Reading Week: Backpacking Across Great Britain

[Not to be confused with that time I toured the British Isles. This time I stuck to the mainland].
(Note: if you want a full explanation of the terminology, watch this great little video: http://youtu.be/rNu8XDBSn10)

reading week

Here in the UK, we have a nifty little thing called Reading Week. This week falls in the middle of term and is a week completely free of classes! Yeah, we have essays to write or exams to study for…but it’s a week with NO CLASS! Since we arrived in Wales, our program director basically sold this week to us as “Travelling Week,” so I’d been brainstorming for weeks about where to go. With just a week or two to go until Reading Week, it seemed like everyone else had their plans finalized, their tickets and lodging booked, but I was still clueless.

Pretty soon it seemed like almost everyone in my program would be spending at least part of reading week in Italy, so like a proper hipster, I decided I would NOT be going to Italy…and pretty soon I decided I wouldn’t even be leaving the UK. After all, I had been living in this country for over 2 months and still hadn’t even been to Scotland. I had to explore some more of the UK while I was right here and everything was just a short (or not so short, ya know…haha) train ride away. So after lots and lots of crunching numbers, checking train timetables, checking hostel availability, and all kinds of other madness (getting a trip together–even if it’s just a week of travelling around–is hard work, I tell ya!), I finally had a solid plan: I would take the train to London, and spend a few hours there before taking the bus to Canterbury (this plan was loads cheaper than taking the train straight to Canterbury). I’d have Monday in C-bury, then Tuesday I’d take the train up to Edinburgh, Thursday I’d take the the train over to Glasgow, Friday night I’d take the bus to Inverness, and all of Sunday would be one long MegaBus trip home (well..to Manchester where I’d get on yet another train to take me home to Bangor!). With tickets booked and printed and hostel accommodation guaranteed, I was ready for an adventure!

Oh yeah. And did I mention that I decided to do this all solo?

London: I’m Baaaack!

My first stop was London for a few hours! After I got off the train, I topped up my Oyster card like a seasoned pro and was off to check out a few things I missed last time I was in the big city.

First stop? The British Library! I’m a huge fan of libraries. This semester has basically been one big library world tour. But actually.
While at the Lib, I got to check out the amazing archives (where I couldn’t take any pictures, unfortunately). Here I got to see some amazing works such as one of Jane Austen’s notebooks, early Shakespearean manuscripts, one of Tyndale’s early New Testaments, Beethoven’s tuning fork, and the seal from the Magna Carta as well as an early copy of the document. Basically I was majorly geeking out the whole time.

Another highlight was a short stop at the British Museum. Basically I felt like I was in Night at the Museum as I explored this amazing, huge museum filled to the BRIM with incredible, iconic history.

On another “exciting” note, I “got” to pay to use the bathroom for the first time at the train station. So there’s always that. And this would not be the last time I had to pay to use the bathroom on this trip. The British can be cruel.

A few blissful hours in London

A few blissful hours in London

On to Canterbury

I pulled into the Canterbury bus station at 10:30 Sunday night. Finding by hostel at night, in the dark was an…adventure… But eventually I did find it and got settled into the wonderful little hostel that would be my home for the next two nights.

I was up early the next morning to explore this city of roundabouts and underpasses (more navigation challenges…errr…adventures(!) for Ellie…yay!).

A few highlights were:
-A stroll through the lovely Dane John Gardens and a climb up the Dane John Mound which gave me a wonderful view from the top of Canterbury!
-My proper Chaucer pilgrimage! When I booked my bus from London to Canterbury, I didn’t realize I was following the same route of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” So I ended up joining up with my “fellow travelers” at the Canterbury Tales Experience before (finally) completing my journey to the grand Canterbury Cathedral! I spent a few hours exploring the huge, ornate cathedral full of history.
-Canterbury has an absolutely lovely high street filled with all kinds of little pubs and shops. I also found a marvelous little book store called Chaucer’s Book Shop (as it turned out, this would also be a week of exploring adorable little book stores…) where I spent a lot of time admiring the huge collection of books both old and new.

C-bury Highlights

C-bury Highlights

A final highlight at the hostel was CAKE NIGHT my last night there! So fun. :)

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Photo from the Kipps Hostel Canterbury fb page

Edinburgh: Finally Up to Scotland!

I had a great time in Canterbury, but Tuesday morning I was reading to move on–and up to Scotland! Finally, I would be travelling up to the land of bagpipes and kilts (and yes, I did see BOTH during my 5 days in Scotland!). I made my way over to the train station and hopped on a train that took me back to London where I had to change to another train at King’s Cross Station. As I was waiting for my platform number to be called, I was hoping, hoping, hoping it would be platform 9…but alas, it was platform 2 (only 7 3/4 platforms away from Hogwarts!!). Yet little did I know that there were MANY more Harry Potter references to come in Edinburgh.

So I boarded my train and hunkered down for the 6 1/2 hour train ride. However, any hesitancy I had about the long train ride was quickly put aside as I saw the landscape transform as we traveled up the east coast. My anticipation grew as I started to see more trees decked out in their brilliant autumn colors. Soon I was loading up “Celtic Woman” tracks on my ipod and getting super excited. I was probably grinning like a goon too…. haha

Once I got to Edinburgh and finally found my hostel (again, a bit of a struggle…sensing a theme? :P), it was about 4pm, and here in the UK EVERYTHING closes at 5, so I ran to whatever was closest to my hostel–in this case the fab little National Museum of Scotland! I booked it through the museum to catch the highlights including…Dolly the cloned sheep! Whoohoo!

Dolly!

Dolly!

The next morning though, I was up early and off to explore the city. I started the day off right with a trip to The Elephant House (birthplace of Harry Potter!) for a gingerbread latte. Since it was bright and early, the place was free of tourists and just occupied by a few locals.
Plus a trip into the bathroom showed that HP fans are crazy (and by that I mean crazy AWESOME! :D). Every inch of the bathroom walls were covered in pictures, signatures, and comments!

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I also got to admire the magnificent Edinburgh Castle. However, I unfortunately didn’t get to tour the inside because…well, train tickets are expensive… (this was also my reasoning for basically not eating the whole week, sooooooo that happened…. haha).

