Things which make Final Year more bearable

It has been far too long. However, I began this blog as a means of recording my year abroad, and the experiences I had or observations I made in California. Since coming back to England, it has been very difficult to adjust my understanding of this blog to a new context, what I have come to call “The Post-Year Abroad Hangover”. Returning after such a phenomenal experience was always going to be hard. There are so many people and things that I miss in the Golden State. This is only compounded by how challenging the Final Year  of university is.

However, rather than get bogged down in these sobering thoughts, I decided it would be more positive and healthy to look at some of the things which, for me at least, are making Final Year just that little bit more bearable.

Hopefully, if there are any other finalists out there feeling a little blue, who happen to read this, it might make them feel a little bit more positive too.

Here are the things which, for me, make Final Year that much more bearable:

A Huge Wall Planner

DSC_0907

This faces me as I sit at my desk in my room. It’s big, it’s right in my face, and it’s almost impossible to ignore. Which is perfect. It really helps me to visualise the coming weeks, know what lies ahead, and prepare accordingly. I would recommend buying one of these to any university student, not just final years. You can get really cheap ones from Amazon or other online stores. I paid a little bit more, but the planner was larger, which is what I was looking for.

Photos, lots of photos (and a flag…)

DSC_0908

I have surrounded said wall planner with photos or postcards of my family, friends, and places I have visited. When I’m buried in some horrendously dense (or scientific, which is perhaps even more vile for a history student) political theory or petty historiographical disagreement, it’s lovely to be able to look up from it all, see these images, and smile. Never fails to lighten my mood. (Note how the Beverly Hills postcard is upside down- could not be a more fitting summary of my time spent there!)

DSC_0913 I have a picture of Ashley right by my side too, who also never fails to make me smile. But enough of the soppyness. On a less mushy note, I also have a customised mousemat with a picture of my cat on it as well. Anya is far too plump to ever catch a real mouse, unless it’s nearly dead anyway. So I would like to think this is a small consolation for her, in her woefully inadequate huntress skills. DSC_0915Before I left California, I got all my wonderful friends to sign a state flag, which now hangs on my wall (shhh, don’t tell my Resident Tutor or Warwick Accommodation…) Credit for this idea goes to Ashley, who did the same thing after her year in Brasil. Hers is much more packed than mine! It’s not a photo, but the messages are special to me. Things like this are great for lightening the burden of the Final Year, especially after a year abroad.

Communication Apps

Seriously, having a smart phone really is a wonderful blessing. Useful apps allow me to communicate with my girlfriend, my friends scattered across the globe, and those who aren’t, in dynamic ways. Here is my list of must-download communication apps:

  • Whatsapp: text internationally send voice recordings and pictures for free (at least for the first year of use anyway).
  • Viber: similar to the above, but it actually lets you make calls too, as long as you have internet.
  • Google Hangouts: again, a messaging platform that allows you to send photos for free, engage in group conversations, and to make video calls.
  • Snapchat: fun and entertaining means of sending pictures, which can be as silly or sublime as you choose to make them. The possibilities are vast.
  • Skype: does it really need a description? A lifesaver in terms of free communication, whether that be national or international.

Healthy Eating + Regular Exercise = Happy Finalist

I know everyone bangs on about how beneficial a good diet and regular exercise is. But in your final year, you NEED a means of de-stressing and you MUST stay healthy. Still, I know that exercise isn’t for everyone, and in some cases, it can actually stress people out rather than alleviate it. But if this is the case, perhaps you haven’t found the right type of exercise for you? Try a new sport, take a zumba class, get off the bus two stops early, whatever it is. Having some form of exercise in your life really helps. It can provide a welcome break between study sessions, it helps you sleep, and benefits your long term health.

Same goes for a healthy diet. Why not break up the afternoon of studying with a cereal bar and a glass of water? This will stave off hunger until dinner, and allow you to stay in the library that little bit longer. Or maybe a mug of green tea and a banana? Energising, anti-oxidising, and cancer fighting, all in one snack!

On the subject of healthy eating…

Cous-Cous

Bear with me on this one. Students seem to default to pizza, Pot Noodles, or pasta as a quick and easy meal. Which they are, I’m not denying this. However, cous-cous is very quick to make, much healthier, and very tasty as well. Boil the kettle, crumble half a stock cube into a bowl of cous-cous. Add the boiling water. Bang, the carb section of your meal is sorted. And no naughty potatoes or pasta in sight. No saucepans to wash up either. Which is always a bonus. Combine it with a simple vegetable mix with a tin of tomatoes; houmous; or perhaps a tin of tuna and some sweet chilli sauce: voila, you have a very satisfying meal! Or, put it in a tupperware and hey presto: you have a healthy lunch without boring sandwiches as well.

Source: BBC Good Food

Cooking CAN be a chore. But with simple, fast, tasty components like cous-cous, meal preparation doesn’t have to be another dreaded task.

Living on Campus

I know this isn’t for everyone. Returning to campus and reliving first year couldn’t be more off-putting for some. But for me, this was an excellent option. I was relieved to have the opportunity to organise campus accommodation during my year abroad. It meant I didn’t have to coordinate renting a property from thousands of miles away, potentially without ever even visiting it. Plus it means I don’t have to get the bus to campus everyday. I can roll out of bed and be at the gym, the library, or any given lecture or seminar within a ten minute walk. If a book I REALLY need becomes available at a strange hour, I can get to the library and secure it much sooner, and with less hassle, than if I lived a 20-30 minute bus ride away.

