Monday, February 1, 2010

Slightly overdue.

I'm almost three weeks in, and this is my first post! Sorry for the delay... This is going to be huge, but I'm about to walk you through what so far have been some of the most incredible weeks of my life.

1/05/10- Tuesday

My dad woke me up this morning by saying "Oh yea, we're leaving tomorrow morning for Chicago. So make sure you and Jeremy are ready to go."
Ahh! There had been talk of heavy snowfall between Louisville and Chicago for Thursday morning, but I didn't think it'd be affecting my travel at all. The plan was for Jeremy and I to ride up to Chicago with my parents Thursday morning, then catch our flight out of O'Hare at about 5. Buuut, thanks to the suck weather, the new plan was to leave Louisville on Wednesday morning, kill an evening in Chicago, and fly out the next day.

So I threw together a semester's worth of luggage as quickly as I could (it took all day) and then said my goodbyes to family and friends. I was ready to go! Despite feeling a little under-prepared, due to the one checked bag I was allowed on the airplane, I was ready to start a fresh semester in a foreign place, and couldn't wait to wake up the following morning and be on my way.

1/06/10- Wednesday (Leaving Louisville!)

Jeremy got to my house at about 9 this morning, and we left half an hour later. On the road! Passed a cool wind farm, and miles of nothing, and five hours later we were driving the terrifying drive that is the approach to inner-city Chicago. I don't know the name of the highway leading into the city, but once you get within about 10 miles of downtown, the people in the cars around you lose their minds. But we survived. And ended up eating lunch in this real sketchy Mexican place in Melrose park. The four of us were four of five customers in the restaurant, and our food was mediocre. But a fun experience nonetheless. Then I went next door to the Family Dollar to buy batteries (Which were protected with a clothing-style anti theft device stabbed through the package-- whatever kept thieves from simply ripping the attached cardboard off was beyond me) and then checked into our hotel. When we left Louisville is was fairly cold, but in Chicago the temperature was about 14 degrees plus wind chill. So we were frigid. Our hotel was called the O'Hare Inn and Suites, but I'm pretty sure we stayed in the 'inn' section. Mom and Dad left the hotel after helping us carry our luggage up to the room, and at that point Jeremy and I were on our own. We ended up touching base that night with a few friends locally (Nick and Drew(?)), and we ate dinner at a place called the Potbelly Sandwich Shop. It was awesome. Then we checked out Nick's apartment, and spend the evening walking around downtown where it was once again freezing. It was good to see Nick before I left for the semester, and fun to spend my last night in America in such a busy and exciting place. We caught a shuttle back to the hotel, and knocked out for the night.

1/08/10- Thursday (Leaving America!)

What an exciting day! I woke up at about 10 (hotel checkout was at 11) and looked outside to see if the weather predictions had held true. The four inches of snow that had been sitting ont he ground the day before turned into about 8 overnight. What this would do to our flight schedule, we didn't know. After a quick breakfast in the hotel lobby and an even quicker shuttle ride to the airport, we were at our last stop before arrival in Heathrow. My checked bag ended up tipping the scales at a whopping 52.5 pounds, but the woman behind the counter was nice enough to let it slide without a charge. It took a few minutes to find our gate, and even though we arrived about 5 hours early, there were already about 20 Harlaxton-bound students waiting there at the gate for the rest to arrive. We checked in with representative from the University of Evansville (Barbara), and then Jeremy and I met a few girls named Molly and Sarah. They were from Baker University, in Kansas, and seemed like really nice girls.

We were the first WKU students at the gate, but in the next hour many more showed up, including Chelsea and Katie. We were excited to see them after being separated during the break, and immediately began talking about how excited we were to be leaving for a semester in England! We started hearing about all sorts of flight delays over the intercom, and were hoping that ours wold be unaffected. But we weren't so lucky. Our departure was delayed an hour, so we decided to go get some airport Macaroni Grill to kill time and hunger. After receiving VIP service from the hostess, we sat down and enjoyed a final American meal. If I would have known about the dire situation that is the Harlaxton refectory, I might have ordered a few extra meals to go...

Upon getting back to the gate (and then having to walk clear across the airport to switch gates) we were informed that it would be an extra hour or so before our departure. So will full bellies from dinner, and tired legs from just walking an indoor mile with our carry-ons and backpacks, we sprawled out across the terminal floor and just sort of spaced out for an hour and a half (we were delayed further). But eventually, we were allowed to board and found our seats without a problem. Katie was sitting in the middle of Chelsea and I, and next to them was a nice girl who we met on the plane named Leah. She was also Harlaxton-bound, and was very fun to talk to. Next to Leah was some strange girl from London.

