Thursday, 25 August 2016

My Trip to the UK: a Holiday in Three Parts

I'm finally back from spending two weeks in the UK which partly explains why I haven't posted in a while. Aside from WiFi issues (I didn't even have a mobile signal most of the time in the Yorkshire Dales, let alone proper internet) I always feel kind of strange if I blog somewhere other than my room at home - I can't explain it, it just makes me feel oddly uncomfortable and I'm not always able to sit for hours just banging away on my keyboard and fiddling around with photos. Anyway, apart from my trip to Ireland in July this was my main holiday for the summer so I thought I'd chronicle it here.

For the first part of the trip my mum and I stayed with my grandparents in Norfolk for a few days, which we do every summer and some other holidays in between. There's always a shopping trip to the nearest big town involved and this time was no exception, although since I've been living in the UK I've noticed I'm far more able to be restrained in my shopping and just get a few nice bits and bobs instead of having a major spree every time. Having said that I was on a hunt for a few specific things, mostly for my new student house at uni, such as a duvet cover, some kitchen utensils and other homeware items. These few days were also a great opportunity for me to practice on my rollerskates which I haven't been able to do at home since we live on a bit of a hill, whereas my grandparents' road is nice and flat with smooth pavements.

The next stop was Durham where I go to uni, and this was the most exciting part of the trip for me as I was finally going to (sort of) move in to my new house! We brought loads of stuff from home to leave there, as while my dad is going to drive me up for the start of term I thought it would be a good idea to take some stuff - like bed linen and storage boxes - in advance since I had a car to fill anyway. The house comes with a lot of stuff in it already including most kitchen items from saucepans to cutlery so there was very little to buy in that area, although there were a few essential items missing such as a toaster and a colander. I got to work straight away making my room my own with a bright duvet cover and throw and also changing things around a bit like taking the curtains down (I never close curtains and there's a blind anyway) and moving the furniture. Obviously I'd seen the house before when we viewed it back in January but in the intervening months I'd forgotten the detail of how it was and what was already there, so this was also a chance to assess the place and work out if there was anything else I ought to bring when I move in properly in October. For instance, I realised there's a perfect place for my pink fluffy fairy lights now I've taken the curtains down: I'm going to wrap them around the curtain pole. I'm planning to do a whole post about decorating my uni room and possibly a house tour so I won't go into it too much here.

Apart from pottering around the house and crashing out in front of the Olympics we also did a few touristy things, went to my favourite café/restaurant, figured out the buses and did a bit of shopping. It was really nice for my mum to see the city a bit as although she's been before way back in February of last year when we went to look around, at that time I wasn't 100% sure I would be going to Durham as I hadn't yet got my EB results.

From Durham we drove to the Yorkshire Dales, which was where the Grand Family History Tour began. As a bit of an explanation, my mum is very into her genealogy and over the years has traced our family back through various different lines, sometimes as far back as the 16th century. Apparently some of our direct ancestors originally lived on a group of farms in a remote region of the Dales so that was where we were headed, stopping at a grand total of eleven churches and their associated graveyards along the way. Don't get me wrong, I love a good amble through a decaying and ivy-strewn graveyard as much as the next person but after about 5 or 6 different ones I was beginning to lose track of them all and also getting reluctant to risk my ankles trampling over the uneven ground in search of the gravestones of the long dead ancestors my mum was so desperate to find and photograph. Apart from that it was a lovely trip through some beautiful countryside, mostly thanks to the glorious weather which improved the experience no end. The best part was that I discovered that churches often have book sales at the back, so I came away with several stacks of extremely cheap books which I'll show you in a haul soon.

Finally we drove on to Cheshire where a different set of ancestors are apparently from. This part of the holiday involved rather less churches and rather more shopping, for which I was grateful. On the first day we went into Chester in the morning and walked along the city walls, which are the most complete set in Britain and offered a lovely view of the city, before heading to the main shops. Chester is so interesting because a lot of the buildings are really old, with many dating from the Tudor period (aka my most favourite era) and there are long stretches of the high street which have the original double-tiered layout of shops which basically means you can fit a lot more shops into the space. The next day we went to a couple of churches and had dinner in a lovely tapas restaurant in a building that was once owned by our ancestors a few hundred years ago. The decor was absolutely gorgeous and the food was even better so it was a really nice experience all in all: we had nachos, patatas bravas, bruschetta and salad nicoise and it was divine.

