Monday, August 15, 2016

10 Things American Students Should Know Before Studying Abroad in the UK

This past Thursday, I had the opportunity to meet with incoming University of Edinburgh students from the Boston area. It was 95 degrees and humidity was at an all-time high but I can tell you I was probably sweating just as much from the heat as I was from the innumerable questions that I received from students and parents alike.

Let's be real, though: I love blathering on about my school and the fantastic city I have the privilege of living in. I mean, isn't that like half of what this blog is all about? So of course I had tons of fun chatting to incoming freshers and study abroad third-years alike, answering their most frequently asked questions about the University of Edinburgh and all it has to offer. It was actually so refreshing to not only meet so many study-abroad students coming to Edinburgh this year, but also some full-timers who were about to embark on the crazy journey I took two years ago- if I'm being honest, it made me feel all mushy and nostalgic.

While I often think that my unsolicited advice and lengthy stories about my experiences being an American abroad are a bit unnecessary to my family and friends, I now realize that this is the perfect time to put my guidance to good use.

Why now exactly, you ask? Well because it's the year of study abroad for all of the lovely people I graduated with! And because of this, I suddenly find myself to be the go-to person to ask about study abroad programs whether at Edinburgh or elsewhere in the UK. So I thought that in today's post I would round up some of the most important things Americans in particular should know before jetting off across the pond- whether for study abroad or the full four years!

Trust me: I've been there, done that.


First things first, get your Visa sorted // It may sound confusing and annoying, but you have to sort out your visa before you can even think about frolicking in the English countryside and paying Big Ben a visit. This is something that should be done a few months in advance, but if you find yourself a bit behind, you can always rush these sorts of things. You'll just have to be willing to pay for it.

Pack less warm weather clothes than you think you need // You will straight up not be wearing shorts at any point in the UK- whether it's September, December, or June, the weather never really warms up enough to justify shorts. The Brits themselves can often be spotted sporting shorts and sunnies when it's a balmy 60 degrees Fahrenheit outside, or what the Scots like to call "taps aff" (tops off) weather. But their version of "summer" is not the same as ours. Stop being so optimistic about your cute instagram photos and just bring enough sweaters, jackets, and tights (girls don't forget tights!) to survive. You can thank me later.


One of those rare moments when I could go bare-legged in Edinburgh.

Find out the best way to bank for you and your family // This might mean setting up another bank account. It might seem like an extra hassle, but you'll save yourself a lot of money in foreign exchange fees in the end. Especially if you're going to be in the UK for longer than just a few months, you should definitely consider getting a credit card that your parents monitor. This should be for emergencies only or for the kinds of things your parents would normally pay for but can't because they're so far away.

Orientation week has nothing on freshers week // Okay so I've never actually been to an American college orientation week but from what I've hear from my brothers and friends it's basically just a series of meetings and lame team-building activities. Freshers week though? It's all kinds of intense in the best way. From coffee crawls to city ghost tours to endless (and I mean endless) club nights, you'll never get bored. So get out there, meet people, and have fun! P.S. Freshers weeks is open to first years as well as study abroad third years!   

Understand the British grading system before you get stuck into your lectures // I noticed that this was more of an issue than I thought it would be when I started explaining the foreign grading system to a group of wide-eyed parents and students the other day. As far as I know, most universities in the UK go by this scale: 70% or more gets you an A, 60-69% is a B, 50-59% is a C and so on and so forth. However, this does not by any means indicate that UK universities are easier than US universities. I've actually found my classes to be quite difficult. So get used to earning 68% on an exam and being dang proud of it. Speaking of grades and academics...

Be prepared to be independent // In most classes (or at least pretty much every single one I've taken thus far), you will be told your exam date as well as the date of one longer essay assignment (or maybe two if you're lucky). From there, you essentially have to attend lectures and tutorials in preparation for your essay and exam (which will likely each count for 50% of your mark). No one will be mapping out how to study or how to write essays for you. You're on your own there, kid. But take the learning curve in stride and embrace the independence- I promise you'll be better for it.

Don't expect a dining hall // I was lucky enough to have a dining hall in my first year of uni, but that was fairly rare for a British university as far as I know. Self-catering is the norm here, even if you are in university accommodation. So be prepared to cook for yourself right off the bat- which is made even tougher by the grocery stores generally not being as big or expansive as American ones (you'll be missing Whole Foods and Trader Joes). Brush up on your cooking skills with a few of my favorite student-friendly recipes in this post.

