Shetland Islands

The University of Aberdeen’s final exam schedule is spread out across three weeks. Because of this extended time frame, a few friends and I were able to fit a two-day trip to the Shetland Islands between studying for exams.

The Shetland Islands are a group of islands north of mainland Scotland. We took an overnight ferry to and from the islands, staying one night on the island. We arrived in Lerwick, the largest city in Shetland, located on its South Island. Not having very long, we stuck to exploring this south island. We started by going to a museum in Lerwick to learn about the history of the islands. While we were leaving, someone started yelling that there was a pod of killer whales out in the harbour, so we all ran to the pier to see. They were really close and it was really incredible to watch as the three or four large black fins turned to retreat back to sea!

A boat in the Lerwick harbor

We then bused from Lerwick to Scalloway to explore a castle. I have seen a handful of castles since being in Scotland, but this was probably my favorite one. A friend of mine on the trip, and fellow Scooby-Doo aficionado, agreed with me that it looked like it was straight out of an episode of Scooby-Doo.

Scalloway Castle
Inside of Scalloway Castle

We stayed the night in Dunrossness, which happens to be really beautiful. It gave us the opportunity to watch some sea birds over the cliffs and look out at seals just off the beach. And, on my morning run, I actually stumbled upon a pod of seals lying on the beach that then hurried into the water. As I ran along the cliff edge, they swam beside me in the water looking up at me. If you have never interacted with seals before, this is not too uncommon for them. They are really curious animals, and the large number of them that I have gotten to see since being here is one of my favorite parts about Scotland. In Shetland, we also were able to walk past several Shetland ponies.

Shetland ponies in Dunrossness

The next day, we headed down to Sumburgh, and walked along a coastal path up to the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse. A friend of ours had said we might be able to see puffins here depending on the time of year we went, and we were really hoping to see these (I have a bit of an obsession with sea birds, especially puffins). There were TONS of them! Since they nest higher up in the cliffs too, you can actually get really close to them. It was everything I could have possibly hoped for! The lighthouse and views from the cliff were pretty incredible as well.

View from Sumburgh head

Coastline leading up to Sumburgh head

Spring Break: London & Vienna

After finishing up WWOOFing throughout the UK, as I talked about in my last blog, Gabbi and I headed to London. We spent a day in London before flying to Salzburg, Austria and, then, taking a train to Vienna.

London is a massive city filled with tons of things to do. So, what do you do if you only have a day there? We decided to purchase a travel card for the day which covered our use of the bus system and the tube and to stick to a rough itinerary that I made a couple of nights before arriving.

We started our day with a long walk through the city centre, stopping to admire and take pictures of some important locations: Big Ben (which was under construction) and the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, and St. James Park. We spent a long time milling through St. James Park before making our way up to Buckingham Palace, where the crowd had started to form for the Changing of the Guard.

Big Ben and Palace of Westminster
Westminster Abbey
Buckingham Palace

After watching the Changing of the Guard, we stopped into a grocery store down the street to grab food for a picnic in Hyde Park, where we took a little break before going to Kensington gardens. All three of these parks (St. James Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington gardens) are practically connected, so it was a nice, long, green walk.

Statue in Kensington Gardens
St. James Park

Exiting Kensington gardens by the Royal Albert Hall and Natural History Museum, we disappeared underground to put our tube tickets to use and re-emerged outside of the British Library. We bought a few macaroons from the Real Food Market outside of the station then went to explore the few collections we could without purchasing a library membership. Then, we walked across the street to check out Platform 9 and ¾ from Harry Potter before disappearing underground once again.

Macaroons from the Real Food Market

This time we returned above ground opposite the River Thames of the Borough Market. We crossed the London Bridge to walk through the Borough Market, where we would return for dinner, to go on a tour of Shakespeare’s Globe.

The outside of Shakespeare’s Globe
The inside of Shakespeare’s Globe

After the tour and dinner, we went to the National Gallery for the remainder of the night before racing around the city to catch the last train to London Stansted for our flight to Salzburg the next morning.

The National Gallery in London

We didn’t have much time in Salzburg and were pretty worn out from the day in London, so we just walked around and enjoyed the beautiful city and its delicious food before catching the train to Vienna. We spent a couple of days exploring Vienna with a few of our friends who are also studying at the University of Aberdeen this term. The main highlights were Schönbrunn Palace, the Vienna State Opera, St. Stephan’s Cathedral, and the food, and they were all incredible! But, I will let the pictures speak for themselves. (I forgot to take pictures of the schnitzel and the käsekrainer, so you will have to take my word for it on those).

Even the airport in Salzburg is beautiful!
St. Stephan’s Cathedral at night
Schönbrunn Palace
Gabbi and me on the hill overlooking Schönbrunn Palace

Then, it was off to Budapest and Prague for the final stretch of spring break.

WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

In my freshman year at Hope I had the opportunity to participate in an immersion trip that went and did some volunteer work in Jamaica over spring break. The trip had been advertised to me by a friend as an opportunity to experience all the benefits of a vacation while also doing some good for others. As I started planning a trip for this spring, I couldn’t help but recall that trip and the lasting impact it has had on my life. I still see a lot of value in simply traveling to new places and participating in touristy activities, but I knew that I wanted to do something a little different (at least for part of my break). So, I created a WWOOF account.

WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is a volunteer organization that connects willing volunteers with farms and smallholdings. In exchange for accommodation and food, volunteers work for about 4 hours each day. I saw this as an opportunity to travel around and do some good at the same time, with the added bonus of saving money and seeing parts of the UK that you would not ordinarily see as a normal tourist.

I searched the WWOOF website for farms and smallholdings with good reviews and characteristics that matched the type of site I wanted to stay at, and I contacted the WWOOF hosts at these locations. After lots of research and communication with these hosts, my girlfriend, Gabbi, and I packed our bags and headed off to a farm in Ayrshire, Scotland, where we spent a few days before picking up again and moving to a farm in southern Wales. In between, we were able to stop for a night in Manchester and a night in Liverpool. I could talk about my experiences at each farm and in each city for hours on end, but I will only touch on each because the break was filled with so many activities.

At the first farm, I spent most of my working hours raking leaves, cleaning a polytunnel, cleaning a chicken coup, and potting plants. I also held a chicken. So that was cool.

Then, in the afternoons, the host would drive Gabbi and me to the nearest bus station and we’d travel to whichever cities in the area sounded the most interesting. For the first two days we were there, this resulted in us exploring the cities of Irvine and Kilmarnock.

On the third day, our host insisted that we take the day off and take the ferry across to the Isle of Arran. The Isle of Arran, sometimes called “miniature Scotland”, is an island west of mainland Scotland. From the farm we were volunteering at, you could see the peak of its highest mountain, “Goat Fell”, across a small strip of the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of working on this day, we woke up early and took the ferry across to the Isle of Arran where we managed to spend almost all of our time hiking up the majority of Goat Fell.

View of Goat Fell from the first farm
A panorama of me partway up Goat Fell

After returning each evening from our miniature adventures, I could always count on playing fetch with the host’s puppy until my arm was so sore I could no longer throw her ball.

Asha, the puppy from the first farm

As I said, after leaving the first farm, Gabbi and I made our way to Manchester for one night: the night of the Manchester City versus Manchester United game. For anyone who doesn’t watch much soccer, these are two of the best teams in the world and are also huge rivals. We stopped into a restaurant that was playing the game and got to experience some of the rivalry first hand. It was incredible. It was crazy. These people take their soccer very seriously.

The next day we were in Liverpool, which is a beautiful city with an interesting history (which I got to learn all about at the Museum of Liverpool). After waking up early the next morning for a run on Albert Dock (where we’d watched the sun set the night before), we headed off to the second farm.

The Royal Liver Building in Liverpool
Sunset from Albert Dock
Beatles statue on Albert Dock

At the second farm, we split and stacked firewood and helped put a new cover on the host’s polytunnel which had torn over the winter. There was less accessibility to public transportation on this farm, so we spent most afternoons playing board games with our hosts or walking through the rolling hills of Wales. One evening, I even learned the basics of knitting!

Polytunnel from the second farm with its new cover

On our way to London to begin the second half of our break, we stopped in Burry Port (where a nice lady in a family-run market gave us free Welsh cakes!) and Swansea. The entire, crazy experience of hopping from city to city and helping with odd jobs on farms was one which I will always remember.

Me eating a free Welsh cake in Burry Port

Concert in Glasgow

After spending nearly three weeks traveling around the UK and mainland Europe for the University of Aberdeen’s spring break, I arrived back at Aberdeen late last night. I rarely had reliable WiFi on the trip, so I had planned on submitting a few blogs about the trip today. When I went to do this; however, I discovered that I had never actually hit the “Submit” button on my most recent blog about a concert I went to about a month ago now. After spending a week downloading all of the bands’ new music and walking to classes in t-shirts with their names plastered across the chest, this is what I had written:

 

“Anyone who has been on a road-trip with me has experienced my many road-trip games, and my girlfriend had the pleasure of putting up with them all morning last week (as in the week before I actually wrote this three weeks ago) when we took an early morning bus to Glasgow to spend a day in the city and see a concert at night. One of the games I like to play is called “top-3,” and it is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, I give a category and the contestants share their “top 3” for the category. One of the categories for this trip was “all-time favorite concerts,” and after narrowing down a top 3, we were each excited to see if the one that night would rank among the likes of Elton John, Darius Rucker, Ben Rector, and OneRepublic in our lists.