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After exploring for a few more hours, it was back to the hostel for a FREE tour at 11am with the hostel. I got to meet some New Zealanders and explore a bit more of the city. First stop was Greyfriar’s Cemetery which is apparently super creepy, but is also chock full of more HP references: from the school that inspired Hogwarts resting just outside its gate, to a grave for a McGonagall, and a grave for Thomas Ridell (but thankfully, HP took care of Voldemort once and for all, so he couldn’t return this time :P), and just for one more HP reference…we also later got to see the inspiration for the Chamber of Secrets and the Grassmarket–the inspiration for Diagon Alley. Needless to say, I was geeking out once again.

Another place we got to see on this tour was Calton Hill, a high point (literally!) in Edinburgh. Here you can find the Scottish National Monument (basically an incomplete Parthenon), a few other monuments, and just a great view of the city.

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My hostel receptionist/tour guide recommended checking out Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park, so I decided to head there after lunch. However, it took me a little longer than I expected to get there…

One of the downsides to traveling solo is that weird people suddenly think they can start talking to you. I had some…interesting conversations with…interesting people…multiple times on this trip. Not gonna lie, sometimes I was just thinking “Why are you talking to me…” in my head.

So I was walking down the Royal Mile to head to Holyrood Park, when I’m stopped by this fundamentalist from Texas. In Scotland. Yeah. He talked to me for longer than I would have liked with less personal space than what I would have liked, but one of his main points he told me was that I needed to learn Greek and Hebrew. Because if I learned Greek and Hebrew I would be an academic. And if I’m an academic, then people can’t argue with me. Their arguments just… they just don’t work. Because I’m an academic. Yeah. So that was what I learned that day.

But anyway, after this little pit-stop, I was back on my way to Holyrood Park. Once there I started the climb to Arthur’s Seat! I climbed up, up, and up, until I finally reached the top…and almost blew right off! It was so windy up there, but the view was incredible and so worth it!

Arthur's Seat!

Arthur’s Seat!

The next morning, I sadly said goodbye as I boarded the train to Glasgow, clutching my Costa Christmas coffee. ;)

Over to Glasgow We Go

And by ‘we,’ I mean ‘I.’ Still rockin’ it solo.

Glasgow was….not my favorite city I visited.
Edinburgh was so old and felt so historic…from all of the brick buildings, the cobblestone paths, and the secret passageways/alleys (okay, they weren’t really that secret). Glasgow was more…industrial. It seemed dirtier and just not as…historic. It also probably didn’t help that I arrived not having any idea what I was going to do or see there (finishing my essay the night/morning before I left took a little bit more of a priority over searching my planned destinations on TripAdvisor). Also, I got lost a LOT in Glasgow…

Basically, the theme of this entire trip was: Ellie is lost.
The theme of Glasgow was: Ellie is lost. Ellie is not sure if she should be walking down this moderately sketchy street, but the street she is looking for might just be a little further ahead. Ellie really doesn’t think the street she is looking for is this way. Ellie is going to turn around and walk back through this moderately sketchy area.

Since I didn’t have a list of places to visit ready when I arrived in Glasgow, I decided to plan my time around the Glasgow Museums flyer I found; I would make my way from one museum to another, exploring whatever I found along the way.

I will hand it to Glasgow for having some pretty rockin’ museums. Highlights were The People’s Palace (a museum focusing on the history of Glasgow and its ‘Glaswegians’), St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art, The Gallery of Modern Art, and The Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum (my FAVORITE. They did an absolutely fantastic job of blending the art gallery and museum, with each floor being split between the two, and the art and museum parts relating to and commenting on each other).

Glasgow's Museums

Glasgow’s Museums

Another cool site was the Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis…one of the “explorations along the way.”

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My FAVORITE part about Glasgow, though, was the buzzing Christmas spirit that was already alive and well! When I arrived, lights were already strung across the streets and the Christmas market was being set up (and opened the next day!). I also found out as I explored that first night, that there was a big Christmas-lights-switch-on event going on! While I couldn’t get tickets for it, I joined my fellow commoners outside the barricade and sipped my hot apple cider while watching the splendid fireworks show.
And then Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” came on, and everything was right in the world again. Christmas bliss.
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So the Christmas spirit in Glasgow was nice…but come Friday night, I was ready to move on.

And Up to the Highlands: Inverness

Inverness was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

It didn’t start so beautifully, however. I got into my hostel around 11pm (this one was an easier find since it was literally a few yards away from the bus station…), and I was ready to settle in for the night.
But this was when we had the attack of the super snorer. I was in a 10-bed room, pretty comfy beds, all ready for a nice sleep. And then I woke up at about 3 in the morning to someone snoring. So loud. Nonstop. For hours. I have never heard anyone snore with such intensity or variety in my entire life (and yes, I did come up with that line as I lay awake in the middle of the night. What else was I supposed to do? :P).

So sleep wasn’t extremely plentiful that night, but I was still up bright and early to explore! I started the morning off with a walk along the gorgeous Lake Ness and onto the Ness Islands…and then crossed back over Ness Bridge (seeing a theme here?). The scenery was so pretty, especially with the fall colors so bright and brilliant.

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But I couldn’t come all this way without seeing Loch Ness, so I headed over to the Inverness tourism office to find the best way to get there. The guy working there told me to take a bus to Urquart Castle and then walk down to the lake from there.

So I hopped on the bus, not quite sure what I was doing, but definitely excited for some Loch Ness action. And then I got off the bus at my stop. In the middle of nowhere. Well, the castle was there. But other than that, the middle of nowhere. Eventually I found a path and started a hike, not quite sure where I was going, but with lots of scenic stops along the way (with Loch Ness itself as the backdrop for all of my selfies)…and eventually made it the 2 1/2 miles or so to the village of Drumnadrochit where I stopped off at the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre for some Nessy info fun (really I was just desperate for a break from walking and it wasn’t that expensive soooo why not!). Basically at the beginning of the little tour, they get you absolutely convinced that Nessy is real…just to shatter that new belief throughout the rest of the center.