Change your phone number right away // Get a new SIM card for cryin' out loud. Even if you're only in the UK for a few months, you're not going to want to rely solely on wifi. You and I both know that you're gonna want to snapchat every moment, text all your home friends (and your parents), and Instagram at will. I'm currently with GiffGaff (after having a bad experience with Lebara which was advertised on campus) and am very happy with how it's turned out.


Get used to short days and long nights // And no, not the normal 4:30/5:00 sunsets we're used to in the wintertime that give us a mild case of the winter blues. I'm talking about 3:00 sunsets where you're walking to your first class of the day and it's already dark. Quite frankly, if you spend all day indoors, you'll likely not see any sunlight. So to beat the cabin-fever and get your daily dose of vitamin D, it's especially important to spend some quality time outside when you're living in the UK. On the flipside, though, the sun doesn't set until 10 PM in the summer. Talk about #summergoals.


The winters are brutal, but the summer sunsets are more than worth it.

You won't come back with an accent, but you might pick up a few new words // You can fake it when you head back to the states, but a British accent (and there are hundreds of them for that matter) doesn't come easy. Even after two years, my American accent is still going strong. Heck, I can't even do a standard Scottish accent when I try! Still, after a bit of time across the pond, you might find yourself saying a few things a bit differently. It's only natural, but just try not to annoy your American friends with the new slang too much ;)

Speaking of friends, the last thing I will say about American students studying abroad in the UK (or anywhere) for any length of time is that you should really try your best to make friends with British students! Don't just limit yourself to other Americans (as lovely as we all are), but the whole point of going to another country to study is to immerse yourself in that culture- and what better way to do so than through a British bestie?

So I hope you found this post helpful- please feel free to share with anyone you know who is planning on studying abroad in the UK! And if you are an American studying abroad in the UK let me know if there's anything absolutely crucial I missed!

Good luck to all you American freshers!  

Monday, August 8, 2016

5 Tips for Hosting A Stress-Free Summer Party

If the saying "the way to a man's (or in this case, anyone's) heart is through his stomach" holds any truth, well then my friends must really love me. Because whenever there comes a time when all of my old high school friends are around, I'm always working up some excuse to get us together. Ideally, such an occasion would require eating and drinking- and lots of it.  

While a fancy garden party that's as "pinnable" as something Lauren Conrad would come up with is truly the dream, it's really not worth stressing yourself out over the little things when it comes to entertaining. This is exactly the mindset I adopted when planning my own backyard brunch this past Sunday. 

Now, I'm not a "chill" person by any stretch of the imagination- but my entertaining style is such that I like to avoid as much unnecessary stress as possible. Isn't hosting all about having fun? And basking in the glory of knowing you're a domestic goddess? Right. That's what it's all about.

So today I'm going to share my top five tips for hosting a stress-free summer party (or really, any party but it's summer so gotta stick with a theme here).  



Keep it simple // Too much ambition can be a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with having a simple, yet elegant, party for a few close friends with a small menu, and basic decorations. Honestly, people waste way too much time on making everything look good, when no one will really notice. You know how Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa aka the embodiment of entertainment #goals) always finishes off her parties with a flourish, rhetorically asking the camera "How easy is that?" when it really takes 94 steps to bake one of her cakes? Well, I'm about to tell you one of her best entertaining secrets. And it actually doesn't have to do with food. Here it is: stick to one color. In my case, I stuck to all white flowers, with a few pops of red from two chairs and a watering can.


Use what you have // Speaking of that watering can, this connects to my next tip which is to use whatever you have on hand to decorate. I did not buy a red watering can for my brunch party, it was just something we had in the house. Think creatively to get the aesthetic you're looking for. In terms of flowers, these five arrangements together cost a grand total of $6 to make- that would be the $6 to get those white roses on sale from Whole Foods. The more blousy white flowers were actually found growing on a nearby street (on public land y'all I wasn't stealing), and the green in the middle is mint from my dad's garden. Another great Ina tip is to use fresh mint in your flower arrangements as it makes everything smell heavenly. To top it all off, the flowers were put in mismatched jars with some ribbon/twine we had lying around tied around the top (#rustic).    