Since I had already been to Glasgow for a weekend trip with some friends, we only briefly visited some of the major tourist attractions that I had already spent time in: the Necropolis, Glasgow Cathedral, and Kelvingrove Park. We spent the rest of the day walking around in the heart of the city, trying a highly recommended Kebab restaurant, and exploring the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. Glasgow’s city-center (or “centre”) is filled with walking streets that pass through shopping and dining areas, kind of like an extensive outdoor mall. On the day we went, these streets were crowded with street performers and groups of people stopped to watch or listen to them. The walk was really enjoyable, and we wound up stumbling onto a kebab place that I had recognized from reading positive reviews online the night before.

**Quick foodie interjection: For anyone who hasn’t had or heard of a doner kebab (since I hadn’t before getting here), a doner kebab is essentially lamb shavings and vegetables wrapped in pita bread. It is not a Scottish dish. I believe it is Turkish. But, they are wildly popular here as a late night snack to share with friends or as a quick meal. I highly recommend googling it right now and finding the nearest location to you that offers them, because they are delicious. I have probably eaten between 15 and 20 of them since being here.**

With full-stomachs, we headed to explore the beautiful architecture of the University of Glasgow and were intrigued by signs pointing toward the Hunterian Museum. The Hunterian is a large collection of artifacts started by a fascinating man named Dr. William Hunter who had a wide-variety of passions. The collection is about as diverse as Hunter’s interests were, containing anatomical and medical, technological, political, and biological artifacts. This diversity was perfect for my girlfriend (a kinesiology major) and me (a biology major). The collection is really impressive and informative. You could spend an entire day there, but we only stayed for a couple hours.

At the end of the night, we went to this concert venue called “the Garage (attic).” The venue was small but not too crowded. The first band in the lineup was Indigo Velvet, followed by Vistas, and then Marsicans. These bands are not incredibly well-known (yet) but they all have really great music. If you are at all interested in alternative rock, I would recommend checking them out. Every one of the bands put on a fantastic show, and my girlfriend and I were both left with a new concert holding the number one position on our list of “all-time favorite concerts,” as well as a continuous ringing in our ears.

 

Thanks to my slip-up of not pressing submit, I had some extra time to reflect on the significance of this concert to my study-abroad experience as a whole. I love music, and I appreciate the way that music ties in with memory and inspiring emotion. I will always be amazed by the power that a specific song has in taking me back to a specific time, place, and feeling. This entire spring break trip, my girlfriend and I found ourselves humming or singing parts of the songs we’d heard at this concert. The concert itself was a wonderful experience that I will always remember, and the songs from the concert will also always take me back to this special period of time abroad and all of the times these songs were stuck in my head, like while eating gelato in the streets of Vienna or hiking the hill up to the Citadella in Budapest. But more on that spring break trip soon.

Poorly taken photo of Marsicans performing at the Garage (the Attic)

The Beast from the East

Hi everyone,

Due to a couple of stressful weeks of classes, I haven’t gotten to posting in a while, so I have some catching up to do. Over the past few weeks, Scotland has been hit by a couple of snow storms. Although there was never more than 2 or 3 inches of snow on the ground, most of Aberdeen seemed to have shut down.

“The Beast from the East” is what the larger storm was called. It lasted about 3 days, and campus-wide emails were sent out warning students of the adverse weather. My personal favorite email included a diagram advising students of the safest way to walk in icy conditions: like a penguin. Transportation in and around the city was also affected, “stranding” one of my flatmates in Berlin and one of my friends in Madrid.

Limited by the buses not running on some days and others by my own reluctance to face the cold, I was kept inside to study and work on schoolwork almost all of that week (which was probably for the best).

Then, right when the sun had returned and the snow left behind by the Beast from the East had melted, “The Pest from the West” arrived. Similar to the Beast from the East, the snow on the ground never accumulated to anything greater than 2 or 3 inches. Still, cautionary emails were sent out and transportation shut down. (I think it is safe to say that Aberdeen may not be as accustomed to winter weather as West Michigan.)

Though I may have complained about the storms here and there, all in all, neither were too much of an imposition. In fact, being locked inside to study reminded me of an important aspect of studying abroad that is sometimes overlooked in conversations with students that have gone abroad: the studying. Though I am having tons of new experiences and seeing many new places, I am also having to stay on top of schoolwork.

While my course load is not too different than it would be were I a typical second semester Junior back home, the courses here are structured and assessed much differently than those I have taken at Hope.

I have enjoyed the courses I have taken at Hope, but I am also grateful for the opportunity to experience classes that are formatted differently. Though this most likely does not hold true at every foreign university, I find that at Aberdeen there are a lot less (but larger) assignments than there are at Hope. There are pros and cons to that, because less assignments means every grade has a significant impact on your overall course grade. I am also finding that the majority of my courses are not taught by only one professor. Most of my courses have three or four professors alternating who gives a lecture. There are also pros and cons to this.