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But then I was off on the long hike back to my bus stop. The whole time I walked along Loch Ness I kept my eyes pealed for Nessy. I figured if she WAS real, I had to see here while I was there! haha…And I *might* have seen her….you be the judge of this photo! ;)

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I couldn’t resist making my own little Nessy hoax photo. ;)

But anyway…the next morning it was time to head home on a tortuously long MegaBus ride…I was sad to see my travels come to an end, but I was also exhausted and ready to get home to my own space, comfy bed, and not-moldy shower. What a week it was!

Reading Week in Numbers:

  • 8 days
  • 5 cities
  • 4 hostels
  • Approx. 1,552 miles traveled
  • 13 hours and 49 minutes on train
  • 15 hours on bus
  • 30 minutes (approx) on tube
  • That’s almost 30 hours of travel, people!
  • Hours spent walking: too many to count
  • Number of times I got lost: also too many to count :P
  • 1 form of currency (thank goodness!)
  • 500 pictures taken
  • Memories made and experience gained: priceless :)
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Ich Liebe Deutschland

I love Germany.

Germany is a country I have wanted to visit most of my life, so when the opportunity arose for me to go to Germany two different times this semester, I jumped at the chance. If you know me, you probably know that I’ve long dreamed of seeing Germany. Whenever we did those little ice breaker games and the question came up: “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” I always said Germany, with my reason being some mix between my heritage, the history, and–most importantly–the number of people I know who live there.

So when I had my Easyjet boarding passes printed off and was on the train to the Manchester airport early one October morning, I knew I was in for a bucket-list-checking-off, memory-making trip of a lifetime!

Munich:

My first taste of Germany was the city of Munich. Munich is probably the city in Germany I’ve wanted to visit for the longest amount of time because that’s where Ines is from! So when I found out in July that she was getting married…and her wedding would be in October…in Munich…I was beyond excited. (Sidenote: It’s actually really amazing how everything fell into place. I had to go through some hard stuff with changing plans, transferring colleges, and changing plans again…but if I hadn’t, I would have been in America this semester and wouldn’t have gotten to go to Ines and Nicola’s wedding.)
So I woke up early, hopped on the train to Manchester Airport, grapped a cup of jo (Pumpkin Spice Latte! Finally!!), and–after a bit of a delay–boarded my flight.

Once I arrived in Munich, Ines was giving me chocolate almost right away (she knows me WAY too well..haha. Also: Kinder Country bars are the bombbbb.), and I got to finally meet her family, who I have been hearing about for years from Ines and my Grandma!

The next afternoon, the wedding festivities began! Overall, the wedding festivities were such a fun, multicultural experience! First was the civil ceremony which included most of the German and Sardinians decked out in traditional dress. Even though I didn’t understand the Italian-Germany ceremony, this was when the important papers were signed, and I could already start to get a sense of the….differences…between the Italian and German cultures. :)

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Next we drove past the Oktoberfest grounds (the celebration having ended just days before) and to the huge beer hall for the toast (No worries, mom, I stuck to another class Bavarian drink–apple juice and club soda! :) Yumm!). I also got my first taste of the Bavarial pretzel, or Brezeln. All I can say is YUMMM!! :) Crispy and salty on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside, these are the greatest! Nothing like the pretzels you’d find in a bag or even the giant pretzels you buy at the fair. The toast was a great time of celebration, and I learned that Italians sure know how to celebrate! Laughter echoed through the giant hall as the Sardinians sang song after song, even attracting some onlookers with their iPhones and cameras at one point. After the toast, it was off to bed to rest up for the big celebration tomorrow!

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HOWEVER, when I got back to my hotel room, I got the pleasant surprise of finding out that Inga (who studied abroad at MLC my junior year) was studying in Munich! So early the next morning, I hestitantly hopped on the U-Bahn, hoping I was on the right train with the right kind of ticket (#langugagebarriers), and got myself down to Marienplatz to meet up with her. Over the next few hours, we walked through the English Gardens, a couple cathedrals, saw some of the main sights, and just caught up on LIFE of the past 3 1/2 years…and I also got to introduce Inga to the wonderful drink known as the Pumpkin Spice Latte. :) Standing by a red brick bridge, under trees with orange and gold leaves, while drinking a PSL? Yes, it finally felt like autumn.

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Then it was back on the U-Bahn to go get ready for the wedding! We went to the beautiful cathedral for the lovely service in Italian and German with singing in English from a gospel choir. After lots of hugs, pictures, and blowing bubbles, we were then off to the reception at a fabulous lakeside hotel. The venue was absolutely gorgeous, and the food was probably the best I’ve had in my life! It was also such a great party! In proper Italian-style, the meal lasted for a few hours and was a fun time of conversation and meeting new people. I even got to meet a couple from England who traveled and taught English for five years–basically I want to be them. :) Then it was time to DANCE! This went on for hours and hours and was such a blast–too much of an experience to be able to capture in words.

The beautiful bride and me!

The beautiful bride and me!

The next day (Sunday) was too be my last in Munich, so after a nice sleep-in, I got to spend the afternoon with the Hansons and Ines & Nicola walking around the city center. We got to see some great sites like the Theatinerkirche, the spectacular city hall, Hofbrauhaus, try some traditional Bavarian food, and just enjoy each others company and conversation. Then it was off to the airport for me and back to Wales.

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I had SUCH a fab time in Munich. The city was so beautiful–from the brilliant fall colors to the huge, historic buildings. Also, visiting it felt like such a piece of home. I had always wanted to visit Ines, especially since she has come to visit us so many times in Minnesota, and I also got to spend a lot of time with the Hansons who are also from Mountain Lake–I got to catch up on the latest ML news, and just have that connection to home for a few days.

