided to make the two hour trip over to Memphis – home of the blues! With only 24 hours to squeeze everything we wanted to see into a hectic schedule we somehow managed to cram all the touristy activities in. We spent the morning exploring Graceland – the home of Elvis Presley – which was as lavish as you would imagine! Fit with mirrored ceilings and shag carpets, this 70s style d├ęcor was as over the top as you’d expect. Numerous friends recommended dining at ‘Central BBQ’ in Memphis as the city prides itself on its delicious pulled pork sandwich – more mouth-wateringly healthy fried food for my ever growing belly – thank you America! After re-energising myself on BBQ we visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. I was incredibly impressed with the museum and could have easily spent all day in there reading the wealth of information and sources that had been complied. After such a serious museum experience we lightened our moods with a trip down Beale street. Lined with bars and people casually sitting on the sidewalk drinking beer from plastic cups, live music spilled from each club, whilst the remains of smoky barbecue wafted in the breeze. Apparently Beale street is the most visited attraction in the State of Tennessee - alive with blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, R&B, soul and gospel. The sunshine burnt our skin as we sat and watched the Beale Street Flippers acrobat down the street, flipping left, right and centre. After Memphis, we headed back for one last night in Nashville before parting separate ways for the rest of our summer travels. Oh what a life this is! Oh to be forever young, free and fun! I certainly could get used to this travelling malarkey, exploring new places and finding cherished treasures untold!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

South Carolina Plantations: Boone Hall

Right from the very beginning of the year I knew that one of the things on my Year Abroad Bucket list was to visit a Plantation House in South Carolina. I’m sure that for many people the word ‘Plantation’ is synonymous with slavery and the pre-Civil War era. But, without dwelling on America’s harrowing past I decided I wanted to visit a real plantation to see the history and reflect for myself.  

With over hundreds of plantations to choose from, I was kind of spoilt for choice. In the end I decided on Boone Hall in Charleston. Boone Hall Plantation is one of America's oldest working plantations; it has been continually growing crops for over 320 years!

The large Colonial Revival plantation house was built in the 193Os and replaces the original antebellum house. On my visit I found out that it’s actually the fourth house to stand on the plantation grounds, the original dating back to 1790.

What made Boone Hall stand out was the fact that there are nine original slave cabins still on the property. Although an exact date of construction is not known, it is estimated that they were built between 1790 and 1810. All of the cabins are built of brick which was probably made on the plantation brickyard and they sit in a row along the Avenue of Oaks.

When you enter the property you have to drive down a breath taking, long, straight driveway with live oak trees engrossing the path either side with branches intertwining as Spanish moss drapes down from the leaves. The slave cabins are arguably the first thing you notice upon entering the plantation, and it has been disputed amongst historians that this was a way for the owner of the plantation to show off his wealth.

The weather was incredibly warm for the beginning of May and the girls and I strolled through the beautiful gardens and took in the history. Boone Hall has now become somewhat of a desirable location for filming and high class events, for example, it is most recognisable as Allie’s house in the film The Notebook and has held private events such as Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively’s wedding.

I thoroughly enjoyed my historical day trip out, but, after all the lessons, the learning about Boone Hall and the workings of a Carolina Plantation, I still felt like there was a piece of the story missing. Something a little eerie. So whilst I viewed some of the buildings and immersed myself into discussions about how a plantation ran and what crops were grown on it, I couldn’t help but think I was getting a tainted perspective. I was only learning the information the tour guides wanted to share, the history they were told to give. So what about all the untold stories? What about all the voices and opinions of those too low down on the social scale to be noticed? Because, after all, that’s where the real stories lie.