Nessie, Plus Things I Actually Saw

November was the most exhausting month I’ve ever had in my life. I lived almost exclusively out of a suitcase, because when you’re in six different countries in four weeks you don’t really have time for folding and cleaning and stuff.

Every time I write that it shocks me again. Since 1 November, I have been in London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Warsaw, Glasgow and (obviously) Cardiff — six different countries. I was only physically in my dorm for four days last month. I went to exactly two days of classes (God bless understanding professors and online coursework). I am broke and exhausted and mildly sick and every time I look at the pictures I took I don’t care in the slightest about how I feel now.

The two trips I haven’t written about yet were pretty much spur-of-the-moment decisions. Haley, Grainne and I knew we wanted to travel together, but deciding on Warsaw was a whim. We were lucky to have picked so well.

From Old Town, where every other building was a church —

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Old Town

— to the Copernicus Museum, where Haley got in touch with her science-enthusiast inner five-year-old —

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Water. It’s fascinating.

— it was so cool to have five days to wander a city I never considered visiting. Our home base was a tiny studio apartment with two twin beds and a cot, where (since the sun set at 3:30 every day) we watched movies, heard all about Grainne’s bodily functions, and I learned that apparently I snore and talk and grunt and sigh in my sleep. Every night. Sorry guys.

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I booked Scotland the same night I booked my flights to go see Olga. Meaning before I knew how broke I would be by the time I actually got to Scotland. I’ll never say it again, but I’m grateful that I blew the money when I did.

IMG_1430Scotland clicked in a way that no other country did. I spent 12 hours on a bus traveling around the entire country — 350 miles — because I only had one day and I had to see as much as possible.

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On the banks of Loch Ness…

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….and cruising across it.

I said a total of about 15 words during my trip. Ten of those were asking for directions. Mountain views and liquid-mirror lakes and crumbling castles don’t require any comment from me.

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But the highland cows did. They look a lot  like my little brother Gordon circa the bowl-cut skater-boy era.

Throwback to freshman year and bad hair all around.

Throwback to freshman year and bad hair all around.

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Two weeks from today I’ll be starting to make my way home. I’m in major denial. It’s been a crazy, up-and-down, exhausting, nonstop month. I haven’t left my room today. It’s a nice change of pace. But I go back and forth on whether I’m ready to go home. I haven’t seen it all yet.

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Life and Other Weird Coincidences

I’ll be blunt: I wasn’t fun in high school. My senior year I spent every lunch hour in the math resource center, doing calculus homework and eating bag lunches with Mr. Newton, the only math teacher that could figure out how to make me understand derivatives. (I haven’t taken a math class since then, thank God.) I spent my afternoons swimming or managing the boys’ team, and my evenings doing homework for six (seven? I don’t remember) AP classes, including ones I blatantly didn’t care about but took anyways.

I don’t mean to say I didn’t enjoy those years. But I didn’t realize the reason I was working so hard. I thought it was because that’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve learned on this trip just how hard on myself I am — stress builds up inside of me like a spinning tornado until I can’t contain it, and then suddenly the delicate structures of my self-control are gone and there’s a few pints of Ben and Jerry’s gone too and woops wasn’t I supposed to finish that essay last night? It’s destructive. I have always been this way.

But that doesn’t mean I have to stay that way. I am slowly but surely changing and learning and adjusting. Over the last few days I’ve asked: What have you gained from your choices?

Because I sacrificed my lunches and my free time — because I was boring in high school — I visited the Western Wall this week, in the lovely city of Jerusalem.

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The Western Wall — the holiest religious site in Judaism.

Because I chose to swim — and because I faced a very real fear that I was not (am not) fast enough to compete at a collegiate level — I met one of my dearest friends, and Olga became my reason for coming to Tel Aviv and, by extension, for traveling to Eilat and swimming with tropical fish.

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Because I competed for the scholarship I eventually received, I had a reason to study abroad, and a reason to come to the Dead Sea.

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I don’t think there was a real reason for covering ourselves in mud but it was fun anyways.

I have always been bad with stress. But the point of this trip has been change. I told one of my closest friends at home that I am slowly eradicating the parts of myself that I don’t like, and that’s one of them: I am better than my stress levels, and I’m better than the breakdowns. The perspective one gets while riding camels in a time zone eight hours ahead of home is paradigm-shifting.

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I don’t believe in luck. I believe in faith and sweat and sacrifice, and I believe in grace. I am here (sitting in a chemistry library in Rehovot, Israel while Olga balances equations or something else chem related) because I was boring. This life is anything but boring anymore.

I See London, I See France

Haley and I are getting married.

I don’t think Haley really knows we’re getting married yet, but I have a case to argue. We’ve been together for seven straight weeks, nonstop — in fact, she’s sitting in front of me as I type this, eating a plateful of spaghetti and completely ignoring that I exist. It’s the image of true love.

