Things that you appreciate more at the end of an Undergraduate Degree

I feel bad that I’ve gone through another 6 month blogging hiatus. However, in that time I have written 18,000 words of assessed essays, sat 3 exams constituting 20% of my degree within 3 days… and completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Warwick. Cut me some slack! Still, I wanted to get back on the blogging wagon, so here I am, even if it has taken me a few weeks of hitting the reset switch since my final exam to get around to doing it. This post is all about things which I have come to appreciate more now that my undergraduate degree is over. They are either things I missed because I was away at university, or, long for now that I am back home in Norfolk and removed from The Bubble. Personally, I have been glad to have certain things back in my life. But, simultaneously, I feel there are things I enjoyed at university, perhaps without realising it, that I am missing already. As I said, they are all things I appreciate more at the end of my degree. Things I appreciate having back

  • Reading for pleasure 

When you’re in the study zone, revising for hours of the day, trudging through notes and scribbling onto flashcards indefinitely, is it surprising when reading for pleasure takes a backseat? For me it certainly did. I’d been pouring over words all day, I didn’t want to add more onto my plate for these past few months! Moreover, it isn’t just the weariness of reading all day that put me off the pursuit of fiction in my spare time… it’s the way you think about what you read which put me off as well. Studying for humanities essays and exams, you critically analyse sources as a fundamental part of your higher education. At the end of my exams, I tried reading to wind down soon after. But I found no enjoyment or relaxation therein. I was over-thinking and critically interpreting the novels. My brain hadn’t switched back from exam/essay mode. And it sucked. It killed the reading experience for me. Gradually reading for pleasure came back to me. I don’t know what triggered it, but it probably came with activities which helped put a distance between me and my exams: watching crap TV, heading to the pub, going on long bike rides and eagerly returning to exercise. Since the end of my exams I have read hungrily, and it has felt amazing to read for pleasure once again.

  • Access to a dishwasher

Living with 12 people and sharing a kitchen with them hasn’t changed much since first year (I lived in the same campus accommodation in final year as I did as a fresher… made for some very strange deja vu moments). People don’t clean up after themselves, leave dirty dishes in the sink for days on end, and shared spaces deteriorate very quickly with only 2/3 inconsiderate people in a group of 12. As a bit of a clean freak, I found this particularly hard. But whatever- it’s over now, and I feel that I kept myself (relatively) in check… Although some of my housemates may disagree. Borderline psychotic Facebook group posts aside… I think I kept it together pretty well! Anyway, getting back home and having access to that magical machine known as a dishwasher was fantastic. No dreading the end of a meal because you have to stand and wash all the utensils, pots and pans. Honestly, they make life so much simpler and it’s easy to take this everyday appliance for granted.

  • Being back in the countryside

This is a matter of personal taste, of course. But as a guy from the sticks, I certainly missed big open spaces, rural quiet, and being so close to the beach. I know rural life isn’t for everyone, and living nearer to urban areas has its benefits as well… But at several times during my final year at Warwick I longed for the big skies, fresh air, scenery, and quiet that comes with living in rural East Norfolk. Even in Norwich, you’re never more than 10-15 minutes from fields and countryside! Best of both worlds if you ask me. And the beaches. Seriously, Norfolk’s beaches are so underrated. Holkham, Wells, Winterton, Sea Palling all have golden soft sand, beautiful dunes and all the makings of a sterling beach holiday destination. I think coming back from uni after my final exams made me appreciate home even more. Side note: The Telegraph recently named Noroflk the classiest county to live in! I’m glad my home county is being taken a bit more seriously, and receiving more positive, balanced press. I may be biased but I think it’s deserved!

  • Access to a car

When studying at Warwick, it was impractical and unnecessary for me to have a car. I share my Mum’s car anyway (haven’t needed my own, so never saw the point in buying one for the sake of it), so couldn’t bring it even if I desperately wanted to. However, linked to the above point about being back in the countryside, you certainly need a vehicle here to get around and enjoy things. But the ability to head off and visit friends, places or the city, in private transport, on your own time, is great to have back. I don’t really mind buses, but you have to plan your time better, and it isn’t as flexible. Moreover, especially in Noroflk, there are just some places you cannot get to because there are no public transport options which reach them! Or, they exist, but they’re so convoluted and time-consuming the impracticality makes them nigh on impossible anyway.