Prep in advance // Whether it's food or flowers, you'll probably find something you can prep in advance. Baked goods that don't have to be served hot can be made ahead of time. Cold salads can be chopped and done, with dressing set aside, hours in advance. Flower arrangements can be made and sitting in water the day before. Do all of this and you may actually have more than 15 minutes to get yourself changed and ready to go before your guests arrive.


Let guests serve themselves // Do you really want to be a waiter at your own party? Inevitably, you'll have to be shuffling around with plates and cups on the reg, but let's try to keep it to a minimum. Have pitchers of different drinks (don't forget the water!) out on one table, with cups, straws, and ice. Place all of the different food items on the biggest table and welcome the guests to help themselves- family style (I'm not really a fan of buffets). I promise, your guests won't be offended that they're not being served by Downton Abbey's Mr. Carson. Plus, family style is a great way to see just how dysfunctional your friends can be.



Tried and true is better than fresh and new // I don't know whether this is an actual saying because I just made it up in my head and I'm very proud of it, but it is now my new mantra when it comes to entertaining. This doesn't mean that all your dishes have to be ancient family recipes that haven't changed since the 16th century. However, you're really shooting yourself in the foot if you try out a brand spankin' new recipe an hour before your guests arrive. Even if you're planning to try out some trendy dish you saw on one of those 30-second long BuzzFeed Food videos, at least attempt to make it a few days before the party so you can work out the kinks (I promise it will take longer than 30 seconds- those videos are deceptive like that).


Now that you know some general tips on how to host your own summer party, I thought you might be curious as to the specific dishes I made for my brunch (okay, maybe you aren't curious but I'd like to think some people are nosy). This was my menu:


Happy partying! 

Monday, August 1, 2016

My Half Marathon Training Plan

I've officially signed myself up for my first half marathon. Yup- my first ever. Running long distances comes naturally to me (my best races are most often longer ones), so it's no surprise that I would eventually bite the bullet and join the 13.1 club. 

I think the most intimidating part about signing up for a race is not the race itself, but planning and training for the big day. A lot of people will simply run on the days when they "feel like it" or even just gut it out on the day of the race. And while there's nothing wrong with having faith in that race-day adrenaline to get your through the pain, I'm definitely not the "winging it" kind of girl. Plus, 13.1 miles is a pretty serious distance, whether or not you're a seasoned runner. 

Over the past month or so, I've been absolutely living by my planner when it comes to running. While most summers I'll usually just run 4 or 5 miles per day to keep in shape (and keep off the excessive amounts of Goldfish I eat at camp), I've become a lot more serious about my training. And so I thought that today I'd share with you my general plan and how it's been going so far. 



My Goals

Let me first start off by saying that losing weight or even getting more toned is not one of my goals throughout training. It's a welcome bonus if it just so happens that my body physically changes, but to be honest, that hasn't happened much yet. Lately, I've been trying to measure my physical strength much more than my physical appearance. And let's be real- being able to run 7 miles on an average day is far more impressive than being 5 pounds lighter! #strongisthenewskinny 

That being said, my goals are actually quite simple: to be able to finish the half marathon, and to do so at 8 minutes per mile or faster. I'm not quite sure whether this goal is too ambitious or too conservative, because I've never raced such a far distance. But I feel like having straightforward, yet specific, goals should help to keep my eye on the prize while training. 

My Plan 

What's a goal without a plan? It's easy to say "I want to do x, y, or z," but it's far more difficult to say how you plan to go about doing it. That's where the internet comes in. Upon typing in a quick Google search, I realized there were literally thousands upon thousands of pages of half-marathon training plans to choose from. I found that most of them were for either beginners who had no previous running experience, or for elite athletes who I'd have no chance of even running next to. So I narrowed it down to "intermediate/moderate half marathon training plans" and settled on this one from coolrunning.com


This plan has me training for 12 weeks but since I'm such a keener I'm actually training for the race about 16 weeks in advance. So for the first four weeks of my training (which started in late June) I kept it chill with alternating 4 and 5 mile runs until I was ready to kick it into gear by week 4. One speed workout per week is proving to be plenty, as I hadn't been doing much speed-work before (I'll take a ridiculously long run over a short and fast speed workout any day). 

What I love about this training plan most of all is that it has one rest day per week, whereas a lot of the ones I found online had two. It might sound crazy, but two days of rest is just too much for me (I'd rather have one day of rest + one light run day). 