During final year you have a lot to prioritise and many tasks to be juggling. For me, proximity to campus has made achieving all of this much easier, and for that reason I am very glad I chose to live on campus for my final year.

CARPE DIEM

Don’t forget, your final year of university has huge potential to be, wait for it, ENJOYABLE. University offers a wealth of activities, societies, events and social potential. Take a trip hiking the Three Peaks. Go to a beer festival. Play 5-a-side football. Not only are these opportunities prolific, they can actually be pretty cheap. Societies subsidise trips, universities host events for free, you have a rail card for one more year (at least)! As long as you keep a good balance between work and play, and don’t lose sight of your degree- the potential to “go out with a bang” are fantastic!

There IS Light at the End of the Tunnel

The Future is scary. Job prospects are bleak, CV writing is a mysterious art, and the KFC Graduate Scheme might not offer you the comfort you’re seeking. This is unavoidably true.

However, The Future is also exciting. When I feel crushed by the weight of the impending real world, or existentially pessimistic at the thought of a career, I remind myself that things don’t need to be as bleak as I’m making them out to be.

It’s a new phase of your life. You get to take charge of the future in new ways. People do get jobs after university, and keeping in touch with my friends who have already graduated serves as an excellent reminder of this fact. Whether you go on to post-graduate studies, a flurry of internshhips, travel, a job, or whatever: you’ve completed and achieved something. And that’s worth remembering.

Still, if you don’t want to be as abstract and wishy-washy as that, then be more grounded. Think: come June 2014, you might have sat your LAST EVER EXAM. Think: as you hand in your dissertation, you may NEVER HAVE TO WRITE AN ESSAY AGAIN. You might never need to footnote again! And if they aren’t somewhat exciting prospects, I don’t know what are.

So overall, I just want to say: don’t let Final Year get you down. It is tough. There is a lot to do. But if it’s getting to you, pause. Take a breath. Try and see things differently. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but I genuinely believe there are lots of things that can make your Final Year more bearable. Who knows. You could even say enjoyable.

Recipes for a Fulfilling Summer

It’s been a while since my last blog post. As I have now begun the latter half of my last quarter at UCSB, I feel it’s time to get off my butt and do something about this heinous crime of neglect. I’ll admit, I have been having an absolutely terrific time at UCSB, and I have numerous mixed feelings about approaching the end of it.

I’m not sure I’m ready to write extensively on all of them (or any of them for that matter…). When I come to terms with it, I’ll be sure to relate them as well as I can. I think any of my readers who are from my home university, and are about to go on the year abroad as well; or are looking into education abroad in general from wherever, the end of your time abroad is an unavoidable prospect. An unpleasant, unavoidable prospect.

By no means should it hang over your head from the get-go, of course. Seizing the opportunities that arise, and creating opportunities for yourself, are far more important. This should not be forgotten when you embark upon a year abroad.

Instead, for the moment, I’d rather talk about how people generally understand that huge block of potential we call the Summer Holidays, back home in the UK. This is because it is something I am also contemplating at this time of the quarter. I don’t know how you all feel, but planning for Summer is a pain. There is always so much you could do, yet those holidays have a habit of just slipping right by you. It’s depressing, but I always feel I could make more of Summer.

Acknowledging that makes me want to rectify this situation for 2013. Therefore, here are two polar opposite ways of approaching the Summer holidays, in recipe form. There are many other recipes out there, and who knows, I may write others if these are successful. Both have their distinctive merits. However, it may well be the case that a fusion of the two would be highly satisfactory too. Bon appetit!

The Solidly Sensible Summer

Ingredients:

  • A hunk of work experience and/or an internship
  • Lashings of reliable income
  • Stacks of savings
  • A couple of CV-enriching strings to your bows

Preparation:

  • Begin seeking employment or other beneficial work experience early, and leave applications to mature very early on, well-ahead of Summer.

Directions:

  • Upon successfully garnering a relevant internship and/or employment, engage with said task enthusiastically and confidently, culminating in a rich, useful experience.
  • If possible, draw income from the sumptuous experience, and place said finances into a secure place, a bank perhaps.
  • Deftly draw the most beneficial of these experiences from the overall whole, and construct into CV-enriching points, ready to add to your future job applications at a later date.
  • Meanwhile, maintain the deposited funds as much as possible during the Summer. Ageing these will be of use to you in the future, when petrol costs keeps rising and you realise numerous other expenditures loom on the horizon: such as books for that final year of university, or your Xbox Live membership which needs renewing in September. Preparedness is next to awesomeness, don’t forget.

Cooking time:

Several hours per day. Generally, work experience and internships will weigh in heavily against your free time. For all of those early Friday mornings at the office, there’s a Student Night at Lola Lo’s on Thursday that may have to be foregone.

Entire cooking process may well take up the entire Summer.

Temperature:

Socially-speaking- Very low to Low at most times. However, bursts of high heat will be required to maintain your sanity, potentially.

Notes:

The dedication and commitment required for this Summer recipe are not inconsiderable. Please do not undertake lightly. However, the end product is a highly rewarding dish, and should not be dismissed lightly.

Credit: http://www.commercekitchen.com/

The Socially Sizzling Summer

Ingredients:

  • Dozens of social events
  • A pile of petrol receipts
  • Numerous nights of debauchery
  • A couple of festivals
  • A large amount of sand
  • A generous overdraft
  • Several television series to catch up on (NB: Brand or type is unimportant here, but this recipe would highly recommend Breaking Bad, The Wire, Homeland, or The Walking dead).
  • A handful of lazy days, filled with very little at all.