Last but not least we went back to my stay with my grandparents for a few more days before heading back home. We didn't really do much else of interest there as we were mostly recovering from the days spent touring the country, but my mum and I made the compulsory trip to our favourite arts, crafts and antiques shop in the next town over where we spent ages wandering through the rooms and admiring the eclectic mix of old and handmade items. We arrived back in Belgium late afternoon and the heat told us it was going to be an extremely hot next few days!


Tuesday, 2 August 2016

UK Uni Application Advice

So it's somehow already August and that means it's the time of year when students about to go into their last year of school are having to think seriously about university - at least that's how it works for UK universities which is the system I'm familiar with. As someone who has gone through the whole process in fairly recent memory I thought I'd put together some tips for the whole process and explain my rationale behind the choices I made at the time in the hope that it might help anyone who is facing some tricky decisions in the near future. In a way I'm currently reliving the experience because while my brother still has two full years of school to go he's already starting to look at the courses available, so naturally I offer my two pennies' worth at every opportunity whether he wants to hear it or not!

A small selection of the library of prospectuses I accumulated

Basically speaking I think there are four main things to consider when narrowing down the long list of universities, so I've divided the rest of this post into sections. I'm also just going to briefly summarise my situation so you have an idea of where I'm coming from with my thoughts and perspectives on all this: I've lived in Belgium for nearly my whole life but I am actually English and I've always known I wanted to go back to the UK for university. However, not having an extensive knowledge of the country or indeed a school which was really geared up for the transition (we had some careers advice sessions but it was pitiful) I didn't really have any preconceived ideas about where I wanted to end up specifically. Also, I did the European Baccalaureate instead of A-Levels which was fine in the end but the two systems are very, very different and it just made everything a bit more awkward in terms of the grades universities typically ask for. I also knew I wanted to study geography because while I didn't love the lessons at school I realised that all the topics I was really interested in fell generally into the spectrum of geography, specifically the human side of it. Finally, I knew that despite the trickiness of moving from the European School system into the UK system I was capable of aiming high in terms of a university's academic reputation. In the end I applied to Cardiff, Southampton, Bristol, Exeter and Durham, receieved conditional offers from all five and eventually accepted Durham as my firm choice and Exeter as my insurance. Then I got the grades I needed to Durham and the rest, as they say, is history.

Okay, now onto the actual advice!

The course
You'll be able to find some of the more common courses, such as business, English literature, physics, history, maths, economics and law at nearly every uni (although some unis have a better reputation for a particular course than others, which I'll get to in a minute). However if you want to study something more specific that might already narrow down the list for you - linguistics, for instance, isn't offered in a huge number of places, and neither is American studies. I was surprised to find geography wasn't offered universally given that it is a standard school subject, but that helped in a way as I was able to rule our some places (like Edinburgh and Bath, for example) simply because it wasn't available there. So if you already have a concrete idea of a slightly unusual course it's worth looking to see which universities offer it.

Also if you still have no idea what you want to study I would recommend looking at the websites of a bunch of universities to see what's out there, or alternatively ordering a bunch of prospectuses (these are essentially brochures about each university and what they offer) and flicking through them at your leisure. In terms of general courses that leave lots of options open, things like business, economics, history, English, law and geography are always a good bet. Having said that, if you truly have no gut instinct as to what you want to study it might be best to take a year out to work out if uni is really for you or just give yourself a chance to realise what you want out of your education/career.

Once you have decided on a course another important thing is the detail of the course content, which is available to check out on the universities individual websites and of course in prospectuses. This is an important consideration as courses can differ a lot between unis, even if they have the same name or code. So be sure to read the detail and compare it between universities, and if possible get in contact with people who have studied that course. You might also have extra considerations: for example, I originally wanted to apply for only human geography courses as opposed to straight geography, which proved tricky because only three unis in the whole of the UK offered the human-specific course - so I ended up compromising on that which wasn't ideal.

University rankings
It's good to be ambitious about where you're aiming to apply, but it's extremely important to be realistic. Obviously Oxford and Cambridge are well known as the top universities in the country, but if you don't have much of an awareness beyond that (as I didn't) the best way to get a general idea of the esteem institutions are held in is to look at a website which has a list of rankings, or preferably several lists for comparison. I always relied on the Complete University Guide, which is apparently independent and great because you can see the rankings by course too. Of course this may not be the most important factor for you, but it can help to provide some context.

