Category: The Traveling Fantasist

Writing Abroad

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Writing is something you have to make time for. I know this. What I didn’t know is how easy it is to make time for writing when you’re doing things like homework and laundry all the time…it’s much harder to make time in between traveling, eating out, and sightseeing.

IMG_3430During the five weeks I was in Oxford, I journaled every day. I made a conscious decision to do this, and it often involved writing late at night or on bumpy trains and buses. And I did this because I knew that otherwise, I wasn’t going to write everyday. The material was there, but honestly there wasn’t always time.

There were a few (amazing) moments when I was able to just sit down and write in the middle of a beautiful or inspiring location, and I doubt that the work produced then could ever be rivaled. But, when I wasn’t able to do that, I was glad that at least I would have my journal to look back on. It contains my thoughts, feelings, and a very subjective account of the days’ events.

writing in holyrood park

The one productive thing I did was buy a notebook with the intention of only writing stories in it. Stories based on places, situations – things I had experienced during my travels. It was a challenge, but definitely a fun one. I’ve written in it a few times since I’ve gotten home, but my best experience with it was a lovely writing-filled day in Edinburgh.

A few of us passed up the offers to go sightseeing, instead deciding to spend our time enjoying nature’s inspiration. We hiked in Holyrood Park and then sat for about an hour, just taking in the beautiful sights and writing. One of my friends even pulled out watercolors and painted the scene in front of us. It really was a testament to just how easy it is to be creative when you have so much material to work with, and I’m looking forward to seeing how inspired I can be when I have just my journal and memories to take me back to those amazing places.

 

 

Harry Potter Pilgrimage

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I have to say, there’s no better trip for Harry Potter fan than the one I just took (and I mean this in the most objective way possible). In the past five weeks, I’ve eaten breakfast and dinner in the Great Hall at Christ Church (the Inspiration for the Hogwarts Great Hall), stumbled across rooms and buildings used in the movies, written in the same place J.K. Rowling wrote most of the early books, and taken the Harry Potter Studio Tour. I’ve also spent a few hours a week taking a class where we do nothing but discuss Harry Potter (and sometimes we watch Potter Puppet Pals). 

It’s pretty amazing. As a Harry Potter fan, there’s not much better than getting to experience the things that are shown in the books and movies. And as a writer, it’s inspiring to see where Rowling wrote and where she got some of her ideas. 

Though every day was pretty much full of Harry Potter experiences, I have to say that there are some that stand out.

  
Stumbling Across the Hospital Wing

Normally finding yourself in a hospotal wing wouldn’t be a good thing. But when a few of us made our way inside the Divinity School at the Bodleian Library, we were ecstatic. We knew that some parts of the movie had been filmed in the area, but we had only gone inside to get some warm drinks during the intermission of Much Ado About Nothing and were therefore completely surprised. 

  Visiting Platform 9 3/4

Okay, so it’s no longer located between platforms 9 and 10, but that doesn’t keep the staff at Kings Cross from catering wholeheartedly to Harry Potter fans – including a designated scarf thrower to make your picture look super authentic. 

  Writing in The Elephant House

The Elephant House is one of the cafes where J.K. Rowling spent much of her time. During our visit to Edinburgh, a few of us took a few hours out of our sightseeing to just drink coffee, sit, and write where she wrote. Though it may not sound like it, this was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the entire trip.

  

Visiting the Harry Potter Studio Tour

This was definitely the highlight of the trip. I will admit to tearing up a few times as I experienced the magic behind one of the most important literary experiences in my life. The best part was the model of Hogwarts that was used for fly-by shots in the movies. It was huge, at least twice my height, and its sheer grandness along with the music and lighting made for one of the most unforgettable moments of my life. 

  

Appreciating Oxford

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Sometimes, when you’re frantically trying to write papers or study for tests, it’s easy to forget that you’re in another country. It’s something I’ve had to remind myself of many times over the past four weeks, when I’ve realized I’m becoming complacent or am complaining about what I’m doing. 

While I do care about my grades, I have to say that making the most of this fleeting experience is even more important. So instead of holing up in our rooms to work, we’ve been exploring different cafes. Instead of staying inside and reading, we’ve taken our blankets out into the meadow and soaked in the beautiful scenery. 

It’s even harder when we return from amazing weekend trips. The thought of staying in Paris or Edinburgh for the rest of our time is incredibly appealing, but there’s no denying that after all this time, Oxford feels like home. 

Learning to appreciate where you live changes your outlook on life. 

There are plenty of bad things I could say about Oxford, if I thought hard enough. But they are so outweighed by the good that they honestly aren’t even worth mentioning. I could tell you about the annoying hordes of tourists, but then I’d have to say that you can easily escape them by renting a boat and going punting, or by taking a nice long walk along the Thames. 