Preparation:

  • Before finishing your last term at university, ensure you have all the necessary people lined up to contact, as soon as that last exam finishes.
  • It may well be the case that this recipe will require a steady in-flow of cash to fund it. Select either enriched pre-existing savings, or a secure a summer job, to help fund your activities. When selecting the job, ideally it shall be flexible, well-paid, enjoyable, varied and require relatively few hours of work on weekends. IE no job that existed for a young student ever.

Directions:

  • This recipe can largely be improvised, and quantities of the ingredients are usually dependent on the personal preferences of the Chef. Personal discretion is recommended here. This recipe tends to require minimal direction, and can quite often snowball delightfully of it’s own accord. 
  • During the cooking process maintain an open mind and schedule. Unexpected developments or social opportunities may arise at any given time.

Cooking Time:

Between 2-5 days per week, depending on the number of servings required. Depending on the size of said dishes, individual cooking times may vary. Here is a list of suggested cooking times for individual dishes:

  1. “A quiet one down the pub”: 2-4 hours, depending on how long you have to wait for that-one-friend to buy the rounds, who reliably never does.
  2. “Beach trip”: 4-7 hours, depending on several variables such as:
    - Temperature
    - Presence of rain (always a factor in any recipe for Summer in Britain)
    - Sunbathing tolerance
    - Supply of beers
    - Did you remember the frisbee?
  3. “Mildly-Disastrous Camping Trip to Washed-Out British Seaside Town”: 3 days to a week.

Notes:

Do not neglect the Socially Sizzling Summer for too long at any one time. The Sizzle may well just… fizzle out. Input is required, and often you may need to seek outside input. Sous chefs and other friends should be wielded effectively to propagate a fertile environment for social events to proliferate.

While an enjoyable dish, the Socially Sizzling Summer may well be devoured very quickly. Moreover, negative repercussions of this dish have been know to include the following:

  • Significant debt
  • Hangovers
  • Sunburn
  • Lost possessions at festivals
  • Parental frustration
  • Loss of brain cells
  • Did I mention debt?

However, please bear in mind that this dish may well bear some delicious fruits as well, including:

  • Unforgettable experiences
  • Touching the hand of that singer as they jump down into the crowd in front of the main stage
  • Brilliantly perceptive and insightful conversations in takeaways at 4 am, which you may or may not be able to recapture
  • Rekindling your love for Pinkman
  • Enjoying a cold pint on a summer’s evening, next to the BBQ 

Credit: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8155/7215313684_8608af2fc3_z.jpg

Why I Loathe Beach Cruisers

So this is basically an interim post, which I wanted to get done while I’m still working on a longer post on my recent road trip to Yosemite. This post is solely dedicated to how infuriating UCSB’s most prominent form of travel, The Beach Cruiser, can be.

Grrrrrr…….

Source: http://dea-training.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/pink_lani_cruiser_pink_beach_cruiser_bicycle_1__89433.jpg

Here are my reasons:

  1. They’re obscenely big. 
    When parked in a bike rack, Beach Cruisers take up roughly 2 spaces: the space they park in, and half a space either side of them, due to their ridiculous handlebars. Inefficient use of space sucks, especially when people start flocking to the library during Finals Season, and there are spaces… you just run the risk of trapping yourself in a Beach Cruiser-cage when locking your bike up.
  2. You’re taking up all the road, man….
    Ok, so the riders are partly to blame for this as well, but linked to the above, if you’re unlucky enough to be caught behind some Beach Cruiser…. well…. cruising…. in the middle of the bike path, good luck with over/undertaking them my friend. You can hold up entire lengths of the bike path with one well-placed Beach Cruiser.
  3. They’re stupidly heavy.
    With one gear, large handlebars and frames, these leviathans move slower than this thing from Star Wars:

    Seriously, Beach Cruisers are SO SLOW. It takes about five minutes to get the buggers moving, and very soon you reach top speed- IE , just faster than a relaxed walking pace. Their ability to traverse gentle hills is almost non-existent. Essentially, they’re just an incredible waste of energy: the physical effort to resulting speed and mobility ratio is pathetic. Get a road bike, and eat the road before you, in comparison. You’ll never see cycling the same way again, promise.

  4. Chatty Cathys…
    Ok, so this one is definitely on the riders, but so many Beach Cruiser owners seem quite content to dawdle along the path, mobile phone stuck to the sides of their faces, snaking all over the path, and basically exacerbating/causing Number 2. This isn’t a problem until their reduced concentration, one-handed control of the handlebars or abysmal braking reaction speed causes numerous near misses at roundabouts/bottlenecks around campus. Save it till you get to your destination guys, show a bit of consideration- surely it can wait a few more minutes?!
  5. Overloaded baskets
    I guess one of the practical aspects of Beach Cruisers is the ability to attach baskets to them. Sure, being able to sling your bag or books into this basket is great. But when people start piling it high with backpacks, laptop cases, handbags and a Starbucks balanced precariously on top, things have gotten a tad ridiculous…. And when items begin to slip out mid-journey, and the riders make emergency stops, and lurch down to grab their escape-artist possessions, they wonder why the people riding behind them get miffed.

So, for these reasons, I absolutely loathe Beach Cruisers. Yes, their large seats are super comfortable. Yes, they look kind of cool. Yes, I think several people enjoy feeling like a boss as they cruise up and down sun-drenched Isla Vista streets, heading down to Sands Beach, or to Woodstocks for a pitcher of cold beer. But seriously, students of UCSB, please tell me- how many of you genuinely enjoy travelling on these things? Struggling to find parking spots among all the normal-sized bicycles? Arriving in class 5 minutes late, sweaty and red in the face, because your tank-esque bike is not friends with the hill near Student Health?