So there we sat. Katie, Chelsea, Leah, Strange Girl and I, anxiously awaiting our departure. I was pleased to find that there were small televisions mounted in the back of every headrest, and we were given control over a small stash of preloaded tv-shows, movies, and video games. Katie and I watched a few episodes of 30 Rock and The Office while Chelsea took Ambien and drank Robitussin from the bottle. Then when Chelsea knocked out cold, and Katie turned on something else, I watched Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which I thought was hilarious. At about midnight or so, the lights on the plane were turned off and people started falling asleep. I was totally unable to get comfortable, and therefore slept for about 10 rounds of 5 minutes apiece, all throughout the night.

1/09/10- Friday (London!)

We landed in Heathrow at about 9 this morning, gathered our luggage, and then found our way to the meeting area where Harlaxton staff were there waiting to greet us and give us our room assignments. Katie, Jeremy, and I were placed in the Carriage House, and Chelsea wound up in the Manor. We then hopped on a "coach" (supposedly calling it a bus is less respectful, from the driver's perspective) and took a three hour ride from London all the way to Harlaxton. Exhausted from the lack of sleep on the place, I and most of the others went to sleep almost immediately, and didn't wake up until we were in Grantham. As we got closer and closer to Harlaxton, you could begin to see the manor sticking up over the trees and the hills until eventually we were pulling up the driveway and it was sitting right in front of us with all of its grandeur. I had seen dozens of pictures online and in books, but there was nothing like pulling up the driveway for the first time and seeing it for yourself. There was about 4 inches of snow covering the grounds, which was more than the locals had seen in over two decades. So we arrived at a rare and exciting time! We were greeted at the entrance by the college principal, Gordon Kingsley, and were directed through the doors and up some stairs where we received our room assignments. I was assigned to the Carriage House, which actually sits about 100 yards away from the manor down a small drive. It is much smaller than the manor, but still big enough to have its own courtyard and sleep about 70 people on two floors. I share my room with one other guy, and I haven't figured out yet whether he goes by Kenneth or Justin. So I just call him KJ. But KJ and I get along pretty well. I sleep on the top bunk, and the space in our room that isn't dominated by furniture is almost big enough to turn around in. Needless to say it's tiny. But then after unpacking and getting our room set up, we went to the refectory (their word for cafeteria) and had our first ever meal of fish (just fish) and chips! (actually fries) The meal was good, and after a short meeting with our British Studies professor we all went back to our rooms and crashed. It felt so good to finally get some sleep!
1/10/10- Saturday (Exploration!)

Katie and I decided that before we got into the swing of things, there were secret doorways to be found and tunnels to explore and fun to be had. So we went all over the manor (all five floors of it) and touched every painting and hole in the wall, hoping something would fall open or we would activate some kind of trap door. But nothing....
We had an incredible time, though, just taking in the beauty that is Harlaxton Manor. Most of our classrooms are ornately decorated, and it is not uncommon to find yourself sitting in a classroom where the statues on the wall outnumber the students in the class. Among the rooms we discovered an incredible (and five rooms deep) conservatory full of plants and a pond with goldfish, and a closet that leads into an old tunnel containing notes from old Harlaxton students. And on the first floor, there are signatures and messages from past students absolutely covering the pipes that run along the ceilings. Lots of really fun stuff to read! It will probably take weeks before we're comfortable navigating the manor in it's entirety, but until then there is so much to be discovered!

This afternoon we caught the school shuttle into Grantham, and did a little school shopping. I'm still not used to the fact that everyone drives on the other side of the road, so there were a few times during the shuttle ride when I looked up, saw headlights, and thought it was over... Grantham is such a neat little town. It's a lot like I imagined it would be, with old-looking shops lining the streets and lots of families walking around getting their shopping done. We had lunch at this restaurant/pub place called The Goose that was super cheap, and then went to Morrison's to buy stuff for school and the semester. Morrison's is the local Kroger-type store, and there is also a store called Asda that's more like Wal-Mart. We found everything we needed at Morrison's, including enough American-looking food to last us a few weeks of snacking. I also found a massive jug of store-brand shampoo for 17 pence, which is like 30c. So I'm set for the semester. It was so much fun trying to pay for our items with strange, foreign currency. It's really different because change is so undervalued in America, whereas here a two pound coin is worth almost $4!

Tonight was our High Table dinner, which was essentially a formal welcoming into the school. We are in the Long Gallery, which is also where our British Studies lecture will be held. Before the dinner, all of the students met in the Great Hall and enjoyed a few pre-meal wine punches. They were absolutely incredible. I feel like the alcohol content of wine punch is minimal at best, because we were knocking those things back like they were shots of cold water. But dinner was delicious. We had grilled chicken, potatoes (duh), carrots, and chocolate-swirl cheesecake. Everything tasted very American, and was therefore amazing.