Berlin:

After a few more weeks of class and field trips around Wales, I was headed back to Germany–this time to Potsdam and Berlin to see Nicki and Leona! I was so beyond excited to be reunited with these two as almost all of my great memories of senior year include them! I was also excited to be back in Germany once again, ready to practice the few German phrases I had added to my vocabulary, and ready to eat some more of that great Milka chocolate! :)

I arrived in Berlin late Thursday morning and with the help of Leona’s text messages and the Travel Info receptionist at the airport, I hopped on a train to Potsdam (once again, hoping/praying I was on the right train and that I had changed at the right place…haha). But soon I was reunited with Leona and got to go to her house and meet her family (again, people I had heard a lot about and even seen on skype!). We spent a lot of time just eating chocolate and ice cream and catching up…but it was also Halloween, so we needed to celebrate! Leona had been sewing herself a pumpkin costume the last few weeks, so we quickly pulled a costume together for me as well, did some crazy face paint, and then walked around the city and went trick or treating! This was so much fun, plus I got to try lots of new German candy :) and learn a few new German phrases. IMG_6273edit After getting all tuckered out from trekking around Potsdam, we came back to eat our candy and watch Pride & Prejudice. Typical. In just a few short hours we basically summed up senior year: chocolate, ice cream, eating cereal with big spoons, and watching Pride & Prejudice. Basically the best. :)

The next afternoon we took the train to the city center to Berlin…well, Leona got off a few stops earlier to say goodbye to a friend, and I continued on! After exploring a little bit on my own and finding the Brandenburg Gates, I got a call from Nicki that she was on her way to meet up with me! I was so excited to see her again, and we spent the next few hours wandering around, seeing the sites, and–once again–just catching up on life!

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The next afternoon Leona and I met up with Nicki once again for some SHOPPING on the main shopping street in Berlin! We hung out there for a few hours, but then Leona was off to say goodbye to another friend, and Nicki and I headed on over to the mall closer to her house–one a little more in our style (and budget) range. :)
But before our shopping continued there, we first had to stop for an EIS (ice cream) break, of course…and finally, after YEARS of waiting (see my “I Scream, You Scream, the WORLD Screams for Ice Cream” speech senior year about ice cream around the world), I got to try SPAGHETTI EIS!!!!!

Nicki and I sat down at a table at the adorable little Eis Cafe in the mall and opened up the grand menu filled with all kinds of crazy, elaborate eis creations (although, I unfortunately had left my memory card back at Leona’s, so I have no pictures of it…)

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Mhhhhmm

Look at that excitement!

Look at that excitement!

For those of you who don’t know, Spaghetti Eis is a brilliant German creation. Basically it’s ice cream made to look like spaghetti, complete with vanilla ice cream “noodles,” strawberry “spaghetti sauce,” and white chocolate “parmesan cheese” dusting the top! Plus, stick in a cookie just for a little extra glam. And it tasted SO GREAT! Bucket list–check!! :)
(And yes, I was outrageously excited in this moment…just ask Nicki! haha)

After some more shoppinngggg along with getting to try the amazing “Currywurst” (another delicious German food creation….anybody else sensing a theme here?), Leona was back and we were ready for a fun night all together followed by a slumber party at Nicki’s (with more Pride & Prejudice, of course!).

Always up to our old shenanigans...

Always up to our old shenanigans…

Sunday afternoon (we..err..might have stayed up a *little* late and consequently slept in a *little* while :P), it was back to Potsdam for Leona and me. I also had the conclusion to my lesson in the beast known as the Berlin public transportation system. It’s great for getting around, but boy, is it complicated! Where as in Munich, I just had to deal with the U-Bahn, but here we were zipping around from train to U-Bahn to S-Bahn, to bus to tram. Thankfully though, I almost always had Leona and her nifty smartphone app with me telling exactly where to go.

Back in Potsdam, Leona and I decided to do a “biking tour” of the city! We got to see some sights like her beautiful church and its grounds as well as a great view from the top of the city!

Potsdam by ni

Potsdam by night

We closed out the night with some Harry Potter (just to bring things full circle), and then in the morning, I was back on a train to the airport…sad to say goodbye to Germany again…and probably for longer this time.

Future Home?

Overall, I really loved Germany so much and so enjoyed my time there. I loved the people, the places, the language, the culture, the food, even the climate! :) Basically, I’m moving to Germany the first chance I get. Now I just have to learn German and find a nice German boy… ;)

Touring the British Isles

Hello, all! Now that I’ve been out of America for about 4 weeks, I figured it was probably time to get back to the blog…

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of traveling, getting settled, and–most recently–beginning classes!

Ireland

I arrived in Wales on September 9, joining the other 14 participants in my study abroad program. We then had a whopping two days before we were headed off to Ireland for almost a week! In order to get to Ireland, we had to first drive to Holyhead, and then take the ferry over to Dublin. Our ferry was called The Jonathan Swift, so basically I was geeking out right from the start. We spent the first two and a half days of the trip in Dublin. I found Dublin to be a delightful, bustling city.

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One of the highlights from the very first day was getting to see a production of Shaw’s Major Barbara at the Abbey Theatre with a few other girls from my program. Not only were the acting, costuming, and the set superb, but it was fascinating to watch and listen to the characters struggle with reconciling their morality with the selling of military weapons…while we were seeing the show on September 11 and had heard “breaking news” about the crisis in Syria just hours before over dinner.

Naturally, though, I was geeking out about the literary history around me almost the entire time we were in Dublin. There were statues and monuments for James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, and we even passed a house that Yeats lived in at one time. I also had a chance to pop into the National Library of Ireland which was absolutely gorgeous; to add yet another highlight, there I was able to see a Yeats exhibition that was absolutely fabulous. Basically any English major’s dream.

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One of the last things we got to do was visit Trinity College where we saw the Book of Kells exhibition as well as the amazing Trinity Library. Walking through the library was so special; I could feel the history, knowledge, and impact all around me.

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After spending some time at Trinity, it was off to Galway for the rest of our trip! As much as I enjoyed Dublin, I loved Galway even more. It was amazing to see the contrast between the busy, touristy city and the beautiful, scenic Galway. Galway also more closely aligned with the picture I have always had in my head of Ireland–green, open spaces…castles and cathedrals…

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While staying in Galway, we also had the chance to take a ferry over to the Aran Islands. This was by far my favorite part of the entire Ireland trip (and possibly even of my time abroad so far). When we got to the island, we rented out bikes (our feet were happy to finally have some rest after long days of walking nonstop in Dublin), were given maps, and then had the rest of the day to roam the island. The whole time I was so overwhelmed by the beauty surrounding me. There is truly no way to describe it.

One of the sites we got to visit on the island was Dun Aengus. Dun Aengus is a prehistoric fort, believed to be built around 2000 BC. The fort sits next to a spectacular cliff–with no barriers or fences blocking it off (this is how we knew we weren’t in America anymore!). We had a blast lying on our stomachs on the edge of the cliff–what a rush!