The next step is to check the entry requirements for each course. This can really make or break your feeling about a particular university because you'll know whether the grades you'll need are achievable for you personally - if in doubt, ask a teacher who knows you and your academic performance well. This works both ways too: if you know you're unlikely to get the grades they're asking then it might be better to look elsewhere, but if you're sure you'll easily achieve them then it's worth keeping that uni as your insurance option and aiming a bit higher if the situation is right.

The location
This may or may not be important to you - having a limited knowledge of the UK, I wasn't overly bothered and ended up about as far north as one can be without being in Scotland, but for some people it's a major factor. This can be because they want to stay close to home or actually want to move a significant distance away from it. And then there's the pull of London, which I basically avoided by reasoning that I'll probably end up living or working there at some point in my life so I wanted to experience living somewhere else first. Another thing to think about is travel costs and accessibility. If you go to uni in London then you can pretty much guarantee that there will be some easy form of transport between there and home but other than that it really depends. It takes me about 6-7 hours and £100-200 to get home by train and Eurostar so I knew I wouldn't be going home apart from between terms. This set up worked out more or less okay as for me it was a significant mental step in knowing that I was going to uni in a different country, and so that separated those two parts of my life quite distinctly. On the other hand you might still have commitments at home and need to be back on a regular basis, in which case it's worth thinking about how much time and money that will take.

The type of uni
I realise this sounds vague but bear with me: I mean in terms of the way the university is laid out, which is kind of linked to the location. I tend to mentally divide unis into campus, city, and campus-city and this was one of the other big factors I thought about when I was considering where to apply. Some universities are very much campus-based, by which I mean there is a distinct area, usually some way outside a city, where all the academic building and accommodation are concentrated in such a way that there is a more or less a self-contained area. Others are city-based, so the university buildings can be dotted around the city and might be quite spread out, meaning you need to get public transport to get to lectures. Both of these have their advantages and disadvantages: campus unis can end up feeling like you're trapped in a bubble and you're cut off from the real world, but they can also feel safe and it can be handy having everything nearby. City unis might make your experience more vibrant and interesting, but it can be easy to feel lost and alone in a large place. I really had no idea which I would prefer but it's worth mentioned that it's not always such a clear distinction and luckily Durham fits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. While there is a campus-type area (commonly referred to as the 'science site') where a lot of the academic buildings are located, some departments have their buildings in quite random locations around the city. The college system complicates it even further as there are 14 mini campuses about the size of schools dotted around the place. The other thing about Durham is that it's so small that in a way the university is the city, but everything is walkable and close by. For me it's the perfect balance between city and campus as you can get out and about easily and feel like you're not always 'at uni', but there's is a still central place where I go for my lectures and academic stuff. It will completely depend on the person as to which you prefer and this is one of the main reasons why I think it's important to go to open days or even just turn up somewhere and have a look around to get a feel for the place and the dynamics. 

I think this post is getting stupidly long now so I think I'll leave it there. Obviously there are loads more factors to take into account when choosing universities to apply to and I've just covered the ones I think are most important here, but at the end of the day it's a very personal choice and not one anyone one else can make but you. Also different factors will be more or less important to different people. Finally, don't stress - you only have to narrow it down to five to begin with and even if you realise you don't like the one you picked when you get there it's always possible to change. I hope this helped in some way and wasn't just a long rambling mess, please leave me a comment if you found it useful and good luck to anyone starting the uni process soon!


Saturday, 30 July 2016

Visiting the Emerald Isle

I just got back from spending a wonderful week with friends in Ireland so I thought I'd document it here! I had a really amazing time and saw lots of cool stuff as well as my favourite people and for the most past the weather was pretty decent which I was extremely grateful for.

Day 1
First I flew from Brussels to Dublin where I stayed with one of my best friends in her little flat which she has as she lives there for uni. Although I've flown with just friends before this was the first time I had flown alone so I was slightly on edge to begin with, but I soon got into my zen travelling mode and just went with the flow. Unfortunately my plane was delayed by over an hour which wasn't ideal, especially as it was about 35 degrees that day! When I arrived my friend met me at the airport (thankfully) and we took the bus into the city centre. Since it was already evening by then there wasn't much of the day left so we just got pizza and watched some movies before heading to bed.