Let me present the justification for our common-law matrimony (and attempt to convince Haley to make it official):

     1. We share our biggest, geekiest moments together, without judgement and without restraint.

Haley and I are complete Harry Potter fanatics. I have no shame in admitting that my copy of Goblet of Fire has almost disintegrated, the binding worn through and the glue falling to bits. So the opportunity to go to the studio tour — IMG_0823

— as in, where my idols ACTUALLY FILMED THE SERIES THAT CHANGED MY WRITING FOREVER —

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— was overwhelming.

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I’ll be completely honest: I teared up. It felt a little silly, but standing in front of the castle that I spent my childhood imagining was an experience I know I won’t forget.

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And when I looked over, there was Haley, just as misty-eyed, and just as emotional, and having someone to stand beside who understood the impact of a well-told story was exactly what I needed.

2. We are old people.

I think it bears mentioning that as I write this, Haley is jamming out to “Bang Bang” in a blue set of boxer shorts in our (disgusting, boy-stanky) kitchen.

But that’s not what I mean by “old people.” I mean that we totter around England together, saying things like “well would you look at that!” —

poppies in front of the Tower of London

poppies in front of the Tower of London

–and “oh, go stand by [landmark], I’ll take your picture!”

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And, most often, “Let’s just sit down and soak it in for a minute.”

Hyde Park

Hyde Park.

We had no rush. All of London was before us, and we spent Reading Week — which is like Thanksgiving break but without the turkey and football — exploring it slowly, picking up souvenirs and having conversations with the dogs walking in the park.

3. We travel well together.

While traveling to Paris, Haley had the absolute pleasure of puking her way across the English Channel. She got really pale, and a more than a little annoyed, and buying her a 7Up didn’t help even though she said it did. But she made it through, and I played mom, and it was okay.

We made it to Paris and walked a total of nineish miles in one day — from the Arc du Triumphe —

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all the way to the Eiffel Tower, before heading to our hostel.

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Haley hates heights — a lot — so she sat out while I climbed the 600-some odd steps to the top and took in the sights of the city of love, sprawling out in front of me lazily, like it’d grown on its own instead of being built. IMG_1136

We trekked past the love lock bridges, where Haley found a key from one of the locks, strung it on her necklace, and decided it was good luck.

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We know when we get tired, and when to call it quits. Haley and I got into Paris at 8 am and were napping by five. It’s not every day you find someone that can sync up to your napping schedule.

4. We remind each other how lucky we are.

Haley and I have a habit. Occasionally, we’ll stop everything we’re doing and remind each other of what’s going on. “Hey, Haley, we’re standing in front of Big Ben.” “Hey, Caitie, we’re at the Eiffel Tower.” “Hey. We’re in Europe.”

It’s easy to get jaded. It’s easy to settle into a rhythm and see every city as the same city. It’s easy to become immune to the wonder of the world. And Haley and I are so determined to remain in awe of everything we are doing. Reminding each other that we are in cities we’ve dreamed of for years is a gentle reminder to one another that we are really, really lucky.

5. We make each other laugh.

I kid you not, as I started writing this section of this post, Haley and I were sitting in dead silence, listening to “DJ Got Us Falling in Love” by Usher on Pandora, and at exactly the same time sang “I’m a huuustla baby” and returned to dead silence. My abs hurt from laughing at our stupidity.

This one is probably the most important. I am really lucky to travel with someone who is really, really funny (and trust me, she knows she’s funny. This isn’t news to her.). It makes it easier to stay away from home when your roommate can make you laugh until you cry. She gave an entire monologue for a stupid-looking bird at Hyde Park that made me both want to leave her in the middle of London and laugh for hours.

Haley, consider this a proposal. You have won me over with your unparalleled ability to rap every word to Jason Derulo’s “Down.” I expect you to purchase the rings, but I think I’m alright with copping the cost of transport back to London so we can get married in Westminster Abbey. See you soon!

(PS. I didn’t even really want to use this particular title for this post, but Haley and I fight over blog post titles and this one was too sweet a victory to pass up.)
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1/40ish

I have a German friend here that I talk to nearly every day. We are fascinated by each other; we compare history lessons (what they do and don’t teach us about each other’s cultures) and majors (his eyes light up at the mere mention of balance sheets) and accents (why the hell do Americans say like so much? I couldn’t answer). I’ve corrected and admitted to American stereotypes — no, not everyone owns a gun; yes, Burger King is authentic American cuisine. I’ve given beer pong tutorials. I’ve listened to anti-Nazi metal music. I’ve shared country music, to resounding disapproval. It’s overwhelmingly interesting.

He said a few days ago, “Ice cream in America means being sad, right?” At the time I was halfway through a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and had no intention of slowing down. I had to say it’s sort of the answer to everything. Sad? Ice cream. Happy? Ice cream. Homesick? Ice cream.

Him: “So you’re homesick?”

Me: “I think I’m teamsick.”

It was an idea that he couldn’t wrap his brain around. He’d played soccer for years and years, but “in Germany sports is the complete opposite.” He asked and asked: Why do you miss them? They’re only teammates. They’re only housemates. It’s not that long now. Sixty days is not so long.