I’d wager quite a few.

Weather-Based Achilles’ Heels

I realise that a weather-based post is perhaps the most stereotypically clichéd blog post a Brit could possibly write on a year abroad, but I just couldn’t resist this.

All British citizens know that we are terrible at dealing with snow. The London Underground shudders to a halt, buses spontaneously conk out, the trains refuse to poke their heads out of the station, schools close due to broken heating systems, and you could probably start steering to the left about a mile before a curve and still make the turn, only you’d be taking it backwards. I think it was a few years ago that Suffolk ran out of grit for the roads because they hadn’t stockpiled enough to last the winter- proving that our local governments even struggle to successfully guide us through snowy conditions!

Of course, that is not to say that there aren’t many people throughout Britain who are well-prepared for snowy weather conditions, perhaps in places where that type of weather is more common (Scotland, mountainous regions of England, and hilly districts in Wales). However, I would be fairly confident in saying those people are in the minority percentage-wise in the UK.

This has been reinforced to me throughout the past week as I have been receiving emails from my family, seeing statuses posted by my friends on Facebook, and catching the occasional weather report on the BBC website; reminding me of how cold, snowy and wintry it can get back home. It’s somewhat hard too picture with the last few days of weather in Santa Barbara, because as of this morning/yesterday, the weather was suitable for sun-bathing, and I even got burned over the weekend! That was a strange experience, given my usual expectations of January!! Still, hearing about heavy snowfall back home did make me miss snowball fights and all the other fun stuff that comes with snow.

However, what makes matters worse is that we Brits see how well other countries like Germany, Poland, Sweden, Norway and Americans deal with snow. Chained tires, huge great vehicles which clear the roads, central heating systems which won’t freeze, etc. It’s not fun to be flailing around like a turtle on it’s shell while the rest of Europe (who regularly deal with snowy conditions) chuckles into their fur-lined gloves at how useless we are with snow.

snow meme 2Point proven.

Source: http://www.memecenter.com/fun/1068667/rmx-heavy-snow

Nevertheless. my time in California so far has demonstrated that we are not the only ones who are particularly rubbish at dealing with a weather event. Mid-to-southern Californians appear to SUCK at dealing with the rain. I cannot speak for northern Californians, and apparently the weather changes noticeably as you get closer to San Francisco and above. Therefore I would expect the ability to improve the further north you travel up the Highway 101. However, based on my own experiences in and around Santa Barbara, which perhaps says more about the student population more than anything, but I have noticed it among other people too, is that the rain is their Achilles’ Heel.

People seem reluctant to go out of their homes when it is raining persistently. I have overheard numerous students genuinely contemplating not going to class because it is raining. We’re talking about a bike ride onto campus of under five minutes here, and STILL people seriously consider that tremendous distance if it is drizzling harder than a fine mist.

Moreover, the roads seem to flood very easily around here, and the surface water that collects lingers for a long time. I don’t know if that is to do with their design, the road maintenance or another factor, but aquaplaning and the implications for cyclists must be quite serious here.

Before I’m accused of trying to deflect German/Norwegian/Swedish attention away from Britain by saying “You think we suck, you should see those Californians flail around in the rain!”, that is not what I’m trying to say at all. In fact, my girlfriend is dubious about these comparative blog posts full stop. She spent a year abroad in Brazil, and also wrote a blog while she was over there. Her argument is that you should treat your time abroad as a separate experience, and enjoy it of its own merit. Which I concur with, to an extent, she definitely has a point. Years abroad are so memorable and enjoyable BECAUSE they can be so removed from your previous experience, they enrich your cultural awareness, and of course, situate you in a completely different place to where you call home. I think she disapproves of what she sees as me haughtily sniffing at things as I make comparisons, which is not what I’m trying to do at all.

However, as a comparative studies student, I have to look at several different disciplines of study (history, politics and literature chiefly), and numerous regions (the Americas). As a result, I can’t help the tendency to be making comparisons in my head, critically evaluating trends and patterns, contemplating cultural anomalies, similarities and differences. It’s what I do, and I enjoy it. (… Sorry baby.)

Therefore, the observation that emerges from these two interesting aspects to Britain and California (they both have a weather-based Achilles’ heel), is that despite our extremely high levels of development; the money, resources and technology available to us, isn’t it amusing that such prominent Western societies still struggle with bad weather?

Things you learn on a 30+ hour journey

The things I do for a cheap flight. After a lovely holiday back in England with my family and friends, I am writing this blog post while still travelling back to Santa Barbara. Here’s how it has broken down so far:

  1. Drive to Heathrow: 2 hours 30
  2. Being there ridiculously early because we were worried about the M25, and erred on the side of caution: 4 hours.
  3. Flight from Heathrow to Philadelphia: 8 hours
  4. Layover in Philly: 3 hours
  5. Flight from Philly to Phoenix: 5 hours 30
  6. Layover in Phoenix: 11 HOURS?!?!?! (I did book a hotel room, but addled body clock and sporadic sleep on planes meant a weird, fitful, not very restful sleep)
  7. Flight from Phoenix to Santa Barbara: 45 minutes.

Total travelling time: 34 hours 45 minutes.

Ouch.

During this journey, I have learned several things/had things I sort of knew confirmed with severe clarity. Here we go:

  • Don’t look like a Turtle at the Airport.