Things I miss having 

  • Omnipresent coffee vendors

Instant coffee does a job. But then again, so does ITV’s coverage of the World Cup… But it’s not the real mccoy. Give me coffees based on espressos and the glory of the BBC any day of the week. On campus, I was never more than a 5 minute walk from a cafe which sold proper coffee. In the foray of dissertation writing and exam revision, I came to depend slightly on the boost a strong cup of coffee in one form or another. Still, I took it for granted. Now I am back home, in a village with no coffee shops of any description, and there is an espresso cup-shaped hole in my life. Admittedly, where there’s a will there’s a way, and some of the nearby pubs or cafes must serve proper coffee. But, with the ease and low cost of campus coffee, they don’t really compare.

  • Gym access

I need fitness in my life in one form or another, and the gym is my preferred outlet for physical exercise by a long stretch. On campus I lived within sight of a very decent gym facility, had access at an extremely reasonable student rate, and enjoyed a diverse range of equipment and free weights to support whatever fitness regime I chose. Now I am back home, I do so miss the equipment required for squats, deadlifts, bench presses and so on. I looked into gym membership here but I balked at £25-40 monthly membership fees, limited equipment, and up to 40 minute drives to even reach them. I most definitely took the university gym for granted, and miss having access to it. The silver lining is I have altered my workout routine, and I am focusing on classic bodyweight exercises like pushups, pullups and dips. It’s very beneficial to change it up with exercise routines every few weeks, so in a way the lack of a gym has forced my hand here, but to my own benefit. I will be writing a separate post all about this shortly, because I really have felt the bodyweight shift has been a positive change.

  • Student Immersion

I love my family and friends back home, and the following does not detract from that at all. BUT, as a student you get used to living and working on campus, surrounded by thousands of people who are working towards similar goals as you, that are like-minded and approach life in comparable ways to you. This is not to say that there are not people like this back home, of course there are. There just isn’t a comparable concentration or volume of these people. Again, this is possibly due to living in the sticks. But as a student, I love being surrounded by other students. Being able to drift unexpectedly to a pub on a Tuesday afternoon, and for it to still have a decent amount of people and hubub going on despite the random timing makes the experience that much better. Bumping into a classmate in Tesco’s and nattering as you do your grocery shopping makes the essential but dull activity much more bearable. I’m ever so grateful to be home, but I do miss the student community.

All is not lost…. Overall, there are several things that I have come to appreciate more now that I have finished my undergraduate degree. I’m sure there are many more that I could talk about, but these were the things which came to my mind first. But, as to the things I miss having as part of student life… I’m not losing them completely, just because I’m done at Warwick. Since my last blog post I applied for post graduate study and funding in the USA. I am very pleased and excited to be undertaking an MA in Public History at New Mexico State University! This is subject to a Visa meeting at the US embassy but hopefully that will go smoothly. Otherwise everything else is pretty much in place! I cannot wait to undertake this next step, further my education, get to know a new area and new people, and study abroad all over again.

Prepare yourself USA, the Wandering Canary is coming back!

(^ Visa pending, haha!!!)

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.

Welcome to UCSB

It has taken me longer than I intended to get round to this post, because there has been so much going on in my first week at Tropicana Del Norte, I haven’t just sat at my laptop for an extended period of time. However, as I wait for a Skype chat with my parents and sister, who’s leaving for her first year of uni tomorrow, I felt it was time to try and capture just a fraction of the amazing time I am having here in Isla Vista.

After my first few days in Anacapa Hall, I moved into TDN a week ago today, on the 23rd of September. Before that, I crashed on Imogen’s sofa (one of the other Warwick students here at UCSB) on the night of the 22nd. Getting to know Del Playa (DP) first-hand, with a house to stay in, even just for that couple of days, was really beneficial. I can imagine getting to know DP from scratch can be pretty overwhelming. Essentially it’s the party central for UCSB students, and is the main component to the night life here. The disconcerting thing is how people will just pile onto DP, “party-hop” from house to house, and many people just leave their doors open to people wandering in. I cannot imagine doing that back home, but it’s a lot of fun. House parties are the name of the game here, as it permits under-age drinking.  Speaking of which, due to the alcohol-related laws:

A) I’ve reverted back to that teenage phase where drinking is off limits, but here the consequences for me getting caught by police are much greater than the mere slap on the wrist I’d be likely to get in England. However, as I have been drinking for a few years, the crucial difference between now and the teenage phase is that it used to be kind of exciting for drinking to be off limits. Now it’s just a pain in the backside.

B) There is nothing more appealing than the idea of being able to have a cold Budweiser on the gorgeous beaches here, but public drinking is off limits. Which is frustrating.

Nevertheless, it has been like being a Fresher all over again, in a way, which I like. A lot. Getting to know loads of people, having far too many people packed into your room and chatting with them, going out to get nachos at 3am, signing up for sports clubs you will probably never join, and lots more standard Fresher-esque behaviour.