How do you explain a team like this to someone looking from the outside in?

In the past two years, I have spent over nine hundred hours working out with my teammates in-season. I have eaten more than 90% of my meals with them. I have sweat, and screamed, and raced, and celebrated with them. I have laughed and cried and fought with them. I know their best and worst races nearly as well as I know my own. Being cut off quickly and decisively is a feeling similar to waking up without any hair: what has always been there is gone, and you’re left feeling bare and vulnerable and a little cold.

Their first meet came this past weekend, and I found myself awake at four in the morning, texting, listening, reading the results, wanting to know who was satisfied and who wasn’t. I have weekly dates Thursdays at three thirty AM to watch American Horror Story over Skype because we have always watched it together and a few thousand miles isn’t going to change that. I stay up late to hear how practice went. I am slowly becoming someone who lives for the earliest hours of the morning.

There are some that text, and some that Snapchat. There are some that tweet and some that Facebook message. There are some that I talk to every day, and some that are quiet for weeks on end, and some that I talk to only when one of us is reminded of the other by coffee or Harry Potter. But they are there, and it’s more than I hoped for.

I didn’t think I’d miss it. And honestly, I sometimes go entire days without thinking of it at all. I went a week as a redhead before telling them because I was so happy about the amount of privacy a six hour time difference provides. But five weeks in I’m realizing how much I love being one of forty — regardless of how wrapped-up-in-each-other we get sometimes.

I told my German friend that they are my brothers and sisters. He said, “That’s a pretty big family.”

Yes. Yes it is.

Books are for Squares

There’s a very long list of things I should be doing at the moment.

Courses are finally getting underway, and I’m slowly starting to realize that not having studied since April isn’t helping me much. I’m out of practice when it comes to being a student, and even with only three classes and one independent study, anxiety is starting to creep into the farthest outreaches of my attention span. Frank, our German roommate, says he thinks the standards here aren’t too strict, but I have a sneaking suspicion that if I believe him I’ll end up with terrible marks. Best to think that every professor here will be insanely difficult and be proven wrong than the other way around.

The courses themselves are grand. The professors are so enthusiastic (even if some of the students have a hard time getting fired up about Wuthering Heights) and the readings keep my interest no matter the topic. Assessments are my only concern — there are no exams, only essays, usually two per course. The entirety of my grade rests on two papers, which makes me absolutely crazy.

There are papers to write and stories to edit and books to read and sleep to catch up on. I can’t believe I’ve already been here a month. There are so many things I’ve done that I never thought I would, and so many things left to see. I’m ready to get going, which makes sitting still and studying very, very difficult.

PS. Ms. Haley likes to read my posts and criticize me. Any recommendations on how to ship a flatmate back to America for cheap?
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The Adjustment Period

Things I’m not used to yet:

*looking the other way when crossing the street
*roundabouts
*driving in general feels like a near-death experience
*sleeping in late
*not smelling like I only wear eau de chlorine perfume
*the limited variety of food on-campus
*climbing to the top floor of the block at the top of the mountain (sweating just thinking about it)
*the stupid cough that I STILL can’t shake from three weeks ago
*how quickly one can jump from country to country
*the endless variety of jokes and insults that come with saying “yes, I’m from America”
*looking at photos of “the top ten most beautiful places in the UK” and being able to say I’ve seen the view firsthand
*complete creative freedom in my courses
*there are more burger kings here than in Charleston somehow
*being called America
*being this happy all the time, always

Dublin Was…

When I made my way to my second course today, a friend named Tommy ushered me over. “Well? How was your trip? Did you like Dublin?” he asked me. He’s an Irish boy with Dublin in his veins and, he said, he’d been worried the city would disappoint.

Where do you even begin to answer the question “How was Dublin?”

How was Dublin? Dublin was the view from the airplane: green valleys like half-healed scars, the trees on either side emerald scabs knitting them back together over hundreds of thousands of years.

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Dublin was music that made you stop in the middle of the street and stare, mouth open, wondering how much talent could be so concentrated and so overlooked.

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Dublin was late-night pub crawls, and early-morning tour tickets, and cheap salty noodles because traveling poverty is better than stagnant riches.

Sky Backpackers hostel.

Sky Backpackers hostel.

Dublin was the weight of history pitter-pattering on my shoulders in raindrops — death in the form of execution —

Kilmainham Gaol, where leaders of the Easter Uprising were executed by firing squad in 1916.

Kilmainham Gaol, where leaders of the Easter Uprising were executed by firing squad in 1916.

–and starvation.

Artist's rendering of the potato famine, 1845-1850.

Artist’s rendering of the potato famine, 1845-1850.

Dublin was a cliffside stroll in the grace of the sunshine, where I could see for miles and wanted only the view in front of me.IMG_0647

Dublin was story after story, falling from mouths like coins from a pocket, and I was a pauper, collecting them in a notebook instead of a coin purse, saving up to cash them in as something bigger than what they were separately.