One Year Later

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One year ago today, December 15, I returned home from the UK. From what I remember, I was smiling and happy to be safe at home. Countless family members and friends commented on a picture of me with my family that day and said “glad you’re home safe!” I thought nothing of it—of course I was safe, why wouldn’t I be? But now, I understand the concern. One year from that day, December 15, and I’ve heard about too many terrorist attacks to count, and some even in places I visited while abroad. I can’t say that doesn’t scare me; I’d be lying if I did. But that doesn’t change the fact that I relish every moment stepped outside American soil. In fact, I’d do it all over again even now.

If you read any post on this blog, you’ll know I fell in love with a city that couldn’t love me back. It feels like I left a lover behind and we’ve cut all ties; I haven’t felt so lonely. The only consolation is the friends I made while there because they know my struggles like no one else will. Even though I can’t see them every day, the fact that they experienced London and Europe like I did is comforting. It makes the whole expedition seem more real.

A year later, I find myself looking at TimeHop and wishing for a second chance at exploration. Or a third. Fourth. Fifth, if I’m lucky. I love everything I did the first time around and wouldn’t change it for the world, but I want to go back. I want to experience everything for the first time again. I want to see the lights, hear the sounds, feel the bricks, eat the food. I want to feel the sting of loss as I leave the United States and the calming relief of touching down in Heathrow with the knowledge that my love is waiting beyond the gates. I want a lot of things that happened last year. The unfortunate reality is that the world isn’t safe, and experiences won’t be the same no matter how many times they’re played over again. I want to love travel, but terrorism wants me to cower in fear while sitting on my cushy beanbag chair, eating popcorn, and watching the news. I refuse to let it.

While of course money is a problem in the sense that I have none just floating around, fear is also a large issue. I am terrified of the prospect of leaving my home, my country, and then flying across the ocean to land closer to the action than I’m comfortable with. However, I’ve done it. Last year, ISIS was still a threat. Before them, countless unnamed and infamous groups. Despite their existence, I can say that I’ve traveled across the ocean to England, France, Ireland, and Italy and didn’t once feel unsafe. Traveling won’t keep you from the danger; it’ll make your life richer even as you encounter it.

Some might say “staying safe” is staying at home in comfort and isolation, but I can’t imagine a life where I don’t step outside. The world is too large to stay in one spot and fully live, so don’t let the fear of possibility keep you from going. Traveling. Experiencing. Wandering. Living.

I know it won’t stop me. Until next time, London. Stay lovely.

RUGRATS IN PARIS.

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*Rugrats= Myself, Jen, & Danielle.

In exchange for a Dublin trip, Jen humored me by going to Paris. We “dragged” our friend Danielle along with us even though she had traveled there earlier in the semester. Why? BECAUSE WE WERE GOING TO DISNEYLAND PARIS.

From the very beginning of the summer when I was preparing for London, I had this want to go to Disneyland Paris. Of course I wanted to see Paris as well, but Disney was my main goal. I am as big a Disney nerd (Disnerd) as any, so I felt like being so close to it would just kill me if I didn’t at least try to go. So, in November, we three planned a simple trip to the City of Lights with the Mouse on the side.

The hotel in d’Europe wasn’t too expensive because we split it three ways, and I can’t say the plane tickets were too horrible either. However, we only flew from Paris ORY to London HRW and took a train from London to Paris. I would have gladly taken a train back, but the site we used (Eurostar) told us there were no trains available the weekend we wanted to come back which, incidentally, happened to be the weekend we were all leaving for the States. Solution? Take a train there, fly home. Simple as that.

We had an early train to catch at St. Pancras International so that we could have the whole day to explore the city of Paris. I was filled with the normal anxiety and excitement combination, even when we were having minor problems with the Metro ticket machines once we arrived. Fortunately, the lady at the desk spoke some English, albeit broken, and was able to help us pay at the desk because the machines don’t take American credit/debit cards. Maybe some American cards work, but if yours doesn’t, don’t worry. Ask anyone at an official ticket sales desk and they’ll allow you to pay there with your card. Don’t buy from any random people selling them outside a machine or desk; there’s no guarantees they’ll work or be worth the slightly more expensive price. Be on the lookout!

Tip: buy the tickets in a pack (10 to a pack) instead of individually. You can use them for the Metro, a bus, or the RER and I believe they’re slightly cheaper than 10 individual tickets.

Danielle has been to Paris before and warned us about the pickpocketers just like in Rome and Dublin, but again I didn’t really see any. This might be because we went during an off-season time, but I felt relatively safe in Paris. That could also be because I was with two people instead of by myself. The only incident we ran into was a woman asking us if we spoke English (usually a tell tale sign you’re going to get pickpocketed), and then asking if we would sign her petition for something. We responded “no” to both questions to avoid further issues, but she still pressed on. We ignored her and she left, no harm done!