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The next day, we of course had to see the iconic Cliffs of Moher before heading home. The view was absolutely amazing, but even crazier was the wind! We could barely stand or walk, it was blowing so hard! At one lookout point, the wind blew us down a slope and then was literally so strong we couldn’t walk back up that same slope! It was crazy! The view was absolutely amazing though, and the Cliffs were something I couldn’t have left Ireland without seeing.

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Soon after it was time to head home and get to know to know the place where we’ll be living for the next 3 months!

Wales

After a couple of free days to move into our permanent rooms (in the pouring rain, naturally) and get settled, we were off again for two days of field trips within Wales!
There are two words that basically sum up the Welsh landscape: Castles…and Sheep!
We’ve already had a chance to visit quite a few castles, and while traveling to those castles we see tons of sheep! (Just a few of the 11 million sheep in this little country 1/12th the size of the state of Texas!)

We started our Wales field trips with a visit to Caernarfon Castle. This is an impressive stone castle that was built by Edward I. The castle was huge and filled with winding passageways, so we had a blast exploring just a fraction of it during our time there.

IMG_5034Our next stop was Criccieth Castle. By the time we reached Criccieth, the rainy, drizzly weather we’d had in Caernarfon was replaced with sunshine, illuminating the incredible view. Even though Criccieth Castle was significantly smaller (and much more in ruins) than Caernarfon, I still enjoyed it every bit as much. Like I said, the view from the castle was absolutely spectacular, and a few friends and I also had a blast climbing up one of the castle walls (in our defense, there was no sign saying we couldn’t…but that’s probably because they didn’t think anyone would be crazy enough to try!). It was quite a challenge, and a little scary at times (once we were all finally up, we weren’t quite sure if or how we’d be able to get down), but overall it was super fun and we got to apply some great teamwork skills. :)

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Success! But I was definitely happy to be back on the ground when it was all over... haha

Success! But I was definitely happy to be back on the ground when it was all over… haha

We ended the day with a trip to the Llechwedd Slate Mines. One simply cannot go to Wales without visiting a slate cavern and learning more about the impact of slate mining on the country. We got to take a train into the cavern and learn more about the mining history and process from our hilarious Welsh tour guides.

Rockin the hard hats...

Rockin the hard hats…

For our field trip the next day, we got to do some exploring in the beautiful Snowdonia National Park (a climb up Mount Snowden is definitely in my future!). This day was filled with some hiking as well as a trip to Swallow Falls and another castle.

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After our field trips, our flatmates and the other uni students started to move in, and Fresher’s Week began, followed by registration for us international students (which proved quite a challenging task!).

London, England

After registration was (finally) done (phew!), we had a few days before classes actually started, so a few friends and I decided to take a three day trip to London. These three days were super busy, but such a blast!

The first thing we did in London (and definitely my favorite!!) was see Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. It was a little stressful getting there as we ran from the train station to our hostel to drop off our bags, and then rushed to the theater, making it there only five minutes before the show started! But the show was absolutely amazing, and our seats were spectacular–fourth row! They were on the side, so we got them at a great price, and they were still fantastic seats! I had never seen the show before (and hadn’t even known how it ended!), but I was familiar with a lot of the songs, so it was great to finally know the story (and now I’ve been singing the songs constantly for a week…).

IMG_5290After the show, we took a little time to catch our breath, and then took a slow, scenic walk back to our hostel, getting a chance to see many of the iconic sights lit up at night.

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On Friday we decided to a free walking tour of London. It was the best decision we made during our time in London. The tour was fantastic! Our tour guide, Rachel (an actress taking a few months off) was so hilarious and had tons of interesting stories and pieces of history to share with us about what we were seeing (so much more than your typical, dry textbook). (Side note: Sandemans offers these tours all over Europe, and I would STRONGLY recommend them if you’re ever traveling: http://www.neweuropetours.eu/).

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The classic phone booth pic

The classic phone booth pic

Our London trip closed with a chance for some more incredible literary-geekiness from me.

We began Saturday with a trip to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (after also seeing the delightful Shakespeare Head pub the night before). I can’t even describe how incredible it felt to be at The Globe.. I was so excited the entire time–talk about checking things off of my bucket list! Now to just see a show there someday… :)
After that, we made our way over to King’s Cross Station and had our pictures taken at Platform 9 3/4.
And finally, I spent my last hours in London at the Charles Dickens’ House Museum. It was amazing to stroll through his former home, see his furniture, and read more about his life. There’s nothing like seeing where someone lived and worked to make their novels and writings come even more alive!

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After this, it was time to head back to Bangor and start our first week of classes (more on this later)!

This weekend, I’m staying in Bangor…but next weekend it’s off to Munich!

Until next time! :)

Taking the Plunge

A couple weeks ago my family went up to a cabin in Northern Minnesota for the weekend with my cousins. The cabin was right on a lake, so one afternoon, we decided to take a pontoon tour of the lake and then go swimming a little ways out (as opposed to the weedy area near the dock). I was pumped. I love swimming, and I was excited for a nice relaxing boat ride too.

When the tour was done, it was time to swim. I smiled as I buckled up my life-jacket (my cousin convinced us all it would be more fun to swim with them) and watched my brothers and cousins jumping off the back of the boat. My smile faded a little; was I going to do that? Pretty soon, everyone was in the water except me. But I couldn’t jump. Something as easy and as simple and as non-threatening as jumping off the boat–plunging into the water–and I couldn’t do it. I made a fuss for about 10 minutes (in standard dramatic fashion, of course :) ), and then I finally made myself do it. I jumped. And guess what? It was no big deal, of course. I had a blast swimming, of course. They practically had to pull me out of the water when it was time to go. 

 

That’s how I feel about traveling and even change so often. When it’s distant, when we’re just cruising ahead on calm water, it seems fine, exciting. As it gets closer, anticipation builds. Yet when the time finally comes, when it’s time to finally buckle up the life jacket and jump in, I freeze. I start to think, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.” Apprehension builds and fear kicks in. 

But as soon as I’m in the water, as soon as I get past the initial dive, I find out it’s not so bad after all, the water’s fine. But that still doesn’t diminish the fear the next time I have to jump.