Day 2
My first full day in Ireland! This was the Busiest Day as we basically saw most of Dublin and completely wore ourselves out in the process. We met our other best friend in the morning (as she was staying with family outside Dublin) and then wandered around Trinity, the main shopping street, a really beautiful shopping centre and a lovely park - surprisingly it was actually pretty warm! In the afternoon we had a guided tour of Dublin Castle, which was really interesting and great value at €3 and I learned a lot about the history of the city. Afterwards we looked around the Chester Beatty Library, which wasn't actually a library as I'd hoped but instead was a sort of museum which explained the history of the world's major religions through old books and other artefacts, but it was still pretty cool and had a lovely rooftop garden. Then we finished off the day at the National Gallery which made us feel super duper cultural and had v pleasing aesthetics, and finally went out for dinner.

Day 3
This day was also pretty busy in terms of how much time we spent out and about, but the stuff we went to see was a bit further out of the city so there was quite a bit of travelling involved. In the morning we went to the botanical gardens which were huge and absolutely stunning - there were brightly coloured flowers, a river, a rockery and beautiful hot and steamy Victorian greenhouses full of exotic-looking plants. Basically endless photo opportunities! Then we got the bus back into the city for lunch and headed out again to Kilmainham Gaol, which is an ex-prison that was pretty instrumental in shaping Ireland's history at various points. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me because I love history and old buildings which was basically what this was, especially as we had a guided tour (for €4, barginous!) that was SO GOOD and really well delivered by the guide. We saw various parts of the gaol including the older cells and the newer parts of the building, as well as the courtyard where people were executed after the Easter Rising. Honestly I can't express how good the tour was, it was just the right amount of information and it didn't seem as if it was being recited from memory, it was really really well done. After the tour we spent ages in the gaol's museum part which was also displayed really nicely and had lots of interesting letters and artefacts. Finally we took a quick look around the Irish Museum of Modern Art which was kind of disappointing as I realised I am not a fan of modern art, and also it was difficult to know where to go - basically there was a lack of information so we left pretty quickly.

Day 4
This was more of a lazy day as we only got up around midday to go for pancakes, but in fairness we took a trip to the seaside in the afternoon so there was plenty of walking and fresh sea air. It wasn't the sunniest of days but it stayed dry and it was calming to be by the sea after a couple of busy days in Dublin. We got the obligatory ice cream (flake '99) on the pier and wandered around until dinnertime, before taking the train back to the city and collapsing on the sofa in front of a couple more movies.

Day 5
This was my last day in the Republic of Ireland as I packed my suitcase and headed up to Northern Ireland on the train, where I stayed with a friend from uni. This part of my trip was very different from being in Dublin as the town was quite small and I was staying in my friend's family home rather than a student flat, but it was very charming and homely nonetheless. We basically drove everywhere (oh the advantages of having friends who can drive!) but I arrived late in the afternoon so all we did that day was meet up with my friend's friends for coffee in the evening. They were all super lovely and definitely my sort of people, although the evening did end with us being kicked out of a park by a really rude and aggressive security man for no apparent reason which was a bit unsettling but made for an interesting anecdote.

Day 6
Belfast day! We got up horrifically early (by which I mean 8:30 am) and caught the train to Belfast for a day of sightseeing and shopping. Priority number one was the Titanic museum, which was absolutely AMAZING like honestly I would recommend it to anyone who happens to be in Belfast because it was just so good! We vastly underestimated the time it took to go round all the exhibitions and spent ages in the first one (which wasn't even about the Titanic, it was mostly about the history of Belfast) and ended up rushing through the last couple. But in between it was well worth stopping to absorb it all because it was so well thought out and put together, I was in awe. There was just the right amount of information to skim read some sections and more detail for those who were interested, plus lots of interactive bits and audio and video sections which would be great for keeping kids interested. Halfway through there was also a ride of sorts where you sat in a pod/car thing and went around 'the dockyards' listening to voiceovers of the workers explaining what the work involved. The part I found most interesting was the exhibition on the interior, which explained all about the decor and the different areas for the different classes and had replicas of each type of cabin. There was also a section about the sinking which had the voices of survivors playing overhead and the final messages the ship sent out on the walls - it was super eerie but really made you think about what the passengers and crew went through that night. It was a really great experience which really brought home the magnitude of the tragedy and made it feel much more real. In total we spent over 3 hours there (and to be honest I could have spent longer if I hadn't been so hungry) which was well worth the £12.50 we paid for a student ticket. Next we got the train to the stop near Queens University and had a nose around there before heading to the botanic gardens - these weren't half as impressive as Dublin's but they were still really nice and would have been beautiful in the sunshine. Unfortunately the Ulster Museum where we had planned to go turned out to be closed on Mondays so we walked into the city centre instead to do some shopping. I was incredibly restrained and only bought a couple of things in Primark on account of having to fit everything into my cabin baggage-sized suitcase: a plastic container thing for holding cotton wool pads (this is honestly revolutionary, it's the best idea ever) and a bodysuit with the NASA logo). We finished off the day by watching the Titanic movie and crying buckets.