Our day in Paris was short, but we filled it meaningfully with different landmarks vital to a complete tour of the city. First on the list: the Louvre. There you can find the Mona Lisa (behind bulletproof glass, of course) and the Venus de Milo statue that is so popular. I also found another Art History class gem, the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci. The museum is HUGE so if you want to explore it in its entirety, reserve a full day or two to fully enjoy it. Students are allowed in for free if you have your passport and student idea with you at the time of visiting.

Second, we traveled to Angelina, a couple blocks from the Louvre, for some hot chocolate. Being that it was around lunchtime when we decided this, we figured we’d also have lunch. BUT, if there’s one thing true about Paris, it’s that the food is super expensive. The hot chocolate alone, though very tasty, was 8 euros. We decided to wait until dinner instead of ordering a super expensive lunch for what amounted to very little food, a decision I still don’t regret. The hot chocolate was quite wonderful, though, if you’re up to the price! It was rich and tasted exactly like liquid chocolate, no lies.

There is a park right outside Angelina that has a beautiful faraway view of the Eiffel Tower, obviously a must-see. It’s pretty to walk through and not really busy, though there isn’t much else to do there but walk. I bet if we waited a little longer to go (which wasn’t possible, but still), there would have been a Christmas market or two to browse. Either way, we walked through the park with the end goal being the Eiffel Tower, the beautiful symbol for France gleaming against the horizon.

Many crowded streets and shifty restaurants later, we had finally reached the Eiffel Tower. We made the executive decision not to go up into it (we were also quite broke in addition to being uninterested), though we did take plenty of selfies with it and each other. Underneath the Tower is supposed to be a cesspool of pickpocketing and other such activities, but because it was off season there was practically nobody there to bother us. All the better!

Our last two destinations were within walking distance of each other and both quite memorable in experience. The first of these two was Notre Dame. All I could think of was Quasimodo and those gargoyles, but all I was seeing was large and magnificent stained glass windows. There was a large Christmas tree stationed in front of it along with a huge advent wreath to mark the weeks until Christmas. We took a selfie with Notre Dame, and some wonderfully friendly French students photobombed our photo. I don’t think any of us minded too much.

Inside Notre Dame was three times as beautiful as the outside for a couple reasons. The patterns the stained glass made on the stone floor were breathtaking, but the sheer number of stained glass windows was enough to make me a little emotional. To top it all off, though, there was a funeral going on when we visited so the entire cathedral was filled with mournful a cappella that brought a tear to my eye. What a way to leave this Earth, I tell ya.

After Notre Dame, we walked across the street to go to my favorite part of the day, Shakespeare & Company independent bookstore. I love me some books, but this one is exclusively English and wonderfully cozy. It’s two stories of books upon books and people as well. Of course I had to buy a book, not only for the memory of it, but also because they stamp the inside of the book with the Shakespeare & Co. insignia and name to remind you where you got it. After much deliberation, I settled on a new copy of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, a purchase I don’t think I’ll regret anytime soon.

After the bookstore, we headed to the RER train to get to our hotel outside the city center. We used the last of our pack of tickets to get there, which was fine, but when we arrived we couldn’t get out of the gates. Apparently you need a special ticket to get in and out of the further stations because of how far away they are from the city center, but of course we wouldn’t have known that. So, instead of just asking someone what the issue was that we couldn’t get out of the gates, we just ghosted some people and left without any altercation. I still find it weird how no one the station, not even the workers, questioned this. I’ll never know.

Luckily our hotel was literally right outside the d’Europe station and it was BEAUTIFUL. If you’re ever planning a trip to Disneyland Paris, Hotel l’Elysee Val d’Europe is a wonderful option with shuttles to Disney everyday quite often throughout the day. Very high class for a low price, though no breakfast is included. To be honest, though, you can find breakfast somewhere else for much cheaper, which we did end up doing. Save your money!

There was a nice premium outlet mall right next to our hotel, so we decided to eat dinner there instead of wandering too far. After much deliberation and assessment of our bank accounts, we decided on McDonald’s because it was definitely the cheapest option. When I told my parents this, they were quite disappointed that I hadn’t tried French food, but I honestly did not have the funds to pay for French food! There is no shame in buying French McDonald’s if you don’t have enough money for anything else. Burgers are always better than snails!

The next morning we woke up bright and early to catch the shuttle from the hotel to Disneyland Paris. We were all atwitter with excitement and anticipation, and rightfully so! The 2 parks, Disneyland Paris and Disneyland Studios, are so small that you can literally walk from one to the other in about five minutes or less as well as access Disney Village (their Downtown Disney) all after bag check. But, just because the parks are half the size of Orlando’s Magic Kingdom combined, they are still loads of fun and not to be missed if you consider yourself a Disnerd.