  I could tell you that all the shops and restaurants close way too early, but that would remind me that this is the only reason you’ll end up running into everyone you know at the same ice cream shop. 

  
No city is perfect, but it only takes a little bit of work to find things that make it feel perfect. This is something I hope that I can bring back with me to Waco, and wherever I end up living after graduation. For now, though, I’ll focus on taking in Oxford.  

  

Cliffs of Dover

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Yesterday my roommate and I were talking about the limited amount of time we have left in Oxford, and since we don’t have class on Wednesdays, decided to plan a day trip to Dover. 

Since we have first class BritRail passes, the trip really isn’t costing us anything, and we knew it would be worth it. So we gathered our group (five adventurous travelers) and set off for the Oxford train station early this morning. (I’ll spare you the minute details of the train trip, because we’re kind of beginning to panic about work at this point and spent the whole time writing papers.)

It is interesting to note, though, that two very odd but completely unrelated things happened on our journey this morning. First, a fight broke out while we were on the tube, which consisted of the comedic scene of two men chasing each other through the cars, followed by a priest. Second, the train ahead of us derailed because it hit a herd of cows, destroying the section of track and a nearby bridge (apparently the bridge destruction was due to the cows and not the train). 

The good thing is that the fight delayed our tube, which made us miss our train by just a few minutes, preventing us from being on the train that derailed (no one was hurt, by the way, except for some cows).

Anyway, once we finally made it to Dover, we were escorted by a friendly passerby to the cliffs (she overheard us talking about how we had no clue where we were going). She walked us along the beach, then through the port, and finally to the bottom of the steps that led up to the cliffs.  

By the time we finally made it there, we had less than three hours for our walk (we wanted to be back at Christ Church for dinner at 7:15). 

Somehow we experienced everything in those three hours. 

We saw wild horses, took paths so steep we thought we might just slide down them, and enjoyed the beautiful view of the cliffs, the channel, and the hints of France across it.

 
   
I am a little ashamed to say that the horses were better at taking those steep paths than we were. They managed them calmly, while we had to take running starts and launch ourselves towards the top, watching every calculated footstep. But it was so much fun. By the end of it, our calves and thighs were burning, but we’d done what we’d come to do. 

(And then we basically ran back across town to get to the train station on time.)

The cliffs were utterly stunning. Even now as I write this, the image of the jagged chalk-white drop off heading down into the clear blue water is still seared into my mind. I can still feel the smile that came to my face when we discovered a particularly beautiful view, and happiness we gained from just spending time together in nature. 

It was a day well spent. 

    

For the love of Paris

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Today I finally made it to Paris. It’s been almost exactly four years since I’ve been here, and I’ve spent most of those four years dreaming about coming back. 

I spent the day just wandering around and enjoying the city, getting familiar with the metro, and scoping out places I’d like to return to. (I walked 9 miles today, and since about 5 hours of the day was spent on trains, I think that’s pretty impressive.)  I didn’t do anything particularly exciting or special, but it was an amazing day. 

I know many people who don’t enjoy Paris and don’t understand why people get so excited to go there. I’m not going to try to dispute any of their reasons – because I don’t think I’ll be able to – but I will explain why I love the city and why it means so much to me. 

Paris is a city of learning

Not only is the city filled with history and museums, it has one of the most worldly cultures I’ve ever experienced. Everywhere you go are people who speak different languages than you (especially if you don’t speak French) and it requires adapting and is endlessly interesting. 

Paris was my first experience abroad

This was the city that first introduced me to international travel, and it’s entirely possible that’s why it holds such a special place in my heart. I made memories here that will never be replaced, and that leaves an impression. 

Paris makes me happy

I believe that you should never ignore something that makes you happy. Something about being in Paris and just experiencing the city makes me completely giddy, and I have accepted that. 

I don’t know if other people feel this way about Paris (or other cities), but I’m pretty sure I’m going to spend the rest of my life longing to fully experience this city – three days will never be enough. 

my first time seeing the eiffel tower at night!

The Lake District: A 24-hour Adventure

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This weekend was an adventure. In addition to figuring out how to make a five hour trip up to the Lake District (it included three different trains and a bus), we went on two different hikes and visited William Wordsworth’s home – all within about 24 hours.

We left Oxford at 9:30 Saturday morning, and made it to Grasmere, a small town in the center of the Lake District, around 3. We dropped our bags off at the hotel (an adorable house with a garden, sheep, and great views of the mountains) and then asked around for directions to a good path to hike. Despite the directions, we ended up getting lost trying to get to Loughrigg Fell. So when we did finally come across a path (which probably was not the one we wanted, I’ll admit), we decided to just take it.

We ended up venturing into the hills, though we didn’t go too far because it was rainy, a little cold, and pretty muddy. Still, we got a great view from the top of the hill and enjoyed the physical activity and breathing in the cool mountain air.