Day 7
Thankfully we had a much later start on this day as all we had planned was meeting up with a mutual uni friend for lunch. She picked us up in her car and we drove to a lovely café in a not-so-nearby town which meant I saw a lot of the Northern Irish countryside on the way. When we got back mid-afternoon we crashed and napped for a couple of hours before waking up in time to go for dinner with my friend's family in an also not-so-nearby seaside town. The food was lovely despite the lack of vegetarian options but unfortunately the rain meant the prospect of going for a walk was out the window so instead we went for a long drive along the coast to take in the misty views.

Day 8
This was honestly one of my favourite days of the whole trip because we drove to the north coast with a couple of my friend's closest friends. First we went to the seaside town of Portstewart for a walk on the beach, lunch and an icecream before driving to the Giant's Causeway where we thankfully avoided having to pay £9 per person (!!!) to park by waiting until 6pm when the man checking the tickets had gone - top tip for you there. The stones themselves were pretty impressive and I was amazed - given the UK's obsession with health and safety - that you can still climb all over them as it was more than a little hazardous in places. We took lots of photos and sat for ages taking in the views and beautiful scenery before finally driving back. All in all it was a really nice day, especially as I got to spend time with my friend's friends who are really lovely.


Day 9
My last day! My flight was mid-afternoon so there wasn't all that much time to do anything but in the morning we went out for breakfast/brunch with my friend's grandma which was so delicious, I had the best pancakes ever. The café was actually in a shop which sold all sorts of beautiful homeware and trinkety things so we spent ages admiring the vintage tea sets and teapots and trying to decide which ones we liked best. Then it was time to go to the airport and leave (Northern) Ireland behind as I headed home with an overstuffed suitcase and a stackful of new memories to treasure.

This little trip to Ireland is going to be my only proper holiday this summer so I was determined to make the most of it which I definitely did. I feel like I saw so much even by just spending a few short days in each place but I know there's a lot more to see so I'd love to go back again someday - which I'm sure will happen given that all my best friends are Irish or Northern Irish! I think I just attract them to be honest. So here's to many more trips in the future!


Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Review: My First Year at University

As you may or may not know I just finished my first year of university. Throughout the past year I've done update posts at the end of each term (see term 1, term 2 and term 3) but I thought I'd do more of a general post to wrap up the year and reflect a bit more on what I have and haven't enjoyed. In fact, since I'm going to break it down into sections lets call this a review - see the links above for the more personal life stuff/drama if you're interested in that. I've been watching a lot of 'my first year at uni' videos on YouTube and they've been really interesting to compare my experience to and generally get an idea of what other people's first years have been like. So I hope this might help anyone who's trying to decide where to apply to uni (especially my university) or just wants a general idea of what to expect. Get ready because this is going to be a long one!

The city
I don't think I've said it in as many words before (kind of for privacy reasons but whatever, I'm sure I've said it on instagram) but I go to Durham University. Durham is a really small city about 3 and a half hours from London on the train, way up north near Newcastle. It's most famous for its beautiful cathedral and castle, and its medieval origin means it's full of little alleyways, quaint cafés and cobblestone roads, while the river that runs through the city makes for lots of scenic spots. The centre isn't the best place for shopping but there's a New Look, Topshop and H&M which is all I really need! And of course there's a post office, banks, Boots, WH Smiths, Tesco etc, basically everything you might need on a day to day basis while Newcastle just a 10 minute train journey away for a much bigger range of shops. Durham is small, really small for a city, but that makes it friendly and it feels safe even after dark. The small size also means it's walkable, and it's a running joke that you can get from one side of the city to the other on foot in about half an hour.