Re-freshed all over again!

But there have been other, non party-related elements to my first week which I have really enjoyed.

  • I’m not going to lie to you here- having a British accent. It’s a great conversation starter or ice-breaker, and can be greeted with a lot of… enthusiasm.
  • The people who live in my apartment are all really friendly, great guys. We get along fine and I have been very lucky to land among a good bunch of blokes.
  • Sharing a room with Giles has been an easy changeover, which is a good result too. Except for my annoyingly early starts (even though I got into bed at 4.30 last night, I still ended up waking up at like 7.30: my body clock hates me), which Giles is very good about- ie he sleeps through them- living together has been a breeze so far.
  • Playing football again, at intramural (casual) level. I had my first training sessions a few days ago, and am playing my first “pick-up game” at 4.30 today. Cannot wait.
  • Getting to know a whole new gym, with new machines, cable equipment, and other bits and pieces which make my inner Gym Monkey very happy.
  • Finding my way round campus, and finding unexpected areas or buildings.
  • Finally going to some classes so I have a vague idea about how the academic side of things will pan out.
  • Cycling around on Dante, my new bike, which I have been loaned by TDN. International students can get a loan bike for free here, which is a fantastic idea. Giles got one too, and his is named Seabiscuit. It feels great to cycle so often, and it must be having a knock-on effect for my fitness which is always an added bonus.

Dante, the Inferno.

Seabiscuit, Scourge of the Seven Seas.

  • Adopting a Betta Fish as an apartment. They don’t play well with others, and will eat other fish if put in the same bowl. So we have named our killer Betta fish Goliath!

Meet Goliath, the baddest fish you’re likely to meet. Well. Sort of.

  • Cheap food at take-outs, restaurants etc. Yesterday I went on a beach trip with some of my apartment buddies, and headed further afield to Santa Barbara beach. Afterwards, when we had built up an appetite, we headed to this amazing Mexican restaurant. The set-up was very basic, but plates of tacos or meat dishes served with tortillas were about $2.50-$.50 each. Interms of value, it was very good, but in terms of taste, it was excellent.
  • Did I mention the beaches?

 

  • Cruising along a sunny highway in a car full of new mates, mountains off in the distance, all the windows down, blasting out music such as this:

  • Hilarious American attempts at British accents. Some have been pretty decent… others have been horrendously bad.

Apart from all these wonderful things, there are a few differences with living here that I have to be wary of. These aren’t bad things, by any stretch of the imagination, but are just factors in the way of life I’ve stepped into that I need to consider.

  • You become wary of police all over again. Not only as I’m under-age  but because I cycle to most places. This include parties on nights out, and you have to be extremely careful about BUI tickets- Biking Under the Influence. These tickets cost a bomb, can get you into a hell of a lot of trouble, and I for one don’t want to risk my visa status because I was a bit tiddly on a bike. So I can bike to places, but it is wise to then walk my bike when I come back after the copious amounts of booze that will undoubtedly have been consumed. As a result, I think you have to develop what I call a “Podar”- police radar. You keep an eye out at intersections, tone everything down if police are walking along DP, and NEVER, EVER, sit on the curb. You’re asking for a night in the drunk tank if you do that.
  • As much as I love the unlimited fizzy drinks and ice cream available at my cafeteria, these two bonuses are representative of the larger issue of how easy it would be to eat massive meals, 3 meals a day, 7 days a week. I get all my meals covered here at TDN, and can make as many visits to the canteen as I’d like. The food here has been pretty good all told, but whereas at uni in England, I’d make do with a bowl of Special K and a banana for breakfast, here it is very easy to just have cooked breakfast everyday, for example. Admittedly, this is just a question of willpower, and from now on I will try and limit myself to a big dinner, lighter lunch and a healthier option for breakfast. But it’s just so easy, particularly after a heavy night out, to say to yourself “Well I need the energy to get through tomorrow, might as well load up at breakfast!!”
  • As my lobster-esque room mate is realising today, you have to be careful with the sun. Even just walking around between classes contributes to any sunburn you accumulate, and being wary of it doesn’t come naturally to pasty English boys such as Giles and myself.

So, as you can probably tell, I am having an absolutely incredible time, and am loving every minute I’m spending here. I know it sounds corny, but I do feel so lucky to be here, and it’s only just beginning!

Let the good times keep rolling!

The Canary has Landed

I started writing this blog post at 6am today, because travelling has messed with my body clock, and I get up pretty early anyway. I am actually writing this whilst waiting for the sun to come up, so I can go for my first laid-back jog, to get the lay of the land.