 

Sometimes we have to do the thing we fear the most… Because that may be the thing that stretches us the most–the thing that causes us to grow and to push ourselves further than we ever have before. The thing that causes us to learn and to become better. 

People keep telling me how brave I am to travel and to study abroad. I don’t feel brave. In fact, I feel a little scared. But maybe, it’s taking that first step that counts, even if it means going out in fear….Because God only knows the adventures, experiences, and memories that lie ahead. 

The Next Adventure

Now that I’ve had a couple weeks to catch my breath after returning from my amazing 5-week internship in Ukraine, it’s just about time to head off again on a new adventure…this time in Bangor, Wales!

That’s right, on Sunday I will once again be boarding a plane to take me across the ocean. This coming fall semester I will be studying abroad in one of the most beautiful countries in the world (or so I’m constantly told).

Welcome to Wales where there are castles everywhere

Welcome to Wales where there are castles everywhere

Bangor is a lovely rural city located on the northern coast of Wales. It is classified as one of Britain’s smallest cities with a population of around 14,000 (not including the 10,000 students that attend Bangor University)–though that seems fairly big to this small-town girl.

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Can we talk about how amazing the library is (left pic)?? This nerd is excited to spend some serious time studying there!
{Bangor U pics from bangor.ac.uk}

For the fall semester, I will be attending Bangor University, where I’ll be taking an Intro to Wales class and Outdoor Pursuits (we’ll talk about this later when I get over my absolute TERROR) with the group from Central College Abroad, as well as some literature courses at the university with other students from the UK! I’ll also be living in university housing–just another way to get out of my ‘American bubble’! I’m super excited to just immerse myself in another culture and to really get to know Bangor and the students who study there.

 

BUT…as this is my last week at home, there’s definitely tons to do…

  • Thankfully, I’m just about finished with deep cleaning (err…semi-deep cleaning) my room… Those of you who know me (or at least know my reputation for my messy room), know this has been no small task. Many days, hours, and 2 audio books have been put into this task!
  • So now comes the fun: packing. This meme basically sums up how I feel about life right now:sapack

How exactly is one supposed to pack for 4 months, and basically three different seasons? This is the challenge I will be exploring today…

  • An even greater challenge, however, is learning to cook. There is no meal plan for the semester. I can’t cook. Like, at all. I can bake with the best of them–I’ll whip up a batch of cookies, any kind of pie, and a chocolate cake that will make you cry because it’s so delicious…but when it comes to *real* food, I’m clueless. Absolutely clueless. Sooo….this will be an interesting semester. I might starve. Or I might be eating chocolate chip oatmeal cookies for every meal. Anyway, these next few days might be cram-cooking-lessons.
  • Still to be done is my prep-research…because why wouldn’t I procrastinate about homework that’s not even really homework? #mylife
  • Also, I need to prep my mind for another loooooong international flight. Because, let me tell you, that’s the one thing I’m dreading. I’m so pumped to get to Wales, but not ready for another long flight. All the people that tell you they are fun are LYING! I was super excited when I boarded my NINE AND A HALF HOUR flight on the way to Ukraine… Sure, the first couple hours are great: MOVIES! MUSIC! GAMES! FOOD, so much food!!…but then the 5-hours-left mark hits, and it’s death. Thankfully though, this flight will be shorter than my flight to Ukraine. :)
  • Last thing to do: prep my mind for the fact that I am actually, truly, finally STUDYING ABROAD!! This has been an (almost) life-long dream of mine, and I can’t believe it’s really happening! I want to make the most of every moment and experience…I want to see things I’ve never seen before, try things I’ve never tried before (Outdoor Pursuits + weird foods will take care of that), and make lots and lots of memories.

So, here we go! The countdown begins. Wales, I’ll see you soon!

What I’ve Learned During My Time in Ukraine…

The last five weeks here have been unforgettable. I have had so many incredible experiences, made countless new memories, and met dozens of amazing people.

Here is a list of just a few of the many, many things I’ve learned while I’ve lived and served in another country and culture.

(Please excuse my lack of consistency in grammatical structure :)…)

  • Germs won’t kill you
  • Sugar is the most important ingredient in tea
  • Cabbage is an abundant vegetable
  • The power of prayer
  • No matter how full a marshrutka seems, there is always room for one more (or two…or ten…)
  • You can always live with less
  • God is the God of all people, of all nations, and of all languages
  • Conversational practice is necessary in learning another language
  • Relationships can be so much more than surface level
  • “Sharing is caring” (really!)
  • What true fellowship looks like
  • How to make couscous!
  • Air conditioner isn’t as necessary as we think
  • There is so much love to be given and to be had
  • Communication is possible without a shared language
  • It is possible to grow so close to people in a short amount of time
  • Traveling halfway across the world alone isn’t as hard as it sounds
  • Never try to fit 6 people into a small elevator!
  • Sub-lesson: “Every babushka knows” (and now me too!) that no more than 4 people should be in an elevator
  • A common purpose (serving) and a common God unifies a group so quickly and so closely
  • The world is so big yet so small
  • McDonald’s is McDonald’s, no matter the country
  • The importance of discipleship in the church
  • 50+ or so new Russian words!
  • No matter how good you think you have it, someone else always has it better; no matter how bad you think you have it, someone else always has it worse
  • Just because it’s “different than how we do it in America,” doesn’t mean it’s wrong
  • Sunscreen is kinda maybe a good idea
  • Everywhere you go, you leave a piece of your heart behind….

Ukrainian Ice Cream Adventures!

You know the ice cream post had to come eventually…:)

As this was my first international trip, it was also my first international ice cream tasting adventure.

I have always been an ice cream lover…Personally, I think I could live on ice cream if I had to–in fact, there’s a running joke in my extended family about that very idea. And more recently I have become an ice-cream-around-the-world nerd (see my 6 minute informative speech with Powerpoint on ice cream around the world my junior year of high school).

So humor me for a few minutes as I share about my ice cream adventures in Ukraine!

Ukrainians love ice cream! With the hot summers (and marshrutka rides!) and limited air-conditioned places, ice cream is a nice, cool treat.

The most popular way to eat ice cream here is as individually packaged treats–little cones, bars, tubes, etc. There are tons of fruity flavors and also lots of CHOCOLATE! A few extra-interesting flavors include pistachio and poppy-seed.