The first one we hit up (after breakfast at the McDonald’s in Disney Village) was the Studios Park. They opened at 10 am to a reasonable crowd despite the poor weather (high winds that push you off your feet and misty rain made worse by said winds). Cool rides to check out are Crush’s Coaster, RC Racer, and the Ratatouille ride. They have an entire section dedicated to Toy Story set up to look like a tinker town and it’s connected to the Ratatouille town that looks like something straight out of the Pixar movie. They also have their own version of the Tower of Terror that Danielle and Jen say was amazing and scarier than the Orlando one, as well as a Rock n’ Rollercoaster that was under construction when we went. Still has Aerosmith music, though! We also sat through one of the 3D shows, Cinemagique that we thought would be a lot like the Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios, but it wasn’t. It featured Martin Short, though, which was cool, and had both English and French dialogue which helped immensely. Most of the rides did feature both languages, though some (like Star Tours) were exclusively in French. You still kind of get an idea of what’s going on, however.

For lunch we headed over to the Disneyland Park with Sleeping Beauty’s castle and ate at an Old Western place for a somewhat-expensive 15 euro meal that included a burger, fries, and a large drink that none of us could finish alone. We picked up old-fashioned fast passes for Space Mountain and decided to go on Star Tours while we waited. I had never been on the latter, so that was pretty cool even though it was completely in French! Space Mountain, though, was a whole other experience entirely.

I’m not one to enjoy upside-down steel rollercoasters because of one run-in I had with one at Dorney where I almost threw up on the ride. I’ve been a bit scarred since, you could say. So when I heard the Space Mountain in France had a loop, I was a bit frantic. Danielle and Jen convinced me to get a fast pass anyway, just in case I decided to ride, so that was precisely what I did. I spent about an hour talking myself in and out of it but eventually decided to ride anyway; when in Rome, right? Turns out the ride has about 3 corkscrews that I didn’t know about, but I was completely unscathed. My method? Close your eyes and scream the whole time. It’s entertaining to your friends and it also helps take the nerves out of your stomach. I could only tell we were going upside down when the pressure on the restraints changed. Needless to say, we went on a second time at night and I enjoyed it just as much.

Also while there, we explored the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, It’s a Small World, and the Pinocchio ride. The funniest part of It’s a Small World was when Americans were represented by cowboys and the Hollywood sign, which is obviously so accurate it hurts. Also funny: the entire ride was in English except for a small part in, you guessed it, Spanish. Uh, where are we? France? Yeah, couldn’t tell, could you? The Pinocchio Ride was one I’ve never been on because it’s in California, not Orlando. It’s extremely creepy, like Snow White levels of creepy (you know, the ride before the Winnie the Pooh one in Orlando), and I can’t say I enjoyed it all too much. I was disappointed, though, that I couldn’t relive my childhood nightmares on the Snow White ride because it was closed. Darn, I wanted to remember why I hated that witch!

To end the night, we watched the apparently award-winning show. I expected, in the true fashion of Disney, a bunch of fireworks in addition to castle projections, but we only got the latter. We watched for about ten minutes before deciding to leave and get dinner in the Disney Village. So much for award-winning, I guess. It was cute, but definitely not the level of Orlando… though I suppose it is unfair to compare them.

We ate at Earl of Sandwich and headed back to the hotel, our hearts heavy because we had to leave the next day. The trip from Val d’Europe to Paris ORY was relatively painless, but we were all pretty sad to leave. Not only did leaving Paris mean LEAVING PARIS, but it also meant leaving each other essentially. Danielle was leaving for the States the next day whereas Jen and I still had until that Monday. It was a bittersweet departure from Paris, but I am so grateful we were able to enjoy that expedition together. Danielle, if you’re reading this, I miss you dearly!! Hope everything is going well.

Overall, Paris was quite wonderful to us. Disneyland was definitely my favorite part, but that’s obviously because my priorities are in the wrong spot. Though the food is ungodly expensive, it isn’t the end of the world because there are McDonald’s abound and they aren’t half bad. If I had to go back and do something over, however, I would see the Eiffel Tower at night all lit up. I’m sad I didn’t to see that. Being it was the last trip I took, Paris really delivered. Disney was wonderful, but so was all of that sightseeing we did the first day. Even though we didn’t see everything a “One Day in Paris Itinerary) would tell you to do by the hour, we still had a great time and I wouldn’t really do it any other way.

The Studio Tour was Perfect and Nothing Hurt

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As a rather large fan of Harry Potter, it was a natural decision to go see the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in London. Almost as soon as it was affirmed that both Jen and I would be going to London, we bought the advance tickets for the studio tour. Add in a souvenir book each, and we were in this for about 50 pounds, give or a take a few. At the time we bought the tickets, it seemed like a far-off dream that would take ages to come true. If you’ve ever experienced time in the midst of something enjoyable, you know it moves way too fast and all of a sudden POOF it’s time to do the next big thing. As you can imagine, seeing the studio tour was definitely one of those big things that came up too fast.