To be honest location wasn't the most important thing to me when I was choosing where to apply because I was simply thrilled enough at the prospect of living in the UK. All I knew was that I didn't want to live in London - it just seemed like too big a step to make at this point in my life although I think I would like to live there at some point in the future. From a practical point of view it would have been more convenient to go to uni somewhere further south as it would be closer to London and therefore easier to get the Eurostar home, but in the end I made my choice based more on Durham's reputation than anything else. I'd visited once, back in February after I got my UCAS offer, but it wasn't an open day so my mum and I had just wandered around a bit and tried to get a feel for the place. I felt at home straight away and I'm really glad I made the choice I did because I've grown to love Durham. For me it was exactly the right decision, also since it meant I was able to adapt to life in the UK more easily than I might have done in a big city. It's also provided me with lots of instagram opportunities!

Durham Uni is an odd mixture between a campus uni and a city uni - which is sort of ideal because I couldn't decide which I preferred. In a way the university is the city, purely because it's such a small city and the buildings and colleges are quite spread out. For instance some subjects, such as theology and music, are mostly taught on the Bailey (which is the bit with the cathedral which sticks out into the river) while the languages department is close to the centre of town. Most other departments are located on the 'science site', a 15-20 minute walk from the centre and roughly central to all the colleges. For me this was the perfect set-up, as I was hesitant about choosing a campus uni because I didn't want to get trapped in a bubble but also a bit apprehensive about the idea of having to travel around a big city just to get to lectures.

The course
I study geography (BA, any fellow geographers will understand the important distinction between BA and BSc) and this year I really enjoyed most of my course. I am VERY much interested in the human side of geography rather than the physical side (think population, migration, politics and cities instead of mountains, glaciers and rivers) but unfortunately I had a compulsory physical module in first year. I understand that the point is to have a good grounding in all aspects of geography, especially since there is an area of crossover between the two, but to be honest it was difficult to think rationally about that when I was having to research the effect of vegetation on river channel patterns or the factors that drive the ice ages. I literally DO NOT CARE AT ALL about any of that so it was only essay deadlines and the prospect of exams that got me through such boring topics. It also didn't help that I was starting pretty much from scratch with physical geography, as we focused a lot more on the human side at school and the last time I did anything about e.g. rivers was 2nd year secondary (so aged about 12). The only thing I had a small amount of background knowledge on was weather, but the lecturers seemed to be trying to cover literally every aspect of physical geography in a few months including climate, tectonics, water, ice ages and sea level rise. Geography isn't actually a required subject for entry which was slightly comforting, but everyone I spoke to had studied it at A-level where I understand there is more of a focus on the physical side. Case in point: my final bac exam was on the composition and history of the EU's parliament and other institutions, while someone on my course's A-level exam was on coastal management.

I'd considered other courses at other unis before I decided on Durham, mostly because they were more flexible in terms of what modules you could take in first year, as while a lot of unis have compulsory modules in human and physical (both BA and BSc) there a few who don't and I was desperate to find a way to avoid the dreaded physical. In the end the reputation and quality of teaching and research at Durham won out and I endured a year of reluctantly learning about earth systems, but it was honestly the worst part of my whole university experience. Think of a school subject you really didn't enjoy and were forced to take, then imagine that at university level where you have to read academic articles on stuff you find deathly boring and also don't understand - yeah, not good. On the plus side, there was an awful lot of stuff I was interested in which helped me struggle through the boring stuff. For instance, blocks I really enjoyed covered cities in the Middle East, landscape, domestic violence, the financial crisis and the migrant crisis. I also got along pretty well with my compulsory research module, in which we received a grounding in methods that would help us carry out various pieces of research. Luckily next year should be a lot more interesting as I've chosen modules that I actually enjoy, though there are still some compulsory ones.