Bear with me here. I knew that the weather was going to be colder when I returned to Santa Barbara, and I wanted to have more jumpers and some warmer clothes for this coming quarter. However, I was still subject to the 22kg weight limit due to my two internal flights. As a results, I decided it would be smart to stuff my carry-on laptop bag with my laptop, it’s charger, most of my other electricals, 6 t-shirts, and 4 course books for next quarter. Brilliant idea, and I dread to think how much it weighed fully-loaded.

Oh and I had my digital camera bag too, as my second, small carry-on.

As a result, I looked like a human Turtle waddling around the airports.

  • Wear comfortable travelling clothes

Linked to the above, I tried to keep my checked baggage weight down by wearing some of my “heavier” clothes. IE, I ended up travelling in jeans, a long-sleeved jumper, a hoody over the top of this, and then a black jacket to top it all off.

Oh, and I thought smart black shoes/boot things (you can tell I’m a real fashionista, huh?), suitable for a night out, wedding or ANY OTHER OCCASION than a 30+hour international journey would be a good idea too.

Normally, I wear comfy clothes- shorts or fat pants (sweat pants for American readers), a t-shirt and maybe a light hoody. From now on, I will be sticking to this common sense.

Well done Ben, well done.

  • If you have a 10 hour+ layover, overnight, a hotel is THE BEST OPTION

I am so glad I booked a hotel for my gigantic layover in Phoenix. I was very worried about 11 hours, snoozing in a departure lounge, with all my valuables on me, up for grabs as soon as I nodded off.

I got out of Phoenix airport at about 10/10.30 pm, bought an airport dinner fit for a King as I was starving (a cookie, banana, and packet of crisps- all that was available), and then got a taxi to the cheapest hotel nearby, a Red Roof Inn.

I cannot begin to tell you how much of a good idea this was. I have never had a journey to or from Santa Barbara that has had more than two stages (normally I fly from Santa Barbara airport to LA or San Francisco, then head straight back to Heathrow). Moroever, they normally don’t have an overnight layover.

Shuffling up to my room, dumping my enormous hand luggage on the second bed (I had two double beds; and yes, I did jump between the two a few times… my inner child couldn’t resist), getting all my gear off, and running a hot bath could not have been more heavenly after more than twenty hours of travel. Moreover, even though I was only able to get 6/7 hours of sleep, it was much better rest than anything you can try and grab on a plane.

More importantly, as any British citizen or Bill Bailey knows, there was one vital factor left to make it a successful hotel stay…. and Red Roof didn’t let me down: they had tea and coffee making facilities!

Excellent.

  • Burger King’s Croissan’wiches are abominations

They’re round croissants (debatable classification, I have to admit), stuffed with dish-sponge-esque egg, bacon or sausage, and that weird cheese-that-isn’t-really-cheese-but-orange-slime.

I just had one for my breakfast, and boy was it terrible. The croissants are kind of sweet, which made the rest taste strange; the egg was kind of squelchy, and the cheese just sticks in your throat. Overall, I would strongly recommend ANYTHING else for breakfast, pretty much.

So there we have it. Here we have some things I learned in in an unpleasantly long journey. I wrote this post while waiting for my final flight to Santa Barbara, at Phoenix airport. The flight is in one hour, and I will hopefully be back at Tropicana Del Norte, flopped out on my bed, in under 3 and a half hours. Wish me luck!

Viva Las Vegas

I turned 21 as of the 13th of December. Unfortunately, I had an 8am exam on the day itself, which seemed horrendously unjust. Nevertheless, after 11 weeks of being under-age all over again, not even being able to plonk my butt down in a pub to have a quiet pint… not that I’m bitter and twisted about this, of course… I wanted to celebrate being able to drink legally in style. What better way, when this side of the world, than Sin City itself?

The plan was as follows:

  1. Complete the Unspeakable Birthday Exam.
  2. Finish up packing.
  3. Say a few good-byes to other residents at Tropicana del Norte.
  4. Wait for my suite-mate Charlie to finish his midday exam.
  5. Drive to Los Angeles.
  6. Get the Greyhound bus to Las Vegas.
  7. Check-in at the Treasure Island Resort and Casino.
  8. Tear it up, generally and whole-heartedly, for 3 nights.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there is a general rule with Sin City: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. However, for your reading pleasure, I am going to relate some of what happened. Enjoy:

  • The Underbelly of the Land of the Free- Greyhound Bus Service

After a decent drive down to LA with Charlie, we drove through the industrial, and incredibly dangerous Charlie assured Giles and me, part of LA which was home to the Greyhound Bus Station. He dropped us off, and Giles and I entered the grey (fitting), low, building. GIles checked in his bags, and as we had made good time on the way down from Santa Barbara, we had a couple of hours sitting around in the station. 

This was a surreal experience, I’ll be honest. We saw some incredibly strange people during this time. Most of the people were just minding their own business, snoozing on the benches or furiously focusing on their phones or mp3 players. However, there was the occasional person shuffling around, chatting to themselves, people who seemed to have the strangest collections of recyclable materials on their person instead of luggage, and generally sketchy looking people. It was like something out of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In a similar manner to J. D. Salinger’s most famous novel, it was comparably disillusioning and perhaps not depressing, but it was definitely sobering.

At this point, I want to relate quite an interesting part of my journey. I hadn’t brought a hold-all or gym bag with me for the first term, for long weekends away and travelling etc. As a result, I borrowed a large US army backpack from my suite mate Vinh, who’s involved with the military and cadets back in his home town. Minding my own business and placing this bag at my feet seemed to successfully deflect most of the wandering mutterers or other odd patrons of the bus station. Interestingly, it did get some worried looks from some of the sketchier characters in the station. Moreover, as I walked around, I noticed several people nodding at me, or moving to clear my path as I walked over to the coffee shop. I want to clearly emphasise at this point that I did nothing to perpetuate the seeming assumption I was military, as this would have been highly disrespectful and utterly unacceptable.