I remember when I first arrived in London and set up a calendar on my cork board. I looked at all of the dates, filled in things Jen and I already planned, and smiled excitedly. In the middle of November, we were slotted to take our tour and it seemed so far into the future that I couldn’t possibly get excited too soon. But then, before I knew it, the tour was the next day and I had no time to process what this meant. Not only did I get to see the legitimate sets from the Harry Potter movies I love, but my time in London was coming to an alarmingly fast close. Needless to say, this day was a very bittersweet one but one of my favorites in the entire trip.

Jen and I had our outfits planned before we even left the States. Although a tried-and-true Ravenclaw (according to the most legitimate source, Pottermore), I donned my closet Gryffindor pride complete with Deathly Hallows necklace, Gryffindor socks, Weasley Quidditch shirt, and a Gryffindor sweater from the Wizarding World park in Universal Orlando. Jen sported quality, albeit understated, Slytherin wear with her green-and-gray raglan tee and Slytherin socks to boot. If nothing else, we were geeking out in style.

For future reference, if you ever wanted to travel there yourself and you’re thinking “but Riley, I don’t have a car! how do I get there?” Well, like you get most other places, you simply take the Tube (or Lunderground if you’re so inclined) to Euston, take the Overground to Watford Junction, and take the obviously-labeled Harry Potter shuttle bus to the studios! All in all, it took us less than 15 pounds to get there and back (shuttle is 2 pounds roundtrip).

If the bus wasn’t exciting enough–I mean come on, it was fully decked out in Harry Potter scenes and wonder–seeing the actual building where wizardry occurred was breathtaking. The building itself wasn’t anything spectacular from the outside, but what was inside was what truly mattered. And, yes, I may be partly talking about the Starbucks inside. But, I digress.

Jen and I, being way too excited for our own good, arrived about 2 hours before our scheduled time slot. If that’s not dedication, I’m not sure what is! We had some Starbucks, but obviously that doesn’t take a while to consume. Luckily, Warner Bros. understands that Wi-Fi is a necessity in this modern age, so fear not if you’re taking a trip there sometime in the future. After the Starbucks was consumed, the gift shop seemed like the next best place to go. The way I saw it, I could get all of my “should I get this? Oh surely not if I get this! GET ALL THE THINGS” out of my system and actually think about what I’d buy after the tour gets out. It was a foolproof system, I highly recommend it.

Though, a word of warning to my fellow American visitors: check what you buy. What I mean is, a lost of the merchandise there at the Studios is also sold in Universal’s HP theme park for obviously less money. The pound is an expensive currency to us Americans, so check the Universal Orlando’s online shop to make sure what you want is there! That way, you can either visit in person (recommended) or buy online. Save yourself some money! Though, to be fair, I did buy a pretty rockin’ mug with the Marauders Map on the back and footprints that appear when hot liquid is poured into the cup. COOL, RIGHT?

After our gift shop jitters were expelled, it was finally time for our wondrous tour into the world of Harry Potter. I was getting myself so worked up that when I saw the cupboard under the steps (they have it while you wait in line to get in for your tour), I took way more pictures than I needed to. For goodness’ sake, it’s only a staircase… THAT HOUSED THE MOST FAMOUS WIZARD FOR 11 YEARS.

As you can see, we have entered the part of the post where I begin using capital letters excessively. Hopefully you don’t mind; I do get terribly excited when Harry Potter is involved.

They ushered our group into this black-walled room with different screens displaying different HP movie posters from around the world. I kept ooh-ing and ah-ing at these posters despite the fact I’d seen them a million times over in the English language. They gave a little speech about Harry Potter and then ushered us into a large theatre where they claimed they’d show us a video.

And show us a video they did! Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint appeared on screen and gave the audience a rundown of what kind of work went into these films. Obviously they weren’t the only ones who made them possible; so many crew members and people behind the scenes made the movie magic we love so much. After they gave their touching tributes to those hard workers, the screen lifted and the doors to the Great Hall were there. THE GREAT HALL, I TELL YOU.

The lady went through this whole process of saying words and having a little girl help her open the doors, but the real magic was when the doors revealed the Great Hall at last. I’ll admit I was pretty much a ball of sentimental mush. I had to turn away and wipe the persistent tears away; I am 20 years old, darn it! I remember telling myself it was just a couple walls and wooden benches, but obviously that didn’t help much, as you can imagine. But Harry Potter is so much more than a children’s story, and seeing that set where so many wonderful scenes happened made me happy beyond belief. It made everything seem more real, more tangible. Magical, even.

They give you a set time in the Great Hall because, obviously, it’s the most popular set and the one you’re introduced to at the start of the tour. The rest of the tour is completely self-guided and you can take as long as you want to meander and take as many pictures as you can muster. Being the mature adults we are, Jen and I picked up passport books that you could stamp with paper imprints of different symbols from around the tour. I was dissolved to three year-old excitement when I saw those stamping stations, I’ll be honest.