Later that night we all went out into Grantham to check out the night life, and found a club called Vibe. We talked for a while to the security people at the door, and were let in for free because we were students. Inside, we found some other Harlaxton students, and started watching the other people in the club. The regulars to Vibe are a special and unique group of individuals. Lots of rat tails and fist-pumping, and overly touchy drunk guys. But altogether a fun night.

1/11/10- Sunday

I woke up early this morning in order to join about 50 other students on a trip to a local Grantham church. It was built around 1170ad, and was surrounded by an old graveyard with broken and leaning tombstones. It would have been much creepier if there wasn't 4 inches of snow covering everything. From the outside it was really quite beautiful, but the problem with a church built in the 12th century is that is comes equipped with 12th century heating technology. In other words, there was none. Easily the coldest 90 minutes of my life. Everything during the service was read word for word from a book, so it was really difficult to get my mind into anything except the beauty of the building around me. But that was enough. The local people at church were all incredibly nice, and you could tell that they enjoyed having us there. Life is pretty monotonous in the small village of Harlaxton...

After church and a quick meal in the refectory, we were all still pretty frozen from the service. So Katie and I went off into the manor to explore, trying to find a room with some blankets or fires or free hot chocolate or anything warm, but could only find a room full of cold leather couches. Luckily for us, we stumbled upon who we now know as "blanket lady", and she let us grab a few wool blankets out of the housekeeping room. We found our couch room again, and were warm at last. So warm and comfortable that my next memory is of Principal Kingsley waking us up and telling us we were missing the orientation sessions. Ahh! So we rushed to those, and learned nothing interesting. But first we stashed out blankets. Hoping they don't get found!

1/12/10- Monday (First day of classes!)

Waking up for my first class was rough. It starts at 8:30, and by the time you account for a shower, a walk to the manor, and breakfast, I need to be up at about 7. Ugh.

Class schedule:
8:30- British Studies Lecture (M,W)
9:40- British Studies Seminar (M,W)
11:15- Principles of Management (M,W)
3:10:- The Mathematics of Gambling (M,T,TH)

British Studies was rough, and doesn't seem like a class that I'm going to thoroughly enjoy. But it'll be interesting, and I know that when I leave Harlaxton I'll be glad to have learned all that I did. Our lecture class is taught in the Long Gallery, with all 150 students in attendance. Our seminars are split off among the British Studies faculty, and my class is probably 18-20 students deep. Seminar is much more hands-on and interesting, and where we receive all of our tests, quizzes, and assignments. Management was pretty interesting, and our professor (Sherman) seems to be a pretty cool guy. I'm not too worried.

I'm signing up to be on the school volleyball team, and that should be interesting. I've never played volleyball in my life.

London is this weekend! I'm really excited to take our first official trip, and will update again when I'm back!

1/17/10- Sunday (Back from London!)

So London was incredible.

Friday morning, we all packed into three coach buses and were on our way. Taking a train to London takes about an hour, but to get there is a coach is more like 2 and 1/2. The drive to London is a boring one, unless you love fields full of sheep and the inevitable paranoia that comes with driving on the other side of the road. I was on the back of the coach, and was able to sleep for about 15 minutes of the ride, but otherwise I just tried to make friends and looked out the window. I met a girl named Sara Seng who liven in the same town where I used to have to relatives, so that made for a good conversation. About 45 minutes before we arrived in London, we pulled off the road into the largest truck stop I've ever seen. There were shops, probably 5 little cafe-style restaurants, and a small casino, as well a several kiosk vendors. We looked around in the shops for a while, and grabbed some lunch while we were there, but ultimately we just wanted to get back on the coach and get to London!

After another 100 km of sheep fields, we were parked outside of our hotel in London, the Royal National. Sounded legit. We weren't allowed to go inside yet, rather we sat there as a London Blue Guide (supposedly they're the bomb) boarded and proceeded to give us the driving tour of the city. He was a pretty funny guy, and very knowledgeable. Along our tour we were able to get out of the coach at the Thames river and see Tower Bridge, which was fascinating. We also drove past the Tower of London, which is so much more massive than I had imagined it. What a fun sneak peak at everything we'd be doing that weekend!

Once we got back to the hotel and were able to check in, we went up to our rooms and dropped off our stuff. Then it was off to explore! Chelsea, Katie, and I walked down first to Picadilly circus, taking funny phone booth pictures along the way. Picadilly Circus is the intersection with the HUGE electronic advertisements, and was pretty cool to see in person. Then we walked to Trafalgar's Square, and climbed up onto the huge lion statues for pictures. They were a little icy, so it was hard to get up without falling off and getting hurt. But we managed. I had to lift both Katie and Chelsea onto the lions, because they weren't tall enough to climb up, and then I jumped up there myself. It's fun to take pictures together doing stuff like that, especially in a foreign city, because you never know who speaks English and therefore who you can ask to take your picture. But I think most people get the idea when you tap them on the shoulder and hold your camera up.