Most people should have realised I wasn’t American as soon as I opened my Queen’s-English-speaking gob, let alone US military. However, you have to bear in mind, in that kind of setting, you don’t often just chat to random strangers, and Giles and I kept ourselves to ourselves and spoke to each other mostly. The assumption I was military extended to the staff, and as I got on the coach, I was taken aside to have my bag inspected and to be scanned with a metal detector. Being used to the high security of Heathrow and LAX, I was bracing myself to have all my possessions upturned and rifled through. Yet, I was asked “Do you have your firearm on you?”, to which I responded with a slightly surprised but firm “No”, partly because there was an assumption that I had one in the “your”. I then expected the search of my bag to be more thorough as I assumed the staff would want to make very sure of this…. yet, all he did was open the zip to the top of my bag, cast a cursory glance into it, shine a torch into it as if to double-check there were no firearms resting on top of my clothes (where I would logically smuggle a weapon onto the bus… insert sarcasm here), and grimly nod at me and then towards the door to the bus.

This odd experience continued on the bus- a woman who looked decidedly touristy was sitting across from her travel partner, and had set herself up with her bags on one seat, taking the other chair herself, as was her friend. She had quite a good seat, near the front, away from the toilet at the back of the bus, and I was about to pass her. She saw me coming, leaned across and spoke animatedly to her friend and grabbed her arm, then nodded towards me… I was about to walk past them and head further back on the bus, but she tapped me on the shoulder, and pulled my arm and brought me back to her seat. She then moved her possessions, and insisted I sat in her seat! I don’t know if she spoke English because I was trying to tell her I couldn’t take her seat, but she either didn’t understand me or chose not to listen. Eventually I just shrugged my shoulders, threw Giles a puzzled look, and sat down.

I do not know to what extent any of these experiences were linked to the military bag on my back, stamped in black with “US”; but at the time, I definitely felt some kind of correlation. I text Vinh and related some of it to him, and he put it down to the respect US citizens have for the military. He suggested people see a uniform or whatever, and instantly their respect is won. Evidently, I am not military, but even this accidentally extended to a British, American Studies student when I wore a piece of military garb. I’m still getting my head round it, but whether or not there was a correlation between my experience and the bag on my back, I still admire the respect that Vinh refers too. Not, I regretfully acknowledge, that this would be true in all cases for all US citizens. I’m sure respect for the military isn’t universal, even in the military-industrial complex addled U. S. of A.

  • A Lucky Turn

After more than six hours on the bus, a sandstorm along the way, and that moment when you bank a corner on the Interstate Highway 5, and Las Vegas appears out of no-where, sprawled out below with no rhyme nor reason, we arrived in Sin City. The lights were dazzling as we drove through the city, and my chin rested on my chest as I watched it all pass by the window of the bus. Giles and I pulled into the bus station at about 1.30 am, and took a taxi to our hotel at the Treasure Island Resort.

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We arrived at the hotel, and in a sleep-derived, zombie-like and wide-eyed state, we headed into the reception to check in. When I made the booking online, I had just selected non-smoking by default. However, the receptionist asked us to confirm if we still wanted non-smoking or would like to switch to a smoking room. I asked Giles, as I hadn’t even considered this when booking, and he smokes. He said switch if it was no bother. So I asked the receptionist if we could swap as it didn’t bother me either way. He confirmed we could… but told us the only smoking rooms left were on the top floor… the VIP floor… Would we mind switching here?!?!

DID WE MIND!?!

Slightly nervously, but excitedly, I asked how much it would cost to upgrade…

“Nothing, sir. The upgrade would be free of charge…”

Viva Las Vegas, baby! 

This was an as good start as any I could have possibly imagined to our Vegas shenanigans. Giles and I had stupid grins as we made our way across the casino floor and towards our special elevator, where we had to use our key to reach the top floor. The Canary was going to be flying high this week- metaphorically, and literally in our 36th floor nest!

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Sorry for the poor quality, but it was 2 am and we had been travelling for about 12 hours… give us a break!

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Panorama from our window, looking out over Vegas towards the mountains in the distance. Not bad.

In fact, we were so happy, our exhaustion fell away and we freshened up, changed and went back down to the casino for a initiation drink and gamble.

I had been building up to this moment for weeks. I cannot verbalise how maddening it is to be under-age all over again. I hated not being able to buy booze, go to a pub or club for those first ten weeks of term. So I had my drivers licence, my passport just in case, and I pulled up a stool at the main bar on the Treasure Island casino floor… and I ordered pints for the two of us. (No ID request yet, must be coming soon Ben…). The barman nodded and moved off to pull the pints… (No ID request yet, must be coming soon Ben…) He brought them over to us, swiped his keycard in the till and worked out the total and relayed it to me (No ID request yet, must be coming soon Ben…). I frowned, looked to my left at Giles who was smirking and shrugging… and cautiously handedo ver the cash. Still no bloody ID request! What an anticlimax! 10 weeks, and all I wanted to do was smugly whip out my drivers licence, in the midst of SIn CIty, and finally have my status as a legal drinker confirmed to me all over again. It clearly wasn’t meant to be… maybe it was the beard….?