After our hike we showered off and grabbed dinner at a pub (which was pretty much the only thing open at that time). I had my first Yorkshire pudding, which was good but not anything like pudding (those silly British…). We went to bed early that night – we had planned to hike again in the morning and wanted to be prepared.

After breakfast in the hotel, we set off on our adventure. This time we were better prepared – we bought a small card of directions for a hike someone recommended we take. Around 10:30, we headed up to Easedale Tarn.01bb8e670e851123a5f986371c12cb0351343413f0 First, let me say that before this trip I would not have considered myself a hiker – an adventurer, maybe, but never a hiker. But I have to say that it’s this hike that changed my mind.

Even with the directions, we really didn’t know where we were going. Occasionally we saw signs that told us we were going in the right direction, but mostly we just followed the path. Even before we started up the mountain, the view was beautiful. We made our way across the rolling hills tucked into the valleys of the towering mountains. We climbed past rivers and waterfalls and hopped on rocks to keep from getting wet. And then finally we made it to the top (after saying “I think this is it” about five or six times).

Easedale Tarn is a small lake (basically), nestled in the top of Easedale Crag (don’t worry, I also have no clue what those words mean…). Supposedly it was created by a glacier melting, and the water that runs down from it creates the waterfalls we could see all down the mountains.

01c1cecc1506545d1b2e685ceae42d7cdb5923726cIt was breathtaking. When the tarn finally came into view, we all paused and took in the sparkling blue water pooled in between the green peaks. The water looked clear and calm before it bubbled over the rocks and began to pour down the mountain. After spending plenty of time posing for pictures and just taking in the scenery, we decided that the quickest way to get back down was to cross the water. There were rocks all the way across, so we just rolled up our pants and took the plunge. The water, though not very strong, was freezing, and came up past our ankles. But it was clear enough that we could see the rocks we needed to step on and everyone made it across safe and sound!

The way back down was just as pretty, and a little bit easier since we were headed down the mountain and not up. We were in a little bit of a hurry, though, since we were starving and wanted to grab lunch before heading to Dove Cottage (Wordsworth’s house).

By the time we made it back to Grasmere, it was about 1:30. We had planned to start the train journey home around 3, but we knew that we needed to go to Dove Cottage or we would regret it. So we decided that instead of missing something we might later regret, we would just take a later train. Of course, then we missed the train we wanted to take and ended up having to wait an hour, but that’s not the point.

The point is that this weekend was a great example of taking advantage of every moment, and choosing to do the things that you know will make you happy.

A Day in Christ Church

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Christ Church's Tom Gate and quad
Christ Church’s Tom Gate and quad

I’ve been in Oxford for about two days now, and I’m still constantly astounded by the beauty of the university and the city. Our train from Wales came in around 4 on Saturday, and the streets were flooded with tourists. It was a shock seeing it so busy, since none of us really thought it would be that way. But now that we’ve spent a lot of time today and yesterday in the city, we’ve gotten a good idea of how everything works.

8 a.m. Breakfast in the Great Hall

Yes, it’s that Great Hall. The Great Hall in the Harry Potter movies is a CGI rendering of the Great Hall in Christ Church. When we walked in yesterday morning for breakfast, we all had to pause at the sheer grandness of the room. That’s where we’re eating breakfast and dinner for the majority of the days these next few weeks. Breakfast is pretty standard (by this I mean standard British breakfast, not American…) – bacon (what we call ham), sausage, eggs (poached or fried), hash browns (always triangular for some reason), toast or croissants, and cereal or porridge.

(Fun fact: they actually filmed a few HP scenes on the steps that lead up to the Great Hall, most notably when first years are being sorted in the Sorcerer’s Stone.)

Christ Church's Great Hall
Christ Church’s Great Hall

9 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Classes

I only have classes on Tuesday and Thursday (and I have a break in between), so I don’t spend a lot of time in class. Usually between classes we’ll either sit in our rooms, the common room, or a cafe and read or do homework. This morning we just wandered around town for a little to get our bearings.

1:30 p.m. – 6 p.m. Free Time

We have all afternoon free (and I have pretty much all day free on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) to do whatever we want. We’ve mostly spent our free time walking around, ether to find a specific store or cafe, or just looking at things.

6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. Dinner in the Great Hall

Dinner is super fancy when we eat in the Great Hall (Monday through Wednesday), and we have to dress up. Our meals are served to us in courses, and it’s a lot of fun! Yesterday instead of dinner in the Great Hall, we had dinner with the Dean of Christ Church. After dinner, he showed us around the Deanery (that’s what they call his apartment/mansion – it has 12 bedrooms!), which is where much of Alice in Wonderland was inspired. (Alice was the daughter of the Dean at the time.)