[Edit]

I have just been for said jog, and it was absolutely stunning. I jogged along the coast, round our lagoon (yes, you heard correctly, our L A G O O N!) and up to check out Tropicana Del Norte. At one point I literally had goosebumps, as I ran through a palm tree-lined path, looking out as the sun rose over the Pacific, it was that beautiful. I will be going out again tomorrow morning, but with my camera, I promise. 

Travelling alone for the first time was a pretty surreal experience. I knew what I was doing, as I travelled to Texas with a mate of mine, without adults, and that had been a very smooth experience. The same was true for this journey. I twiddled my thumbs a lot at airports. I looked at expensive cameras, Ray-Bans and whiskies in the duty free, that I knew I couldn’t afford. Bought a breakfast I could afford, but still felt like I was being mugged all the same. I heard a baby crying over my new noise-cancellation, bass enhanced earphones; and felt more impressed than angry. I watched about 5/6 films on the transatlantic flight. I made limited conversation with the lady next to me on this flight. I met my first two young Californian couples at LAX, who insisted on trying to push me through a massive queue when they learned I had a connection flight. This last one was kind of embarrassing. I truly was the bashful Brit, faced with these loud, but well-meaning, interested and cool Californians. Bless ’em.

However, the most memorable part of my journey had to be on the last stage, during the flight between LAX and Santa Barbara- a short 30 minute flight, where the taxiing to the runway felt longer than the flight itself. The plane was tiny. As I walked up to it form the boarding gate, it did cross my mind whether or not we passengers would have to peddle this tin can plane for take-off. One piece of carry-on luggage had to be strapped into a window seat as there was not enough space to hold it in the overhead compartment. I volunteered to move seats, and as a result, ended up sitting next to W Mitchell. He was sitting in the front row as he had a wheelchair, but I did not know the extent of his injuries. This ex-Marine had not only been in a motorbike accident that left him with 65% burns on his body, he had also lost the ability to walk in a plane accident 4 years later. He is an author, speaker and motivator; who travels around offering advice and encouragement about how to move forward, personally and in a business-sense. But, like I said, I did not know this at the time. What made an impression on me was how friendly he was, talking to me about what I was going to be doing in Santa Barbara, giving me interesting information about the areas we flew past on the way north along the coast towards Santa Barbara, and telling me about his numerous travels around Europe and the UK. He even gave me a lift to the Anacapa Residence Hall from the airport so I wouldn’t have to get a taxi. His hospitality, friendliness and conversation were more than welcome, and I was grateful to have such a pleasant experience for my first extended interaction with anybody on my year abroad. A good start.

(There is an appropriate Stephen King quote that I wanted to add in here, from 11.22.63 but I have left the notebook where I wrote it down back in England. I will try and edit it in at a later date).

I arrived at Anacapa, got my key, and met my room mate for the next couple of days. His name is Calvin, and he’s originally from Hong Kong, but went to high school in Austin, TX. He is coming in as a Freshman and is as psyched, if not more so (but I doubt that), than me. He’s off on his orientation at the moment- the international students who are here for four years have an earlier start than us EAP students (Education Abroad Programme). Mine begins on the 24th of September. I just can’t wait for all those let’s-sit-round-in-a-circle-and-say-our-names-and-an-interesting-fact-about-ourselves. If you missed me pressing the “Sarcasm button” there, here it is in black and white. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait to meet new people, interact with my classes, flirt with waitresses etc etc etc, but those activities are…well… lame. Still, I guess they break through the “What shall I say? Shall I speak first?”-type barrier.

Anyway, I unpacked the essentials to see me through the 3 days I’d be spending at the Student Hotel, showered ,and then went for some dinner with Calvin. We plumped (pun intended- read on and you’ll see what I mean) for a pizza restaurant in IV (Isla Vista). It was great, but I made a rookie error with the size of pizza that I ordered. The individual was an 8″ and they had plates on the wall so you could see the size. Looking at the individual size, I was probably making this face :

http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/yao-ming-face-bitch-please

However, next to the medium it said that it served 2-3 people. Looking at the wall plate, the pizza didn’t look so big. I thought to myself: “Me man. Me eat medium size pizza at very least. If not large. HOO HA HA.” I ordered, bought a “soda” (God I’ve missed unlimited refills, with the small exception of UK Nandos and Pizza Huts, we don’t have that), and sat down, awaiting my BBQ Chicken pizza. I was a fool. It arrived, and there must have been half a bloody chicken on it, and a Cathedral City-sized block worth of cheese on it. It was topped properly, and put many pizza-serving restaurants in the UK to shame with their frugal distribution of toppings. I had fallen into the trap of forgetting just how big portions are stateside. I am woefully ashamed to admit that I only ate half, and took the rest home in a doggy bag (another thing we don’t really do, as I explained to Calvin, who looked at me with bemusement when I told him this). In my memory, this is what the pizza looked like:

Source: http://melbournepizzadelivery.com.au/

This is a slight over-exaggeration, but you get my drift. Lesson learned: take what you thought you could eat in the UK, and either two thirds or half this, and that’s the size meal you can eat in the US.