  • Sin City Unleashed

I couldn’t possibly go into all the gory details of the next couple of days. There was muchos alcohol, muchos gambling and muchos revelry, let’s put it that way. But here are is a list of some of the shenanigans we experienced:

  1. Gambled in the main casinos- Caesar’s, the Flamingo, the Bellagio, etc.
  2. Had an All-American dinner at Denny’s (I had never been before, and this wasn’t specifically Vegas orientated as they’re all over the states, but it was still an eating experience!)
  3. We rode the roller coaster at New York, New York! This is a roller coaster that runs THROUGH a hotel, out of it,up above it’s roof (offering dazzling views of the Strip) before your flung down a huge descent and around a loop-the-loop and the rest of it is thrilling!
  4. We went clubbing in the Bellagio and blagged our way onto the guestlist for Bank, for a mere $10 tip each, instead of paying the usual $30-40 entry fee. Score! This was an insane night out, and was perhaps the best, classiest and generally most incredible club I have ever visited. Stunning dancing girls up on platforms, brilliant music, and a great atmosphere. This more than compensated for the $12 bottles of beer…..
  5. I’ll let some of the photos do the talking:

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Caesar’s Palace, where the guys in The Hangover eventually found Doug on the roof.

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The Bellagio, looking incredibly swanky.

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The Venetian.

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We got lost and found ourselves in Paris… Not. The mock Eiffel Tower outside the Paris casino testifies to the extravagance of Las Vegas perfectly.

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Las Vegas at night. I wish I had more night photos, but I was reluctant to take my camera out at night for various reasons. Mostly because it’s too bulky, but also I was utterly sloshed a lot of the time at night (and afternoon), so it wouldn’t have been in my poor camera’s best interests to include it on our nights out.

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Giles and me at the entrance to the Bellagio. Check out the flowery ceiling. We gawped at that for far too long, now I look back on it.
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And yes, I did lie on the floor and take a photo of it from below, I didn’t care what security made of it- too good to miss!

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Giles and me in front of the Bellagio Christmas tree. At least it wasn’t over the top or anything… I’ve never seen so many baubles (that’s not a euphemism, steady)! Very festive nonetheless.

  • We found Doug…

I wish this were a joke, but we literally found a bloke called Doug. As in a guy of the same name that the characters in The Hangover are looking for. It was a moment of pure brilliance.

After we went clubbing in the Bellagio, we made our way back to Treasure Island, via Caesar’s Palace. Giles insisted there was an amazing ceiling I needed to check out, and we searched all over the casino for it… however, we were somewhat worse for wear, and casinos with all the lights and their sea of fruit machines, can be a bit disconcerting. Moreover, it is difficult to find points of reference. Essentially, what I’m dancing round, is we got lost. Badly Lost. We ended up barrelling out of a side entrance to Caesar’s, which was clearly the wrong exit, and were in a drop off area which was partitioned off from access… we hurriedly made our way back onto the Strip and were probably hysterically laughing the whole way.

Within minutes of being back on the Strip, we bumped into a group of girls who were also out celebrating a 21st birthday. The birthday girl, Audra, had three friends, and her Mum with her, who also had a friend there to keep her company as well…. but in addition, they had acquired a drunken bloke who had lost his group of friends… Doug. Despite being 3/4 am in the morning, Giles and I looked at each other shrugged our shoulders, made the familiar announcement of “When in Vegas…” (our motto for the weekend and general excuse for all of our outrageous behaviour not mentioned in this post), and proceeded to head out again with our new group. It was one of the best nights of my life: it had started with watching rodeo in Gilley’s; it included muchos gambling; perhaps the best nightclub I have ever visited in my life so far; and ended up completely rejuvenating itself as a night out, with the after party taken back to our room, Grey Goose vodka in tow. Wow.

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Our gaggle and the Grey Goose Vodka (I am so sorry, that was awful, but I couldn’t resist that line…)

That’s Doug in the background with his shirt off. Doug was… well… barking. But he made for a good laugh.

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Oh yes, and this definitely happened…

It was definitely a memorable way to turn 21.

  • The Return Journey: What a Difference a Day (or three) Makes

The return journey was no-where near as weird as the journey towards Vegas. We were on an Express service at an ungodly hour (8.30 am, but after our last night, this relatively decent hour became unbearable). The bus was newer, had more leg room, and was generally more pleasant (less psychos). Plus, it was more direct, so we were back in smoggy LA in about 5 hours 30 minutes. Not bad.

I left Giles and Charlie at Union Station, as they left for Beverly Hills so Giles could rest a couple of days before flying home from LAX. I hadn’t known for sure Vegas would be happening, so had booked my return flight for the Christmas break from Santa Barbara airport. As a result, I got the train from LA back to Santa Barbara (considering the return bus journey from LA to Vegas had cost £57, the single train ticket from LA to SB- a 2 hour car ride- had cost $32?! Bit overpriced.) I got back to SB late at night, fell into the first taxi I encountered, and went back to Tropicana Del Norte so I could unpack, crash on my bed, and watch Breaking Bad until I fell asleep.

  • Summary

Overall, I had an absolutely phenomenal 21st birthday weekend.

I experienced (endured, some more critical than I might say) American public transport, and rode the Amtrak and Greyhound for the first time.

I not only received a free upgrade, but a free upgrade to the VIP floor.

I gambled seriously for the first time. By this I mean gambling more advanced than the 2p machines at Southwold.

I rode a roller coaster that comes out of a building.

I saw the dazzling lights of Vegas.

I bought my first legal drink in the USA (even if with less ceremony than I had hoped for).

I met some great people.