All of your favorite sets were there including the Gryffindor common room & boys’ dormitory, Dumbledore’s office, Potions dungeon, the Burrow’s kitchen, Umbridge’s office, Hogwarts Bridge, and even Number 4 Privet Drive. One of the coolest features of the tour, though, was the green screen experience. It was optional and free to do, but the price came with the purchase of a picture or video of the experience. There were two to participate in: the Ford Anglia car from HP2 and a general broom ride through what I assume to be scenes of the different movies. They give you a robe for the broomstick one, which I found amazing. I purchased a picture from each one, and I’m not even sorry about it.

Word to the wise: if you claim to be affiliated with Harry Potter in any way, you better have Butterbeer. Luckily, the Studios didn’t cheap out on this, my favorite Harry Potter product. Butterbeer is the devil’s drink because I’m almost certain it brought me dangerously close to diabetes from the high sugar intake, but it is so worth it. I haven’t been to Universal recently enough to compare it, but it pleased me for the moment and that’s what matters.

One of the most popular parts of the tour is towards the end when you walk into the final room and see a beautiful scale replica of Hogwarts and its surrounding property. Because we went during the “Hogwarts in the Snow” event, the castle was dusted with snow powder and it looked absolutely breathtaking. There’s really not much else to say because it is a sight you need to see for yourself, but take my word for it that it’s definitely part of what makes the tour worth the pounds.

I was quite sad when the day was over, but overall Jen and I spent 3 and a half hours moseying around and taking as many pictures as possible. I am so happy we took the time out of the semester to visit the studios that made the HP movies so special and real; it was almost like I was able to say thank you just by visiting. Even though the stuff inside the tour doesn’t change, the studios have different themes throughout the year that would be cool to see. For example, in the summer they had a special about Quidditch and in October they did a lot of things with Deatheaters. If you have plans to go, book well in advance and see something cool! I’d love to hear about it.

The Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, while it was a bit expensive, was definitely worth every penny. The staff are wonderful, the sets are fantastic, and the whole experience is so surreal. Even if you’ve been to the Universal park, seeing the real thing is completely worth the travel to get there. Though, if you don’t have enough money to travel across seas (I mean who does, really?), the Diagon Alley in Orlando will suffice.

How to Do Rome on the Cheap

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…eat tons of gelato and pasta and pizza and have no regrets.

It’s been just about a month since I’ve blogged on here, but that’s not for lack of trying. School decided it wanted me to pay more attention to it, so assignments were due in the last couple weeks that I needed to get done. In the next couple weeks I’ll have the same dilemma. But, for now, I am enjoying a weird 2-week period of assignment nothing-ness and am using it to blog about my Reading Week Adventure: Roma!

So, last week was a wondrous period of time known as “Reading Week” when there are no classes to attend but a bunch of homework in return. Naturally, Jen and I planned a trip to Rome, Italy with this knowledge in mind. To be honest, we did a pretty bang-up job in terms of spending money. A very helpful fact is, at the time we went, the dollar-to-euro exchange was “cheaper” than the dollar-to-pound exchange, so it was almost like Rome was on sale, if you know what I mean.

If there’s one thing I learned on this trip, it’s that 4 days in Rome is either just enough time or not enough depending on how much money you want to spend and how many things you want to do. For Jen and I, 4 days was the perfect amount because we got everything done on our list and then some. Plus, we managed to spend the least amount of money possible. How? Well, I’m glad you asked!

1. Book Hotel & Flight Together
Of course booking a hostel is always an option if you’re of the younger crowd, but our hotel and flight package wasn’t that bad. All together, it was around 400 USD for four nights in a “4 star hotel” and roundtrip flights out of Heathrow and into Rome Fiumicino. If we booked each thing separately, we would’ve been paying a lot more. Plus, Heathrow is the main airport in London and easiest to access so it was perfect! For those curious, we booked this package through British Airways. The only caveat would be that the times for flights aren’t exactly prime: on Monday we had a flight at 4 o’clock so we pretty much stayed in that night. The return flight was 6:45 on Friday so we had to ask the hotel to keep our bags during the day, which they did gladly. If you don’t care about times really, then I’m sure you’ll be fine.

2. Eat Breakfast and Dinner
Definitely one of the biggest perks of our hotel, Hotel Augusta Lucilla Palace, was the amazing breakfast served every morning. It included proteins and pastries and juices and espresso machines so that it was impossible not to have something you liked. Every morning I ate a rather large breakfast and it kept me full until the early afternoon. Once we’d start to get a little peckish, we’d just buy gelato for around 3 euros and be set until dinner time. Might not be the healthiest option, but it got the job done for a cheap price AND it was delicious! I was told by my Uncle Frank that if you stop into any restaurant in Rome, it’s going to be amazing. He sure wasn’t kidding! We walked around for a while trying to find a good pizza place, but we eventually settled on a random place that looked cute enough. Of course, it was delicious and, amazingly, it was cheap! Jen and I split a pizza and bruschetta and it only cost us about 8 euros each. Considering we didn’t eat a full lunch, 11 euros total for food is fantastic. The second night we had pasta at a restaurant close to our hotel and it was fantastic, naturally. The next night we had pizza again (with spicy salami) and on the last day we ate sandwiches at the airport. If I had to give a rating for Rome’s food, it would be through the roof. No place disappointed, not even the airport!