When we were at camp, there was a little shop where we could buy ice cream any time we wanted to (aka DAILY), and Martha and I found a favorite type: Tiramisu ice cream bars! These ice cream bars had actual coffee beans inside–so good! These definitely need to make their way to America… :)

Yum! :)

Another wonderful way to enjoy ice cream is from the little gelato stands on the streets! I was missing my favorite flower flavored gelatos, but I did manage to find a couple other cool flavors. Some of my favorites were grapefruit and black currant!

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Mhhhm, gelato!

I made sure the Russian word for “ice cream” was one of the first words I learned—mhhhhm мороженое!

 

Lastly, check out this crazy Ukrainian ice cream commercial… :)

Random Encounters?

In my last 4 1/2 weeks in Ukraine, I’ve been able to meet some pretty awesome people through the English camps and church.

However, I’ve also been able to have some out-of-the-blue meetings here in Odessa. In the last 2 1/2 weeks or so, Kimberly, Olivia, and I have had four different encounters where we had a chance to share about why we are here and what we are doing in Odessa.

At the Market

Between Family Camp and Youth Camp, we were doing a little shopping in the market to find some fresh fruit. Shopping is always a little bit of a struggle as we speak only minimal amounts of Russian, and most shopkeepers can’t speak English. As we struggled to understand the total cost of our peaches and plums, a lady named Ira who could speak great English stopped to help us out. After our purchases were settled, she explained that she teaches English, and she asked why we were in Odessa. We were able to share with her and invite her to English Club which is held every Saturday at the church.

On the Street

Another cool encounter happened as we were dragging our suitcases along the 20 minute walk from our apartment to the church just before Youth Camp. As we crossed the street, two ladies began speaking to Martha in French. We shrugged it off, but a minute or two later, we noticed that Martha had stopped and was talking to the two ladies. We found out that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and both spoke great English (they had thought that maybe Martha spoke French). We were also able to share with them about why we were here and invited them to English Club as well!

In Our Home

Another time, God even brought someone right to our door! We were enjoying our first day off after Youth Camp and had been relaxing and cleaning up the apartment. Naturally we had the air conditioner on full blast. :) Midway through the afternoon, we got a knock at our door. Our neighbors two floors below had come to tell us that they couldn’t sleep because the pipe from our air conditioner was dripping water onto their air conditioner, and the noise was keeping them awake. As Sergey (the man) tried to move the pipe outside our window, we were able to tell him about why we were here and invite him and his family to English Club as well; he even mentioned that he has a daughter who is studying English and would definitely come.

At the Beach

The next day (yesterday), Kimberly, Olivia, and I headed to the beach for a relaxing evening. We decided to take some time to pray together. As we were sitting there praying out loud, a young man, Andrew, came up to us and began speaking to us in broken Russian. We apologetically said that we didn’t speak Russian, and he replied, “You speak English? Oh, thank God!” He was looking for directions to the  city center, but in the short conversation that followed, we found out that he stays in Odessa for a month each year, and we were able to invite him to English Club as well as the Sunday church service!

 

These encounters were so amazing because they were so unplanned. These people saw that we were different–from a different place and speaking a different language…but them noticing that then gave us an opportunity to tell them about another way we are different.

And after each encounter, we were able to pray specifically for each person we met and that God would work in their lives. These encounters gave us specific faces of the million people in this city.

So were these just random encounters? You tell me…

CAMP! {What I’m Doing Here}

So now that I’ve been here for 4 weeks, I thought I’d tell you all what I’ve actually been doing here! :)

So far, basically all of my time has been devoted to two camps: first Family Camp, and then Youth Camp.

I’ll tell you a little bit about the schedule because there have got to be some other nerds out there who are interested in the logistical details…and it just gives me a more organized way to explain how the camps work.

Camp Begins!

It all begins on Sunday around lunch time when the campers arrive! One of the first things the campers do upon arriving at Camp Canaan is take an English placement test. I was able to help administer and grade the tests at both camps which really excited the nerdy future-teacher in me! This was also a great way to meet and get to know campers from the start. Campers were tested on vocabulary knowledge, oral skills, writing skills, and grammar skills.

On Monday, we settled into a regular daily schedule…

English Reading Time

After a staff meeting and prayer time, breakfast, and a short all-camp meeting, is the first group activity of the day: English Reading Time. Small groups are made up of two members of the English team, five to eight campers of varying English levels, as well as a translator. This time is spent reading and studying the Bible and is a great way to start of the morning. Each camper received two Bibles: one in English and one in Russian, and for many campers, these were the first Bibles they had ever owned.

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Some of the ladies in my small groups from both camps

English Class

Next is one of my favorite parts of the day: English Class!! For classes, campers are split into groups based on their English levels. During Family Camp, I got to help with an intermediate group, and during Youth Camp, I helped teach an advanced group. English class is a fun time of vocabulary learning and competitive-activity playing! IM has created a great curriculum, vocab lists, and activity files that give us all the tools we need to plan classes.

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My English classes from both camps!

Meals

After English class is lunch time! Meal times were a great time to connect with campers–nothing brings people together like food! :)

In addition, each small group took a turn serving the meal to the rest of the campers/staff which was another great bonding and serving experience.

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Afternoon Free Time

After lunch was free time (2-5pm), but don’t be deceived–this was still a very busy time of the day. For those of us on the English team, some of this time would be spent planning English lessons for the following day and conversation time for the evening. During Family Camp, some of the kids decided to lead Russian lessons at 2:00 (what a blast!); they were prepared with whiteboards and candy prizes for games–just like in the English classes they attended! In addition, at 3:00 almost every day there were various activities such as crafts, a Ladies’ Tea, and on Friday: WATER GAMES! Then at 4:00, various members of the English team gave optional talks or discussions on topics such as first aid, marriage, an overview of the Bible, good vs. evil, etc. Free time was also a great time to connect with campers and meet up one on one to get ice cream or take a walk to the village.

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So many fun activities!

Conversation Time

At 5:00, scheduled events resumed with Conversation Time. We met in the same groups as we did for English Reading Time, and this was an hour to talk about anything. Sometimes we continued conversations from that morning’s Bible lesson, other times we talked about a specific topic or concept (such as love or family), and other times we would listen to a song or talk about a story. This was another great opportunity to get to know our small groups at a deeper level.

