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?


Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Life Update & Blogiversary

First things first, today is my 3 year blog anniversary! I can't quite believe I've been posting (on and off) in my little corner of the internet for 3 whole years - it's just flown by. I'd really like to thank everyone who reads my blog and especially those who leave lovely comments and messages, it really means a lot to me. Anyway, in honour of said blogiversary I thought I'd better post something to interrupt my recent absence, so here is a little life update.

Since my last post I've gone back to uni after 5 weeks of Easter holiday, struggled through the 3 weeks prior to exams, endured a week of exams, gone home for a week, spent 3 more weeks doing nothing back at uni and been back home again for just over a week. So quite a busy time to say the least! Unfortunately it hasn't been the best of times, mostly because the stress I experienced leading up to exams (which I know don't count as they were only 1st year ones, but still, I am a natural worrier) triggered an episode of major anxiety which basically resulted in my inability to function for a couple of weeks when it combined with other mental health problems. I won't go into details but basically it was not a fun time in the slightest, even though the exams themselves ended up being perfectly doable.

I then headed back home for a week to have an operation which I also won't go into too much. It was nice to be home, albeit briefly, and to finally relax after being stressed out about exams for approximately 10+ weeks straight. But no sooner was I out of hospital I whisked myself back up north just in time for a disco-type event in my college, which is a lot more fun than it sounds and usually the highlight of the term. The following three weeks were a mixture of hanging out with friends, participating in fun college events (though I wasn't involved, the production of Mamma Mia was an absolute gem especially given it was rehearsed and performed all in 48 hours), and generally getting into the holiday feeling. I also spent a lot of time trying to manage my mental health better as it took a massive dip and made it hard to feel even remotely motivated or interested in anything. In that sense it was a pretty horrible time, especially as I had exam results looming in the final week and the mild stress of not being able to confirm my modules and enroll for next year until the last day, thanks to the geography department's odd way of managing things. Luckily I was kept busy by multiple medical appointments and my exam results turned out fine - I came within 0.4% of a 1st! Next year I'll be taking a module in political geography, social & cultural geography, a compulsory theories and concepts module, a compulsory research module and an optional French module.

All in all my first year of uni has had its highs and lows, and plenty of each. Its been a hell of an experience in so many ways, from living 'abroad' to learning how to function in the world of academia and building new friendships. I can't say I've lived the typical 'university experience' to the fullest so far, but that's just my personality: I never expected to, and it took me a long time to find my feet and feel comfortable. But that said, I hope the next two years turn out to be a whole lot better now I've finally settled into life at uni.

As for the rest of the summer, my plans consist of trying to get my health back on track, a potential internship in September, and a couple of low-key holidays to Ireland (to stay with friends) and England (to visit churches and graveyards with my mum, lol). In between I'm planning to read, watch films, do some crafting, try out my new rollerskates and I hope I'll also manage to find the motivation to blog along the way!

Until then,