As a notorious Type-A planner, having this written out online was definitely not my jam. For me, everything needs to be written down on paper, or else it isn't going to fly. Period. So I made use of my ban.do agenda's monthly spread to write out my mileage. It's such a great visual to have it in a monthly format, and it's so satisfying to cross out each day as I go. Also, I wrote everything out in pencil in case I have any last minute changes. I try to stick to the plan as much as possible, but sometimes life can just get in the way of those 15 mile long runs y'know? 



My Progress 

Prior to starting this training program, I had not run more than 9 miles in one day- granted, that one time I did run 9 miles was by complete accident when my friend and I got lost #classic. This past Sunday, I ran 11 miles pretty much nonstop and it was so rewarding! I mean other than the fact that my legs were throbbing by the time I climbed into bed, I really felt accomplished and proud. I find that longer runs are often easier than the shorter ones because I end up switching into an autopilot mode of sorts once I'm out on the road. An hour and a half can really fly by on a run! (I'm dead serious, y'all. Or maybe I'm just crazy)

Not only am I improving my endurance and strength, but I feel like I'm finally mentally at peace with running. I've said it before, but while running in high school was incredible for me socially, and really gave me a good foundation for the sport, I've never felt this genuinely happy as a runner. I now challenge myself on my own terms, instead of stressing over what my coach and teammates will think. I look forward to running- and even to racing- much more than I ever did before. I'm not trying to go all exercise-guru on you all, but I can't tell you how special it feels to be taking pleasure in something that I once had a love-hate relationship with. 

That's not to say that I don't have those "urgh, I don't feel like running" days every once in a while. But I can tell you that the enjoyable days greatly outnumber the more difficult ones. And that's certainly not how I felt a few years ago. 

Training for this half-marathon has truly strengthened and solidified my love for running. I honestly didn't expect it to, but it has. Sometimes all it takes is a good plan and bit of motivation to discover your passion for something again :) 

Monday, July 25, 2016

In Defense of Being A Tourist (Not a #Traveler)

"There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign."
- Robert Louis Stevenson


I may be in the minority here, but I think the word "tourist" gets a bad reputation. In fact, I find the word "traveler" to be a bit condescending, cliched, and rife with privilege. Bear with me here for a few minutes, and I'll tell you why.

I've noticed a trend among bloggers, instagramers, and regular ol' millennials alike- we are so afraid of calling ourselves tourists. Instead, we are "travelers" who go off the beaten trail, interacting with locals, supposedly under the radar, until we head back home to inundate our friends newsfeeds with tales from our gap years and semesters abroad. 

Now the problem here is maybe just the language we use. "Tourist" has a negative connotation, implying a lack of education, culture, or originality. Tourists are the sweaty, luggage-toting, Americans who touch down in a foreign land for a short period of time to only stake out the most overcrowded sites and restaurants. 

"Traveler," as this generation sees it, is a word that implies a certain grade of sophistication. A traveler is someone who seeks out the "best" experiences, the most "unique" flavors, and the most pleasing aesthetic. But they are also the people who refuse to go on walking tours or wear sneakers out of fear of "looking like a tourist."  

But perhaps this search is truly vapid. This mindset focuses far too much on being different, that people are so caught up in themselves to even experience the world around them. In a word, this "traveler" mindset is selfish. 

Essentially, what these "travelers" fear the most is that they'll stick out as a foreigner. But the truth is, travelers are foreign, and that fact is inextricable. We need to accept that we are foreign, as Robert Louis Stevenson says, in order to fully appreciate the unfamiliar territory that we have stepped foot in. 

While travelers may tend to stray away from the most popular sites in the worlds most famous cities (the Colosseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris), there is a reason these sites are so popular. And that is simply because they are important. And by avoiding these monuments altogether because of the "touristy" nature of them, you are missing out on a crucial piece of that culture's history.

In the end, the reason why traveling is so important is not because of what it does for ourselves (and our instagram feeds), but rather what it does for the local economy. And I think this is what we tend to forget when we visit other countries.

Travel can (and should) be a humbling experience- one where you realize how vast the world really is, and what a tiny part we make up of it. When traveling, know that you don't know- you can't possibly be an expert on a country you've never been to. And, most importantly, always travel with respect to the place in which you are a guest.

So travel like a tourist- take in the famous sites, use your guidebook and map, and be ready and willing to learn about another culture. And don't be afraid of being a tourist either. Because whether you're backpacking across South East Asia or riding a gondola in Venice, you inevitably are one!  

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