3. Walk, Walk, and Walk Some More
So what if you eat gelato for lunch everyday for four days? Think of it this way: you’re doing enough walking to probably burn it off and then some. At least, that’s how I interpreted it! We didn’t take any public transport and walked everywhere, even to Vatican City. In that week, Jen and I walked so much I couldn’t believe I was still walking by the end. The first day we went to the Colosseum which was surprisingly not far from our hotel. It was 17.50 euros for a ticket that included the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Palatine Hill. We also received an audio guide with that price and it was extremely helpful and educational. The Colosseum, obviously, is AMAZING and surely not to be missed. The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill were cool as well, but the Colosseum was definitely the highlight of that day. We also walked to the Trevi Fountain (sadly under renovation) and the Pantheon that same day. The second day, we hiked all the way across the Tiber River to the Vatican City, a bit of a walk from our hotel. We saw the Pope, visited the Vatican Museums (8 euros for students), saw the Sistine Chapel, and saw St. Peter’s Basilica. We paid extra to go up into the cupola (an extra 5 euros if not taking the elevator, 7 euros if you are), an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone. Except… don’t save the 2 euros. Just take the elevator halfway up and walk the rest of the steps because, trust me, it’s NOT WORTH IT TO WALK SO MANY. My legs were shaking and I felt weak for the rest of the day. And we still had to walk back to the hotel! So, unless you’re super athletic or like torturing yourself, don’t walk the 551 steps. You’ll thank me later. That same day we also saw the Spanish Steps which are just a bunch of steps really. Nothing too special there.

The third day we went to the Villa Borghese, the Bioparco (the zoo), the Galleria Borghese, and the Capuchin Crypt. The Villa is free because it’s a large beautiful park, the Bioparco was 15 euros and quite large (and mostly in Italian), the Galleria was 11 euros (unless you’re studying art or architecture, then it’s cheaper), and the Crypt was 6 euros. Again, everything is really close in terms of walking distance, so there’s little to no need to take public transportation. After only seeing the entrance to the Metro stations, I wouldn’t want to anyway… and there are certain buses known as the “Pickpocket Express” because of how tourist-y and packed they are. So, as always, be careful.

The final day we decided to catch a train at 3, so we had a good chunk of the day to play with. We went and saw the Imperial Fora, a free area around the Colosseum with some old ruins and statues of various Caesars. We also walked into this large building with two large horse statues on top (I forget the name) and there was a beautiful church inside. I bought a couple souvenirs from there; an ornament among them! The shopkeeper didn’t speak great English, but he knew enough to tell us that the Americans seem to buy ornaments more than any others because of the “big trees” we decorate at Christmastime. I told him he was exactly right! It’s beautiful too. So, long story short, walking gets you everywhere (if weather holds out) and it’s cheap! Plus, you walk off the calories from the delicious gelato you eat, so it’s a definite plus.

4. Go During Off-Season
This may be easier said than done, especially if you live in America and work full-time, but the off-season is definitely the time to go to Rome. While you may run into the problem of some attractions like the Trevi Fountain being under repairs and renovations, there are significantly less people and less instances of pick-pocketing. While I was on high alert everyday when I left the hotel room, I was never approached in that way. There were of course people dressed in gladiator costumes asking if you wanted a picture, but they always ask for money afterwards. There’s plenty of people on tourist-y spot corners holding selfie-sticks available to purchase (though they just seem to be offering them out of the goodness of their hearts HA), and of course the guys with umbrellas when it rains. If nothing else, I’ve learned that some Italians are extreme opportunists. But, as long as you just avoid these types and take the normal precautions against pickpocketers, you should be fine and keep all of your cash.

Helpful Tips

  • Worried about getting euros before going to Italy? Fear not! Just take them out of ATM’s when you get to Rome. There are plenty of banks, and you can usually go inside to take out the money instead of on the street for everyone to see. Plus, they have an option to read in English! Bonus!
  • Worried about looking like a tourist? You’re not the only one! I found it extremely helpful to open my map on well-lit corners and in the presence of others doing the same. That way, Jen and I weren’t targets for being the only ones engrossed in our maps. Trust me, you’re not the only one lost on the many Roman streets.
  • Worried about getting lost? Get a map! Plenty of hotels (at least in the Termini area) have plenty of maps with large pictures of the big spots so you can locate them easily on the map as you go. While the streets may be many in number, just take a second to locate it and continue on your way. Guidebooks are also extremely helpful and worth the money! The pull-out map we had didn’t have all the names of the streets, however.
  • Worried about anything else? Shoot me a comment; I’ll help in anyway I can. While I don’t pretend to be an expert, I might be able to offer some helpful advice.