8:00 p.m. – bedtime. Free Time

We don’t usually have anything scheduled at night, and most stores are closed by the time we’re done with dinner, so we usually just hang out in someone’s room or go to a pub. Pubs here aren’t really what you think of pubs like in America – they’re really casual, and they usually have great food, and just have a really nice atmosphere.

Overall, living in Christ Church is basically a dream. We keep joking that we feel like princesses, since the buildings are really castle-like. We spend most of our time chatting or drinking tea and reading. I don’t think there’s anything better than that!

01b9e933d801c1dfd7eab1354d3a940e17dbcc088d

Walking: A Thoreau Effort

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(First, let me just say that you’d all better appreciate that pun.)

Since coming to the UK, I’ve walked at least ten thousand more steps than usual. On Wednesday, we decided to walk back to Swansea University (where we’re staying in Wales) because our professor told us it was about a mile. It ended up being 3.5 miles, which made our total for the day 11 miles. 

The great thing about it is that we were never mad that it was so far. We really embraced the adventure of it by stopping for ice cream, enjoying each other’s company, and appreciating the beautiful view of Swansea Bay. It definitely made me think of Thoreau and the way he proposes we live our lives:

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.”  

(Though we weren’t quite that dramatic…)

  Friday was even more of an adventure because it wasn’t just city walking and sightseeing. We went to Rhosili Beach and hiked a mile and a half up to the highest point on the Gower Peninsula. It was the most breathtaking view, and it was immediately obvious why it’s constantly named the UK’s most beautiful beach. I don’t think I’ve seen anything so awe-inspiring in my entire life, and while the pictures are nice, they just don’t do it justice. 

 Like Thoreau, I believe that “an absolutely new prospect is a great happiness.” I jumped at the invitation to go on the hike – while most of the others were walking on the beach or putting their feet in the cold water, the four of us did a little bit of hard work and ended up with a beautiful view and the experience of a lifetime.  

I’m really going to try and embrace my adventurous side on this trip. To me this really comes down to accepting all opportunities to experience something new, even if it seems little. I’ll mostly be in Oxford for the next four weeks, and I know that there are plenty of things to see and do without even leaving the city. As Thoreau says, even “within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk…. It will never become quite familiar to you.”

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (and some other forms of transportation)

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My view of the River Thames on the bus from London to Oxford

 In the past 24 hours, I’ve traveled by car, plane, train, bus, and foot a distance of approximately 5280 miles.

Over the course of the day I slowly made my way from Texas to the UK, despite the obstacles of canceled flights, equipment malfunctions, and late trains. 

Of course, after traveling for 24 hours straight I am exhausted, but I am also in the beautiful coastal city of Swansea. And It’s hard to be exhausted when you’re so excited to be somewhere new.  

But somehow even with all the exhaustion and excitement, it hasn’t quite hit me that I am in the UK, where I’ll be living for the next five weeks. It’s all a little surreal still, despite my aching feet and the smile that just won’t leave my face. 

Though I haven’t done much, there is one thing I’ve learned that I think is super important – when traveling, forget all preconceptions and stereotypes you have of the place and the people. It’s important to be knowledgeable, of course, but I’m talking about thinking that certain groups of people all act a certain way or that one city is better than another. Not only are you most likely wrong, this kind of thinking will only affect you negatively.

If you go into travel with open eyes and an open mind, you’ll find yourself surprised by everything around you. And this kind of cultural discovery is the reason why we travel. 

Why Re-Reading is Worth it

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“Harry had never been to London before.”

One of my study abroad courses is called “Harry Potter and the English Fantasy Tradition.” Most of the people I tell this either don’t believe me, or think that it’s a thinly veiled excuse to read Harry Potter and pretend I’m taking a class.

The truth is, I can’t think of anything more fitting to read before studying abroad in the UK, despite the fact that I can’t possibly count the number of times I’ve read Harry Potter – it must be a couple dozen at the least. Yet I decided that, in the midst of packing and moving and working and writing, I was going to read the entire series.

Today, just a week and a half before I leave, I was finally able to sit down with the Sorcerer’s Stone. I had almost gotten to the point of convincing myself that I didn’t need to re-read the series, that I would be able to write and discuss Harry Potter because it’s such an intrinsic part of me. But I was wrong. By thinking that, I overlooked the reason why I’ve read Harry Potter so many times in the first place: the magic of re-reading. I forgot that the reason I love books so much is because you find something new every time.

Go back to the quote at the top of this post. You probably glossed over it, just like I did every time I read this book before. But today, as my eyes scanned down page 67 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, that line caught my eye. Like me, “Harry had never been to London before.” And as I read the next few pages of Harry seeing the normal slowly change to the magical, I became excited to experience that myself. And I truly hope that I can enjoy just a little bit of Harry’s childish wonder as my eyes are opened to the newness of the people and culture that will surround me in just two short weeks.

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