There are a number of other differences that I am adjusting to, but the point is that there are pros and cons to every style of teaching. I am, however, thankful for the chance to see these new styles of teaching. I believe that being exposed to different ways of teaching is helping me figure out how I learn best, and I think that I will return a better student than I left as a result.

 

My First Cricket Match

In the first week of classes, the University of Aberdeen hosted a refresher’s fair aimed at introducing new students to its large number of clubs and societies. I went to the fair and signed up to be notified about when most of these groups met. Fast forward one month, and I am bowling my first over in a university cricket match.

Having played baseball my whole life, I had never actually played a game of cricket before. I still don’t understand the rules, and yet, this past weekend I had an absolute blast playing in my first ever game. I have messed around playing cricket with my friends at home before; however, we have never played by the actual rules or used proper form for bowling or batting. Here, I have learned a lot from the players and the coach on proper form, and I am getting much better (though I am still pretty terrible).

I have even earned myself a nickname: baseball player. This nickname can be used as a compliment or an insult. When I accidentally bend my elbow while bowling (and throw more like a baseball pitch), I get called “baseball player” as an insult (though typically it is sarcastic). When someone decides to bowl it in full toss (without bouncing) against me, and I swing as if I am holding a baseball bat, I get called “baseball player” as a compliment.

My first game was filled with extremes. I hit a six (basically a home-run) and then I immediately popped up for an out on the next bowl (which is way worse than popping out in baseball). I bowled an out (basically a strikeout) and then a wide (basically a walk). I was probably one of the worst players on the field, but I had a lot of fun. The guys on the team have been incredibly welcoming to me, and they could not be any more supportive. The other players are always willing to help instruct me on how to improve my form or to explain instructions that the coach gives using non-cricket terms that I can understand.

I am really appreciative to the players on the team for how kind they have been to me. Several of them are some of the best friends that I have made since being here. I am also really appreciative for the opportunity that studying abroad has given me to learn something that I would otherwise have never gotten involved in. I can’t wait to learn more about the sport and to spend more time with the team over the course of the semester.

Robert Burns Night

As an aspiring poet and avid reader of poetry, I was familiar with Robert Burns and his work before coming to Scotland; however, I was not familiar with the celebrations hosted on and around January 25th (Burns’ date of birth) to commemorate the famed Scot. “Robert Burns Night” or “Robbie Burns Night” is a very big deal in Scotland, apparent in the number of people that gather to partake in a myriad of traditional festivities memorializing Burns and his work.
On January 25th, I joined in the festivities by attending a ceilidh with several friends that was hosted by a society on campus. The traditional ceremony began with a number of Gaelic folk dances which allowed me to parade around my two left feet. Luckily, I was not alone in this; and, everyone had a good time whether they remained standing when the music stopped or lay twisted and tangled on the ground. As tradition dictates, the dancing was followed by a ceremonial haggis being “piped in,” or ushered in by a man playing the bagpipe. Once the bagpipe player and haggis reach center stage, a Burns poem, entitled “Address to a Haggis” is recited as the haggis is ripped open. The ceremonial haggis was followed out by a tray of “haggis, neeps, and tatties.” Neeps, I believe, is simply another term used for rutabaga, and tatties are mashed potatoes. Haggis, on the other hand, is a unique treat.
My only other run-in with haggis up to this point was at a restaurant I went to during my first week here. I had heard a lot of talk around the food but wasn’t sure exactly what it was. All that I knew was that it was some kind of meat, but I didn’t want to know what kind until after I’d eaten it. Having detected my American accent in ordering, the waiter asked if I had ever tried haggis before and I explained the situation. He responded, “you either love it or you hate it” (a statement I have heard used by many people here in reference to haggis). On the contrary, I was somewhere in the middle. While I did not enjoy my first experience with haggis too much, I did manage to finish my plate before the waiter returned.

“Okay, now you can tell me. What’s in it?” I asked.

“I’m just going to let you look it up on your own,” he replied (always the response you hope to hear when questioning what kind of meat you have just eaten).

After looking it up later I came to the conclusion that it tastes much better than it sounds, though that is not saying much. If you would like to know what is in it you can do the same as I had to and look it up on your own.

Nevertheless, I tried haggis again at the ceilidh, and I was pleasantly surprised! At the ceilidh, the haggis was served in smaller portions with the neeps and tatties, and it all tasted really great together! My friends and I even returned for second servings (and some of us thirds). I left shortly after the food was gone with a full stomach, the memory of an evening I will never forget, and a new life-goal: to one day have some type of meat musically ushered into a room and cut into while a poem of mine is recited. Although, I am thinking that maybe we could do a nice cut of steak or a juicy hamburger for mine.