Evening Program and Activities

After dinner, we’d all meet in the large hall for the evening activities.

Each night there was a special activity (usually competitive!) that we would participate in in our small groups (Bible study and conversation groups). Some of these activities involved

-South African Variety Games: which involved eating worms–yuck! :)

-A photo scavenger hunt: Each small group was given a list of idioms (such as “thumb a ride,” “stop to smell the roses,” “hands down,” etc.) and had to take a picture that represented each

-Skit night: each group performed a short skit–it could be funny or serious, a Bible story, a classic fable, or something new! At family camp, the ladies in my group wrote a song (in a mix of English and Russian) about their experiences at camp to the tune of a classic Odessan song, and for youth camp, my group wrote a short skit about the challenges an American tourist would face in Odessa. This was one of my favorite nights–so much creativity and laughter!

-Molecule: this challenge was led by us interns, and each team had to create a “molecule” out of candies. In order to get these candies, they had to find us at various places in the camp and practice their English skills!

 

Evening Program– Each evening also included a time of praise & worship as well as a talk and a testimony from a team member. Each talk challenged campers (and offered topics for later discussion), and the testimonies provided an example of the way God works in people’s lives. These meetings built to a climax on Friday when we had “Gospel Night.” For many campers, this was the first time they ever truly heard the Gospel or heard about God’s love for them. It was amazing to see campers challenged by these talks and to see lives changed as the week went on.

After the evening program was free time until lights out! This time involved lots of ice cream and games of Uno, Apples to Apples, and Pit. It also was a great time of conversation. Especially during Youth Camp, I was able to have really deep conversations with various campers; it was so eye-opening to hear about their personal experiences, discuss their questions, and share about how God has worked in my life.

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The evening meeting [Zhenya’s Pic]

Saturday (the last day AT the campground) was a bit different. Instead of the regular evening activity and program, we had a special banquet. We got a little dressed up, ate a special meal, and then had a short program to recognize each English class and to present each camper with a certificate. This night was pretty bittersweet: it was tons of fun, but everyone was also sad that camp was coming to an end.

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Banquet Night

Odessa Days

Though Saturday was the last day at Camp Canaan and the last day of English classes and small group meetings, there were still technically three more days of camp! These last three days were spent in Odessa and about 80% (?) of the campers returned for these fun days!

-Sunday began with the church service at Living Hope Church. Later we had a picnic and some fun time at the beach!
-Monday started off with a tour of downtown Odessa followed by some souvenir shopping time. In the evening, we met back at the church for a pizza and movie party!
-Tuesday began with a tour of the 411 Battery Park. Then we met at the church for a final party: ice cream, a slideshow of camp pictures, and final goodbyes. What an amazing week and a half of camp we had!

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Odessa Tour!

The People That Make All of This Happen

There were so many amazing people I had the opportunity to get to know that made many aspects of the camps possible.

The English Team–

I’ve heard it said by some missionaries that short-termers can sometimes be more of a burden than a help, but with something like English language camps, the camps just won’t work unless you have English speakers! We were so blessed to have two AMAZING teams for both camps! We had volunteers from America, Canada, and South Africa, and it was amazing to see the unity that emerged so quickly as we served together. Also, when we were exhausted after the first camp, a fresh team brought so much new energy and excitement with them. I was so blessed to meet so many wonderful people of all ages.

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Just a few amazing members of our team.

The Translators–

We were also SO blessed to have an AMAZING group of translators for both camps! Wow! These are incredible people who volunteer to spend tons of time and effort making communication between English speakers and Russian speakers possible. They were all wonderful people inside and out–so encouraging to talk to, a blast to have in some of our English classes, and so fun to get to know.

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This is English camp! Such a blast. So impacting. Definitely the highlight of my summer!

A First Time For Everything

There are some things that seem destined to happen to everyone at least once in their life.

Getting stuck in an elevator seems to be one of them.

Tuesday was the day for me to check that experience off of my list.

Everything started off normally. Our group of 6 girls staying in our apartment all piled into the elevator, prepared to take the ride up many floors. Once the last person squeezed in, the doors closed, and someone pressed the button for our floor.

After a couple seconds, I realized we weren’t moving. Someone went to the push the button for our floor again, only to see the lights behind the buttons had gone out. And the alarm button was out as well. We were stuck. Six girls. One tiny elevator. We were trapped.

At first the situation was kind of funny. Were we really stuck in a tiny elevator with six people? It was amusing–something that happens to everyone eventually.

But soon we became a little more concerned. How were we supposed to get out of here? It was so hot, and there wasn’t really a lot of air. We tried to pry the doors open, but we could only get them open a crack before they sprung back shut.

Soon people were pulling out their cellphones. But how could we call the number written in sharpie inside the elevator when none of us could speak Russian? And to make matters worse, we soon realized there was no cell phone service inside of the elevator.

After waving a phone around in the air for a couple minutes, we were able to get reception just long enough to call Arkadiy and give him the numbers written inside the elevator.

Then the waiting game began.

We waited. And waited. The air became thinner and it started getting really hot. Eventually I realized that I wasn’t in America anymore. There was no easy escape–no button to push to send someone running to get us out immediately. We couldn’t even communicate with the other people who walked by because they spoke Russian and we spoke English. We were stuck in this tiny elevator. We would be stuck there until someone got there to help us, and who knew how long that would take.

When claustrophobia started to kick in, we knew we needed some air, so we pried the doors open a crack and shoved a water bottle between them so we could get a little air flow and just be able to see something outside of the tiny enclosed space.

We spent our time in the elevator praying, singing (which lasted about 5 seconds), praying, talking, praying…and toward the end of our hour, we decided to take some pictures and videos to document this crazy experience!

Eventually, a serviceman came, and the doors burst open. We tumbled out of the elevator, drinking in the fresh, cool (by comparison at least) air. We started running up the stairs, vowing never to take the elevator again (though flight after flight after flight after flight of stairs soon weakened that resolve).

This was a crazy, stressful experience, but also a bonding one for us. Nothing helps you learn more about people or grow closer to them than being trapped in a stressful situation together (in this case–literally!).

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Memories in the making!