After the meal, I waddled back with Calvin, and finally at just after 10pm local time, after 26 hours of wakefulness (I can’t sleep on planes) I went to bed. As I mentioned, my body clock isn’t quite right yet, but I managed to sleep till 5.30, which isn’t too far off. The jog was refreshing and beautiful, so I may have to factor in more jogging/cycling along the coast into my fitness regime. Who knows.

Later today I will be meeting at least one of the girls who is also from Warwick University and studying at UCSB, Imogen. We have been in contact over the summer, and she moved into a house on DP (Del Playa, the street closest to the beach, and coincidentally the “Party street”) a while back. I am looking forward to meeting her and her housemates, and being shown around. I’d say I don’t like feeling like a newbie Freshman, but I’d honestly be lying. I’m enjoying marvelling at the gorgeous scenery, amazing campus, whilst trying to compute what my All-American year abroad experience will be like! It’s a good feeling.

So, apart from having my pizza-based masculinity significantly reduced, I have had an excellent journey, and start to my year abroad. Long may it continue.

Diary of a Gym Monkey #2

Well, it’s been a while since my last gym-related post, and as I’ve been cracking on with it for just over a month now, I though an update was in order!

It’s still working really well, and I’m getting into the swing of the exercises much more now. Also, I’ve hit upon the right weights, and am getting to the stage where I’m considering upping them for certain exercises, which is fantastic. This can be seen in my weight gain- I’ve put on about 4lbs since starting the programme, increasing my weight from 11st 1lb, to 11st 5lbs. That’s about 72kg or 159lbs. This is the heaviest I have been in a while, and I’m really pleased to be seeing results. Previously, I had been hitting a barrier at about 11st 3lbs, and not being able to go beyond it. Breaking this plateau is a real achievement for me, and I’m very pleased with the progress. I’m not yet sure how much more weight I want to gain… depends if I can keep the gains lean. If I start losing definition, I’ll probably stop trying to gain the weight.

The only other major news in my exercise regime is that I have been much better with my cardio than in the early weeks of the progamme. I am much more committed to getting one cardio session for every three workouts (using the ratio of 2 ab sessions: 1 cardio session after each workout). I have been doing interval sprints on the treadmill, for 25 minutes per cardio session. this breaks down into 3 minutes 30 seconds of slow jogging/walking uphill on a steep incline, followed by 1 minute 30 of sprinting, on a flat incline. The advantages of this cardio approach are:

  1. it doesn’t take up too much time
  2. it compliments the intense nature of the workouts that precedes them
  3. it is well-suited to me if I wanted to get back into football, as it keeps my sprint speed up (if not my endurance…)
  4. it’s awesome for trimming any excess fat!

I have noticed the difference, feeling fitter and getting leaner too. Moreover, I have recently acquired a secondhand road bike, which will encourage me to get out and about even more, improving my cardio further.

I have used it a couple of times, and am keen to persist with it as I am still getting used to the drop-handles. It’s much lighter than my other bike, which is still a very decent mountain bike, but this is more suitable for the road and longer distances. The only problems I’ve had, due to my inexperience on road bikes, is that I’m not yet used to the way you lean forwards more, and tilt your head upwards. Currently it’s causing me a bit of neck pain, but as I become more accustomed to the different riding style, I’m sure that will go away. I cycled to the gym this morning, and did the 5 minutes drive in about 10-12 minutes, which I was pretty chuffed with! That’s probably faster than my Nan would drive it…!

So, all in all, things are still going strong! If you’re reading this and starting a new exercise regime, or have decided to bring fitness into your life too, please feel free to leave a comment and let me know how your project is going too!

Diary of a Gym Monkey #1

It’s the eve of Latitude, so I thought I’d make a quick update on progress with the Blast WorkoutThat’s the name of my new summer gym programme, shown to me by a friend who works at my local gym. He’s not only my trainer as such, but he’s also using the same programme. This is good as we can compare notes; and he can offer me advice if certain parts don’t work, or alternative approaches are better etc. In a way, it’s also satisfying to know that someone else is suffering just as much as I am on it!!