After Trafalgar's Square we stopped at one of those cheesy tourist kiosks that sells "I Love London" tshirts and souvenir magnets and stuff, and were all able to find some pretty cool postcards to send back home. I'm sorry that no one has received one yet... Afterwards we walked down to 10 Downing Street, which is where the British Prime Minister lives, and from there walked a little further and were able to find our first royal guardsman. So we of course went and took pictures. He cracked a smile when I asked what his name was so I could tag him on Facebook, and I got a kick out of that. After that, though, we started walking back towards our hotel, but didn't get far before we realized we'd die without food in the next 5 minutes. So after a long decision making process (Katie finally manned up and made a choice), we stopped in this small little Italian place where the food was awesome. I ordered a calzone for like 6 pounds, but I think they were implying on the menu that the 6 pounds was what it weighed. The thing was huge! Like a large pizza folded in half. Needless to say I ate the whole thing and was done before either of the girls finished their pasta bowls. Best 6 pounds ever spend.

That night, we came back to the hotel and crashed. After such a long day of walking, we were ready to just melt into our beds until the next morning. The shower head in the hotel hit me right in the chest, which made things fun.

The next morning, we added a few to our group and left the hotal for the day. First we grabbed breakfast at some little cafe called Pret a Manger, which were everywhere, and then bought tube tickets and headed down into the subway system. It was so packed! But we grabbed a train to the west side of London and began our day at Westminster Abbey. On the way out into the world from the tube station, there was a man standing near the exit playing CCR's "Have You Ever Seen The Rain", and doing a hell of a good job. Then we walked outside, and did. Rain in the UK in annoying. From what I've witnessed, it never pours. Maybe it does, but I've never witnessed it. It just kinda sprinkles here, but it does it allllll day. And that's what today was like. But we got out at Westminster Abbey and took a few pictures, then went over to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard. Buckinham Palace was pretty awesome just by itself. It was huge! But the changing of the guard left a little to be desired. There were all sorts of people there, and the guardsmen all had instruments and played music for a loooong time. But then they did their switch and it was just what you'd expect. Two come out, two go in. Then they all walk off with their instruments and horses in a big parade deal and the roads open back up and all is normal. I was glad I went to see it, but I don't think I'd have an interest to go back. At least not without a better spot in the crowd.

After the changing of the guard, we got back on the tube and rode all the way to the Tower of London. The admission price was a little steeper than I thought it'd be, but it was worth the price to see the Tower from the inside. I never knew one building could have so much history! Nor would I have ever known the history, had Katie not been there. It was fun to talk through and see where Bloody Mary sent Elizabeth I when she hated her, and where Anne Bolyn got her head lopped off. The thing that Katie said that I thought was fascinating was that once you were sent to the Tower of London, it was basically over. You were dunzo. So walking up into the towers and looking out on the courtyard and scenery around the castle just meant so much more, realizing that it was the last thing that hundreds of people saw before they died. We got the chance to see the crown jewels as well, which was pretty cool. We finished the night with some shopping, and then had dinner at the American Embassy (aka McDonalds), and walked back to the hotel. It was pretty late, and people started knocking on our door and before we knew better there was a pretty wild hotel party going on right where we had slept the night before. Details to whoever wants them, but I didn't stay up long.

The next day (Sunday) we got back on our coaches and made one last stop before returning to Harlaxton, and that was to Hampton Court Palace. This is where Henry VIII lived for a while, and it seemed pretty fit for a king of his stature. The place was huge. Inside there were some cool rooms and neat architecture, but I was truly blown away when we went outside into the gardens. The rain from the day before had cleared, and the sun over the expanse of what had to be miles of beautifully landscaped trees and flowers was absolutely beautiful. The whole place was constructed with a sort of symmetry that made walking out the back door of the palace absolutely breathtaking. Wrapping around to the side of the palace, we also found a hedge maze, and were able to make it through without too much trouble. We had our wands out and ready, so I'm not sure we were ever in any real danger.

We grabbed some food in the local town, and then boarded the coaches back to Harlaxton. I slept most of the way back, which was good after such an exhausting weekend.

That night Katie and I skyped her sister, Paige, who works as a cosmetologist, and she walked Katie step by step through how to cut my hair. She only said "oops!" a few times, so I wasn't worried that I couldn't tell what was going on up there. Two hours later (longest hair cut of my life), volunteering to be a dummy worked out, and I was very happy with the way it looked. So I think Katie's gonna open up shop any day now, and start charging. Haircuts in town are expensive, so she might get some serious business!