 While I am sad my trip to Rome is over, I’m excited for the upcoming London adventures. I should hopefully have a blog post up in the upcoming days regarding a rather exciting trip for this weekend… I’ll just say this: It’ll be a magical experience! ;D

One Month Down and #firstworldproblems

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Can you believe it– I’ve already been here a month! On one hand, it feels like it has been forever since I set foot in London. But on the other hand, it’s really only been four weeks. I’ve done so much in the last 28 days that it all seems to blur together and render time completely irrelevant. When I’m doing things, I don’t really think of how much time has passed. But when I’m sitting here with my thoughts, the brevity of this trip becomes completely apparent. And even though this is a bit sad, how quickly things are flying by, I’m also really happy that I’m one month closer to being home. There are just some things about this place that can’t compare to home… and I’m going to tell you what they are.

1. Macaroni & Cheese IN A CAN

Yep, I’ve seen it! No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to find Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. The only stuff I’ve been able to find is stupid canned mac & cheese by Heinz. Yeah, the ketchup brand! The first time I saw it I definitely felt like I had been dropped in a netherworld of opposites and complete chaos. That feeling still hasn’t disappeared completely… though I did cave and buy some canned mac & cheese today. Wish me luck.

2. The Extreme Lack of Sliced Cheese

Sure, sure, I can go to a deli (though I have yet to find one, at least within walking distance) and ask for sliced cheese. But why do that when I can buy Kraft Singles or its equivalent? Oh, wait! I know! Because they practically don’t exist! I have gone through some rather impressive sleuthing to even find the darned things and, even then, they come in packs of 10. A girl needs more than 10 pieces of cheese for a week’s worth of use!

3. British Starbucks & the Price of Coffee

Envision this for me, if you would: you go to Starbucks. You want a coffee, so you ask for a tall something-or-other. The price? $3.25. Sure, that’s a bit pricey, but hey. It’s Starbucks! Well, come over to the Greatest of Britains and Starbucks is the same price! Oh, yes, that’s right… in pounds! So, Americans, coffee is actually like $5 for the smallest of sizes! HOW IS THAT FAIR IN ANY WORLD? Then, can we talk about the fact that iced coffee isn’t even a thing here? Jen, on multiple occasions, has asked for an iced Pumpkin Spice Latte and received a blank stare. On many of these occasions, the barrista was able to tell the cashier that, yes, they could make iced coffee (pouring coffee over ice is a good method), but there was one time where that didn’t even happen. The cashier/barrista just put a bunch of pumpkin spice mix into a cup of ice, added about three sips of coffee, and put whipped cream on it. Needless to say, the drink was sugary and full of nasty. What the crap, Starbucks?

4. Coffee in GENERAL

I have an undying love for coffee that will never die. Can you believe I haven’t made one cup of coffee on my own? I practically refuse considering 1.) I don’t have a coffee maker to filter my coffee for me and 2.) any other option is instant coffee. I just can’t wrap my head around those little pebble-like objects disintegrating into my hot water and creating a great drink. Plus, I’ve been too afraid to see the price of creamer considering the price of everything else… and sugar? Oh, forget it! It’s just too much of a hassle to even think about making coffee, never mind actually carrying out the action.

5. Every Meal

Whenever I have to cook for myself, which is quite often as eating out is expensive, I feel like a total and absolute failure at life. Until a couple days ago, I couldn’t even make grilled cheese. Canned foods and quick-heat items are my best friends, but they don’t keep me full. Jen and I have collaborated on quite a few successful meals, but they’re annoying to execute! I give all of the props in the world to my parents and anyone who has ever made me a home-cooked meal. And let me tell you… I’ll be sorely missing food (and family) on Thanksgiving.

Trust me, there are many more things I need to add to this list but they will have their day. If nothing else, this trip has taught me to be grateful for everything I have at home. I give so much credit to my parents for buying groceries every week, cooking meals everyday, and just doing things everyday that keep me comfortable and happy. Though I do love it here as much as a person can love London, I happily await the day when I can come home and eat tacos or pork chops or Kraft Mac & Cheese. Only a couple more months!

Oxford is Hogwarts

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It is a Tuesday night as I write this and I am happy to say my cold has diminished to a tedious cough that attacks out of nowhere. Hey, it’s better than the blocked up sinuses I had last week!

This past Saturday, Jen and I decided to take a bus out to Oxford to see some sights. Unfortunately, most cool things like museums and botanical gardens close at 5, so not much sightseeing was done as we had hoped. But, what we did see was fantastic and definitely worth the trip. We woke up rather early to get to the Tube station for 8:30, rode the District Line to Victoria, and made our way to the coach stations there. We took the Oxford Tube bus from Victoria to St. Aldate’s and it was only 13 pounds roundtrip (we paid the bus driver when we got on the bus, no reservations needed)!