For me one of the most exciting things about uni was being in an academically stimulating environment with so many lecturers who are truly world experts in their field. It's not like school where you might sometimes wonder if the teacher has even studied the subject, let alone is qualified to teach it - these people know their stuff, and the reading lists were full of books and articles written by the teaching staff. Speaking of reading lists, holy moly it was overwhelming. I don't know what other unis and courses are like, but for every lecture we were expected to read about 2-3 journal articles, which may not sound like a lot but they can be 40ish pages and with 9 lectures per week it got on top of me really quickly. I struggled to even read one article per lecture even for subjects I found really interesting, and when it came to my physical module I basically didn't bother with anything more than the recommended textbook after a couple of weeks - what with reading for essays, prepping for tutorials and practicals, writing up lecture notes and generally trying to sleep and have a bit of a social life it was too much to handle. So yes, I found my course quite demanding but I also knew it was to be expected, especially at a high-ranking uni (also since Durham is ranked 2nd in the UK for geography, woop).

I should probably also mention that I chose to do a French module as one of my optional ones which for me was a really good choice. I'd studied French for 13 years (and taken some subjects in it at school, including geography) not to mention lived in a French-speaking country nearly all my life so it seemed a shame not to keep it up a bit longer. I'm by no means a natural linguist and I have next to no confidence speaking in another language, although my writing is pretty decent, so for me this was a great opportunity to improve my confidence orally in a different environment from what I was used to. The course was aimed at post-A-level ability, which to be honest was much lower than what I'd been doing at school, so for once I found I was one of the best in the class (not trying to sound arrogant here I promise!) and that really encouraged me to participate and speak up more. It also meant that it was a module I didn't feel too worried about, as nothing was really new and I didn't have to work that hard at it. Most of the course consisted of speaking exercises in pairs or small groups, re-learning grammar and reading or watching news reports and videos about French society and culture. The only thing I felt was lacking was any writing, as we did a few small exercises but not as much as I was used to and I missed gabbling away in French on paper! I also really enjoyed having a break from geography and learning in a completely different way, which is the main reason I've decided to take the next level up next year to try and carry it on a bit further.

One of Durham's distinguishing features is its college system. You can think of colleges like Hogwarts houses - they're kind of like halls in that they function as accommodation but they also have their own facilities, sports teams and societies, as well as identities and reputations. I'm not going to talk specifically about my college, but I know it was the college experience that really made my year at Durham. I think it can be easy to get lost in a big university where everything is so anonymous so it was so wonderful to be able to experience student life at a smaller scale. Everything at college level is so much less scary than uni level, from joining societies to playing sports or just heading down to the bar of an evening - which made such a difference to someone like me who's introverted and isn't that great at socialising. For example, when I was studying for my exams I found it much less intimidating to revise in my college library than to head to the university's main library. It was also really easy to meet new people not on your course and from different years as everyone eats together and there are so many fun college events throughout the year, from formal dinners and balls to bar quizzes and secret santa! There's also a whole support system of people to help if you have a problem or just point you in the right direction, which was so lovely when I was ill and struggling.

My college is divided into accommodation blocks, and each corridor has about 14-16 people who share a lounge, toilets, showers and kitchens (although thankfully I was catered in first year so I didn't need to worry about cooking for myself). Unlike in house or flat-type setups there was nothing forcing you to interact with the people on your corridor if you didn't want to, which was both a blessing and a curse because sometimes it could feel quite isolating. Luckily there were some really lovely people on my corridor who I'm living with next year, and it also meant that it was easy to get out of your immediate living environment and socialise with people in other blocks. I was so glad to have a single room as I'm one of those people who definitely needs their own space and I'm also a bit of a neat freak so I don't think I would have dealt well with sharing a room!

I think that's more or less everything I have to say about my first year. Aside from the ups and downs I went through personally it has been a really positive experience and I'm confident I made the right decision both in terms of my course and the university itself. Although I didn't feel comfortable immediately it was easy to find help if I needed it and I felt like I had settled in by the end of the first term. Hopefully next year I will feel even more at home and start to enjoy uni life a whole lot more!


Saturday, 16 July 2016

Recent Reads #3

Lately I've been busy with decorating and clearing out stuff around the house (thanks brexit for making my parents realise we may be moving sooner rather than later and so a lot needs to be done to get the house shipshape and get rid of a decade and a half of accumulating junk) but I've also had quite a lot of time to plough through books at a rate of knots. Case in point: I re-read the entire Twilight saga in under 6 days - not my proudest achievement I have to say. Anyway, here's a quick run-down of what I've been reading lately and my somewhat convoluted thoughts.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt 