This first week (or so) has been very challenging, and the programme is VERY demanding. It’s an approach that I’ve never used before. Rather than being high weight and low repetitions, or the opposite, low weight and high reps, this actually takes elements of both. One of the main characteristics of the programme is starting lighter on higher reps, warming the muscles, but ensuring that you increase the weight and still hit comparatively high reps. For example one exercise on the chest workout goes as follows:

Decline Chest Press

Reps: 12     10     8     6     8     10     12

This is based on pyramid training. You increase the weight with every set up until the set of 6 reps, then work back down again. The difficult part is, if you select a challenging weight to begin with, by the time your on the 6 reps, you’re strength is fading, and lowering the weight back down again is breaking into endurance training.

Effectively, you’re exercising the muscles, then just pushing them above and beyond fatigue.What’s more, each workout tends to have 5-6 exercises, but the penultimate or last exercise is just a HUGE amount of reps, done in as many sets as it takes you. But boy oh boy, you HAVE to hit those reps. These can be as high as 150 reps of a certain exercise. At the end of such an exhausting workout, when your muscles are trembling and you can hardly pick yourself up off the bench, forcing yourself to hit 150 reps, eventually chipping away at it with 4 or 5 reps a time, is hell. So overall, it’s a bit of a killer really.

It’s a 5 day programme, so I workout on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with the last two being rest days. It breaks down as follows:

Monday- Chest and abs

Tuesday- Back and cardio

Wednesday- Shoulders and abs

Friday- Arms and cardio

Saturday- Legs and abs

Thursday and Sunday should really, more accurately, be described as “pain days“, but that’s besides the point. I’m not going to sit and type up all of the programmes as a) it would take ages and there’s only so much flexibility with writing these blog posts, and b) it’d just bore you with all those numbers and tables that wouldn’t really mean much. Instead, I thought I’d describe some of the high/lowlights and summarise what I’ve found out on the first week or so of being on the Blast Workout.

  1. I can tell this programme works, and I apologise for being so brutally honest, as I sweat like a pig when I do it. It’s not a pretty fact, but it just goes to show that it’s challenging and it’s doing the job! Which is great as far as I’m concerned.
  2. I swear I started to feel gains and get leaner from very early on in the programme. Maybe this is to do with the fact that it’s a big change in workout style, shocking my body. Still, I’m not complaining about that! Seeing results so quickly is fantastic!
  3. Linked to the above, as it is such a different style of exercise, I’m going through a phase of “finding my feet” (or shoulders, or chest, or back or whatever… you get the point). As the reps and weight increases are so different from my previous programme, I’m still sounding out what weight I should be using at the start. It’s just a stage I have to go through, but I know my own strength, and what is a challenge and what’s just plain unachievable. So far, I usually hit on a good balance between something I can actually complete, while still facing a challenge after the second or third time of doing each workout. I haven’t gotten some exactly perfect yet, but that will come with time.
  4. It’s less frustrating to over-estimate the initial weight, rather than under-estimate. It’s a new programme and I’m still very enthusiastic about it, and this optimism carries me through exercises that are perhaps a bit too heavy. Instead, it’s when I under-estimate and find that the weight has been a bit too low that I get a bit annoyed with myself. Again, I’m sure this will be rectified with time as the weeks pass by.
  5. Exercises that are a bit different from what I’m used to are causing me a few problems. They’re hitting muscles unused to being exercised, or hitting them in ways that they aren’t used to. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s all part of a new programme, but it has screwed me over a couple of times on rest days. In particular, the leg abductor machine has left me hobbling around for the last couple of days. Imagine sitting down, back up straight, legs closed together in front of you. The machine at my gym operates as if you were to open up your legs and close them together again, but with the obvious addition of weight and resistance. It’s a strange exercise, because if you have fairly strong legs, but haven’t done leg abductors before, you can operate with pretty heavy resistance. But as it’s a very targeted exercise, and not a familiar action in everyday life, the next day you are going to know about it! A couple of days ago, I was sitting there, all smug and proud, doing these damn exercises on nearly the maximum weight on the machine, only to find myself limping around like a fool for the next two days!! I’m still feeling it three days later! Another thing to adapt to I suppose!
  6. The workouts take less time, as ideally you give yourself 30-40 seconds rest in between sets. This means that a workout can be done in 35-50 minutes time, which is very handy. This depends on how busy the gym is and how accessible equipment/ weights are at the time.

To summarise, the new exercise programme is working a treat. It’s challenging, different, showing results after a very short time, and it doesn’t take up too much time! Anyway, I should really go finish off my packing for the festival tomorrow- wish me luck!