We found Doug…

Overall, Sin City provided me with some life memories, that I’ll probably be bugging my friends with for far longer than they will want me to. However, I do realise that I was very fortuitous to even be able to celebrate my 21st birthday in such a manner. As a result, I tried to make the very most of the opportunity. But boy oh boy, we didn’t half do it in style, and that’s all I could have asked for.

Nevertheless, the final point I’d like to make is that the whole experience was emotionally and physically draining. The intensity of it all means that I probably couldn’t have coped with more than 4/5 days there. Moreover, getting in at 4/5 am in the morning each day physically knackers you, so I doubt I could have actually managed it anyway! Some people I know who have been have said they wouldn’t want to go back- once was enough. However, I disagree. With a city like Las Vegas, I don’t care how experienced or world-wise you think you are, it’s a learning curve for everybody. You learn the protocol for new situations, you adapt to an intense style of living, you brace yourself to spend a lot of money, and generally you have to be pragmatic. As a result, I personally would love to go back, and experience it all over again, bearing in mind all that I learned the first time round. Knowing the ropes just a little bit more would make the second time round even better. But not any time soon, I do admit….

…. maybe my 25th?

Finals in the US

Well this is the first of several, long-overdue posts about the end to my first term at UCSB. I figured that I should work chronologically, so here are some thoughts on the examination process this side of the Pond. I am actually writing this in Santa Barbara Airport- I arrived ridiculously early, and it’s strangely deserted. However, I have the view of the mountains to keep me company, so it’s not so unbearable.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the system here, or haven’t read one of my posts before, the University of California Santa Barbara uses the Quarter System. There are three ten weeks terms, and you change classes for each. Therefore, all your studying, participation, midterms and finals all take place in this relatively short period of time. As a result, the quarters can go by very quickly, and I can personally testify to this. My first quarter has flown by.

However, I have to be brutally honest, the examination methods seem…. favourable for students? I’m not sure if that is an adequate description, but perhaps if I list some of the examination types I have either experienced or heard about, you might get my drift. For all the UK readers out there, keep in mind that this is like-for-like as a third year student..

  1. Multiple Choice:
    We have these in the UK, of course, but no-where near as frequently. Sometimes entire finals can be 50 multiple choice papers. I guess the downside to these questions is that I have heard they can have misleading answers to choose from, or they can be absurdly specific. If a lecturer mentioned what seemed like and aside during the quarter, these seemingly insignificant facts could well form a part of a multiple choice question. Nevertheless, most people I have spoken to have found these quite easy.
  2. Fill-in-the-blanks:
    60% of my American Literature mid-term AND finals were based on this. It required pure memorisation- authours, titles, and basic images or themes in poems or short novel extracts. 40% were essay questions, but even in the final, this consisted of two 1 page essay responses. I had three hours to complete this exam, I doubled the essay response required with 4 pages of essays (any less would have been ridiculous, take my word for it), I took my time and read the questions thoroughly etc, and I still finished in under half the allocated time. I haven’t been examined with such short essay responses expected since high school, and even some of those like my History GCSE were longer than this…
  3. “Take-Home Essays”:
    Now this really was alien. This was an assigned list of questions…. which you chose between… had to respond to from home…. by an assigned date… just like any other essay you might have for homework… except it has a “Take-Home” attached to the name… Why not just call it an essay? I had two classes that had no finals, but the major assessment method in each, as it were, consisted of two 12-15 page essays. That’s fine, I get it. I didn’t have a “Take-Home Essay”, but the only minute difference I can see is the time frame. These essays are set quite late in the quarter (compared to the major ones I had to do) so you have a smaller turnaround to complete them, but they do tend to be shorter: 5 or so pages. 5 pages double-spaced, I should add….
  4. Presentations:
    Ok, so this wasn’t an actual Final examination method for me, so to speak, but it formed part of an attempt to get “extra credit”. Personally, I haven’t really experienced opportunities for additional marks or credit in the UK, so I was interested to see how this system panned out in the States. In one of my classes, you could gain extra credit by reviewing the recent Lincoln movie… I didn’t take the Professor up on this, and elected for another option: presenting the thesis of my long essay. I was able to do this in two of my classes. I had to present my arguments/s, explain some of my sources, discuss any problems I was facing in writing it (the presentation came before the deadline, obviously) and invite any comments or questions from other members of the class. The idea was we could get some feedback and respond to this before the deadline, and in theory this was a great idea. However, when you have various members of the class, looking at wildly different topics, all at different stages of writing the writing process, the results could be mixed to say the least.

Overall, I have to admit that the experience of finals in the US tends to reinforce my conclusion on the general comparison between the education systems across the Pond. In the US, you have a larger, denser volume of work (comparatively, in the 10 week period), which you get through quicker, but it tends to be easier. In the UK, your assessments are less densely packed, but harder and generally longer in length (in terms of essays, exams, etc.) Moreover, the marking system is different: to attain top marks in the US, an A+, you have to be hitting 95%+ in the exams. To get a First in the UK, the percentage is technically lower, 70+ marks secured out of 100. Nonetheless, I feel that receiving a First in the UK is as hard as getting an A+ in the States, if not harder, because the expectations and requirements you have to meet to get a First are very high, even if you only get a red”70″ at the top of your paper, and not a “96″.

I am not necessarily passing judgement or drawing any conclusions on which system is “better” or “harder”… I’ll leave that up to you readers. However, I hope in reading this post, you can understand some of the differences, similarities and comparisons that I have experienced first-hand. If this helps you draw your own conclusions, or offers an interesting affirmation or contrast to your own experience, then all the better.

(Featured Image courtesy of http://www.socialstudent.co.uk/)