Okay. This is a rare thing for me to say because I don't often come across a book that deserves this praise, but I think this may be my Favourite Book of All Time. It's kind of like a cross between The Catcher in the Rye, PRIVATE and Looking for Alaska, but in the best possible way: you've got the outcast, disillusioned by society and estranged from his family; then there's the semi-elite boarding school/university setting and the inner circle of a select few students who seem to be beyond the rules and live an opulent lifestyle, plus (spoiler alert) murder; and finally the mystery of it all, the way the main character idealises the others and gets sucked into their lives. I can't quite put my finger on why I though this was so brilliant but it absolutely captivated me. I think it's also the setting, parts of which are so well drawn it took my breath away, and just the whole pretentiousness of it all. Basically I love everything about this book. It was kind of slow to start with, especially as the first chapter basically tells you what happens in the end, but it soon picked up and it was interesting to see the events unfold in such a way that they reached the conclusion that was initially revealed.

Rating: 10/10

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I knew I wasn't going to love this from the moment I opened it - 'boy ends up stuck on boat with tiger and has an adventure' is definitely not the type of thing I'd usually go for, but I got the book a couple of years ago when it was popular and decided I ought to get around to reading it, purely to say that I'd read it. It fulfilled my expectations exactly: the subject matter didn't appeal in the slightest, but to give the author credit it was well-written enough to hold my interest as I found myself still wanting to know what happened in the end. I think I might have enjoyed this a few years ago, but it just didn't wow me. I definitely won't bother re-reading this in the future but it was an afternoon decently spent.

Rating: 4/10

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

I both loved and hated this book. It's set in Amsterdam in the 1600s, which would normally make it a winner for me because there's just something about 17th century Holland that appeals to my historical fiction-obsessed side - not to mention the thrill I get when my 6 years of learning the language mean I can understand the odd snippet of Dutch. It differed slightly from the usual storylines of novels set in that era which (in my experience) tend to be told from the point of view of a maid (e.g. Girl with a Pearl Earring, while here the protagonist was the new wife of a merchant. Nevertheless it still held my attention and I was really enjoying the story, trying to imagine possible solutions to the main conundrum of the plot: who is the miniaturist and why is she so interested in the protagonist's life? I was avidly anticipating the big reveal but to my immense disappointment it never came, as the ending just sort of petered out into nothingness. I hate unsolved mysteries in books and this annoyed me no end, pretty much ruining the book for me. I got the feeling the author was just enjoying building up the mystery but actually had no clue how to provide an explanation for it so didn't bother. A promising read with a disappointing end.

Rating: 7/10

The Originals by Cat Patrick

I've had this book on my shelves for absolutely ages, at least since my dystopian YA phase and probably before that. It's about three girls who are clones and each live one third of the day in the public eye: one does the morning at school, one does the afternoon and the third goes to evening classes and a part-time job. I thought this was an intriguing premise and it was certainly interesting to puzzle out how it would work in practice, but I felt that the plot itself left something to be desired: half the book seemed to be taken up with the narrator (one of the clones) whining about how she couldn't date some boy at her school and trying to find ways to convince her mum to let her... which bored me to tears. Towards the end of the book things seemed to pick up and there was a bit more action, but the ending fell flat in my opinion and didn't seem to resolve much. The whole thing reminded me a bit of Meg Cabot's Airhead trilogy (which is about a girl who has a brain transplant and how she deals with waking up in a new body) but without addressing the nitty gritty reality of living with a nebulous identity in society and the implications of this at a national/governmental level. All in all I was mildly let down but it was still quite a good read, though I think I would have enjoyed it more a few years ago.

Rating: 7/10

Lucky by Alice Sebold

This book is truly not for the faint-hearted. The first chapter describes the narrator's brutal rape in a local park in her first term of university, and no detail is left out - thankfully I can only imagine what it must have been like to write that. What makes it even more poignant is that it's autobiographical, and Alice Sebold does an amazing job of keeping the integrity of her character intact throughout. The story follows her coming to terms with her ordeal, dealing with the reactions of others (including her friends, family and community) and eventually succeeding getting justice at the end of a long court case. It's truly heartbreaking in places, uplifting in others and generally well worth a read. I could see quite a lot of overlaps in terms of subject matter with Alice Sebold's other book The Lovely Bones but Lucky is told from a very different perspective, almost like the story has been flipped. To say I enjoyed this doesn't seem quite the right word to use but I would definitely recommend it.


What have you been reading lately?