Diary of a Gym Monkey #0

So I’m back in sunny Norfolk, and the start of the holidays have been brilliant! Since being back I have:

  1. Successfully unpacked- you would not believe the HUGE amounts of crap that I brought back from university.
  2. Extracted my 2nd year results from my department- the words “blood” and “stone” come to mind, but it was worth it, apparently hard work does pay off eventually!
  3. Gotten back into the swing of driving- after several weeks away from home, I was feeling a bit rusty, but luckily driving is a bit like riding a bike, you pick it up quickly when you get back on, so to speak.
  4. Ranked 2nd place in a pub quiz at the Buck Inn, Norwich- a group of friends and I entered their very first quiz night. It was meant to be general knowledge but the 40 questions were disproportionately nautical-based… all seems a bit fishy really (I am SO sorry for that, but it had to be done).
  5. Braved a night out in Great Yarmouth- it’s not such a bad time when you’re with the right group of people, but luckily I was with a bunch of good friends so that was enjoyable.
  6. Started another summer painting- I’m doing another oil on beach wood. It will be of Southwold Pier, for my Aunt and Uncle, and based on this photo. (it’s outside in the garden, having the base layer dried by the glorious sunshine, at this very minute).

So all in all, I am LOVING being back home right now. However, I feel a bit bad that I haven’t yet gotten round to recording my newly focused exercise regime, which I mentioned in an earlier post. Now that I’m a bit more settled in, I don’t have an excuse, and will put it off no longer!

I have called this post “#0” for a reason. Basically, I have consulted with my mate who works in my local gym, and he has introduced me to a new exercise regime that I had planned to undertake. I can tell you now, it is very challenging, and completely different to any other programme I have ever done. But I want to wait a full week before I give any comments on it. Instead, this post is going to give a bit of background to the last few weeks of my exercise routine, so you can understand the base I’m building upon. This can be divided into two stages: the Pre-Exam Phase and the Summer Transition Phase.

Pre-Exam Phase

This is a pretty vague time frame, but essentially it covers the last term of my second year of university. This was a busy time for me, as during the 10 week term, I had essay deadlines and Spanish exams in the first 3-4 weeks, then the revision period (during which time I had lots of UCSB and US embassy business to sort), finishing up with my exams a couple of weeks ago. As such, I wanted to be able to exercise without eating into my revision schedule or whatever too much, because I had other more important things to prioritise.

As a result, my programmes tended to reflect this. Prior to the Pre-Exam Phase (so during the first and second terms of university), I would have 4-5 sessions per week, with muscle groups put together so the primary and secondary muscles were different. If that’s mumbo jumbo, let me explain. When you exercise one of the bigger muscle groups, like the back, you still exercise another support muscle group, in this case, the biceps. Therefore, in terms 1 and 2, when I exercised my back, I would also exercise my triceps (because my biceps were already being exercised by the back exercises). This would work the opposite way as well: when exercising my shoulders (with triceps as the support muscle group), then I would work the biceps as well. Moreover, as you are hitting separate, unrelated groups, you can make effective  use of the time because even after a heavy exercise on the main muscle group (the back), your triceps will have been resting and so you can still work the secondary muscle group efficiently (in theory). This is a pretty standard workout configuration, but as you focus on 1 or 2 individual muscle groups, this requires more visits to the gym. A typical workout could be the following:

  1. Chest Press
  2. Hammer Curls
  3. Flys
  4. 21s
  5. Dumbbell Pullover
  6. Reverse Bicep Curls

This wasn’t really suitable for the Pre-Exam Phase because I had other priorities, like I said. During this phase, I was aiming to make fewer visits to the gym, about 3-4 (4 at the most), but instead, do workouts that encompassed much more compound moves and attempt to hit nearly all the main muscle groups in every workout. Therefore, I would normally start with a compound move that worked several muscles (like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, press-ups etc) then do some exercises that worked around them. Moreover, I tended to do fewer exercises but do them in a manner that made them challenging. For example, by reducing the rest time between sets, or emphasising the negative action of an exercise (this just means being slower on the lowering phase than the lifting phase). Moreover, I would finish each workout with a cardio or ab session, alternating between the two with every session. The aim of this type of workout was not to make gains as such, rather I just wanted to keep my fitness levels, tone, weight and size at a similar level. Whilst I was fairly successful in achieving this, it is a bit frustrating not to make any real progress in terms of physical appearance or strength gains. Still, it was interesting to use so many compound moves, some of which I’d never really incorporated into my workouts (notably squats and deadlifts had never featured in any of my workouts before!) A typical workout might be the following:

  1. Squats
  2. Wide-grip pull-ups
  3. T Press-up
  4. French Press
  5. Plank

Summer Transition Phase

This was the layover time between finishing my exams and heading back home. I essentially went back to the same workout structure that I had in term 1 and 2 (in the pre-pre-exam phase!!), but changed the way I enacted the workout. I used a method called hypertrophy drop sets, which are a fantastic way to gain muscle relatively quickly. This involves doing about 4 exercises per session, 2 each for the primary and secondary groups (back and triceps / chest and biceps etc). However, what makes it a good workout is you aim for 5 sets of 8-10 reps, of a pretty high weight, but the fifth set you do straight after the fourth set, with a lower weight. Hence the “drop” sets. That last set is always challenging if you’ve been using an adequately heavy weight for the first 4 sets, but it feels great and because it’s only 4 exercises, you can be in and out of the gym in no time. Again, I was just fitting abs and cardio around the workouts, with only a slight change to my cardio. Instead of going for 30-40 minutes on the tredmill or X trainer at a steady, but medium pace; I would go for shorter more intense interval training sessions. These included 20 minute sessions, where I would alternate between 1 minute of fast sprinting, and 3 minutes of jogging to recover, 5 times, with a short warm down at the end of this for about 3-5 minutes. An example of a hypertrophy drop set workout could be the following:

  1. Chest Press / Incline Press / Decline Press (alternate)
  2. EZ Bar Curls / Standing Curls
  3. Flys / Incline Flys / Decline Flys (alternate)
  4. Hammer Curls / 21s

This felt great to be back in the game and training in a more focused and challenging way, especially as I felt myself getting stronger very quickly. It also feels good to change your exercise regime because your body has muscle memory, so it gets used to the same old exercises. Eventually the exercises no longer challenge your muscles and you plateau. This website explains it very well, and gives some tips on how to avoid it. The best way to avoid muscle memory is to change up your exercise regime every few weeks, forcing your body to adapt to new challenges.

Diet and weight

That’s where I was until a few days ago when I began my new workout regime, which I will describe to you and give my initial impressions of in the near future. The last thing I think I should mention is my weight and diet. When I say “diet”, I don’t mean a weight loss programme, in fact I’m trying to do the opposite and gain mass. I’ve always eaten relatively healthily, and have had an athletic/slim build since I was about 16, but my main vices include:

  1. ALCOHOL- cannot emphasise this enough, but alcohol is the numero uno faltering point of many peoples’ diets. Just google the calories of some of your favourite drinks, you might be a bit horrified, I warn you. especially if you go on £20-30 nights out with many many drinks, the calories tally up.  
  2. Kebabs- Linked to the above. The formula for me on a night out can be summarised like this: More Drink + Later Night = Increased chance of Kebab purchase. Again, they are SO bad for you. Large Doner kebabs have AN ENTIRE WINE GLASS OF FAT IN THEM. Just bear that in mind on your next night out, I know I will!
  3. Cheese- very fatty but so yummy.
  4. Doritos- every time my Dad and I watch a film together, we can easily get through a large bag of these. Not good. Especially with the amounts of DVDs we watch…
But this summer I plan to keep a better diet and try and reduce some of these vices. I won’t eliminate them, because I’m not trying to lose weight, and it’s good to have some treats to look forward to. Otherwise, I plan to have a lean protein based diet, with lots of tuna, chicken, turkey and other high protein/low fat meats, without completely ignoring the beneficial red meats. I will also use some basic supplements, namely the wonderfully cheap Impact Whey Protein provided by myprotein.com. I usually take this after every workout, sometimes as part of an extra meal during the day, and before I go to bed. I use this to help gain mass, but also the additional protein is used to help repair muscles more quickly, aiding recovery. I.E, I don’t want to be hobbling around like a man beyond my years, bent over double because my back still hasn’t recovered 3 days after a workout. Not cool for a guy of 20.

Luckily, I weighed myself just after my exams so I could list my starting weight  whenever I got round to this first post. After exams I was: 10 stone 13 lbs, or just under 70kgs. That’s pretty light, but I put that down to a lighter salad / oily fish / fruit and veg-based diet that I had during my exams, in an attempt to fuel my brain. As Tesco says in it’s adverts, “every little helps”! Also I wasn’t drinking very much during exams (boy-oh-boy did we sort that problem out when that last exam finished up though). I hope to gain about half a stone by the end of summer, as I have been at 11 stone 4/5lbs before when exercising properly, and want to make advances on that figure.

So there we are! That’s the base I hope my new programme will let me build upon!