As many of you may know, Oxford is famous for Oxford University, but also the origins of Alice in Wonderland and the shooting of scenes from Harry Potter. Jen and I are a fan of both things, so of course going to Oxford was a no-brainer! The first stop on the monstrous list of things to do was Christ Church. We had to pay to get in, 7.50 pounds, but it was well worth it. One of the social halls on the Church’s property was used as a model for the Great Hall in the HP films, so seeing it in person was extremely cool. The stained glass windows were gorgeous and intricate, the ceilings even more so, and pretty much everything about the entire Church felt historical. But, history aside, I was mainly interested in the locations from Harry Potter.

I am pleased to say that I walked up the stairs McGonagall greets the students on in the first HP film (Christ Church), sat in the room where they filmed the dance lesson scene from the fourth film and any shots from the infirmary (Divinity School), and saw the library where they shot the “Restricted Area” scene from the first film and the library shots (Duke Humphrey’s Library)! It was so cool and surreal to be in the same places that some of my favorite movies were filmed; I can’t even really describe the feeling!

After Christ Church, we ran off to the Bodleian Library and purchased a half hour tour of the Divinity School and Duke Humphrey’s Library (5 pounds), both extremely cool because of their historical contexts and Harry Potter associations! If you like the smell of old books, Duke Humphrey’s Library smells IMMENSELY like old books. You walk up the stairs and through the doors and WOOSH you are assaulted with history and time. Even though it is cool, the smell does get a tad overwhelming.

With the library behind us, we only had fifteen minutes before any museums closed. Luckily the Science museum was across the street from the library, so we hopped in and ran about the ground floor taking pictures. Even though we didn’t get to see even a fraction of the place, what we did see was extremely cool and interesting. I would definitely go back! We also hopped into a bookstore nearby called Blackwell’s and had some coffee at the indoor Cafe Nero. The bookstore was really cool, but the coffee I had was what made it great. Caramelatte… yum!

Of course in between our tour of Christ Church and the Bodleian Library, we had about a four hour gap. In that time, Jen and I finally ripped off the band-aid and decided to eat at… believe it or not… PIZZA HUT. And, let me tell you, it was fantastic. We got cheesy-bite margherita pizza and it was heavenly. I’m not sure if the pizza itself was actually great or if I just really needed some actual pizza in my life, but either way I was a happy camper. After the best Pizza Hut experience of my life, we went to do some shopping as our families requested various clothing items donning the “Oxford” moniker. I will admit I spent some serious cash that day, but it was worth it. Between walking tours and a cool sweatshirt and t-shirt saying I’ve been to Oxford, I couldn’t have asked for a better day!

I can’t say our flatmates had the same, however.

When Jen and I returned from our fun day at Oxford, we walked past one of the buildings to see a lot of people sitting in a common room. I commented that they must be a club having a meeting or something, but we soon found out that was not the case. We were just about to walk towards our dorm when a lady stopped us and asked for our flat numbers. We told her, and then she told us to sit in the room where all of those people were sitting. Needless to say, they were not a club and they were not having fun. They had been sitting in that (cold) room for four hours, were promised pizza and drinks, and only received the latter. A bunch of our flatmates were in there livid because they were woken out of naps and had to come out in pajamas in the 50-degree weather. Turns out there was a fire in one of the flats’ kitchens and everyone had to evacuate, naturally, but security checking the rooms took almost five hours to finish. I’m glad I missed most of that waiting, but I still feel terrible for everyone from our dorm building that had to wait that long. Gotta love college, am I right? Thankfully no one was hurt and the person who unintentionally started the fire now knows that trying to put out an oil fire with water NEVER WORKS.

I am now in Week 3 of school and things are going by a little too fast! In just a couple weeks, my first assessments for classes are due. Jen celebrated her 21st birthday yesterday. Jen and I did the London Eye today (finally) because the weather was nice. Side note: it was fantastic and really breathtaking! Definitely worth the money. In terms of school, my readings are getting longer and more convoluted. I’m simultaneously missing my friends from home and absolutely LOVING my new friends here. It’s a weird feeling, both liking here and missing home, but it’s so much better than pouring all my feelings into homesickness. I’m already a fourth of the way through the semester… is it going to slow down any time soon?

Day ?? – So… I’ve Been Sick

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No, I have not forgotten what number day it is! I have forgotten, though, how long each of these blog posts takes to write and how little time I actually have in the day. So with that in mind… I’ve realized that daily blogging isn’t exactly realistic with the amount of reading and writing I’ve been having to do even in these two weeks; prepare for less posts (BOOOOO). However, there is also another reason I haven’t been posting anything. If you’ve read the title, you probably already know… I’ve been sick.

Yes, you’ve heard me correctly! I contracted the wonderfully contagious “fresher’s flu” that usually hits hardest in the first year students because they party hardy every single night during welcome week. I was not one of those people, yet I still caught the disease. Thankfully, I don’t have to bear it alone because my whole flat is coughing up a collective lung (not to mention the symphony of mucus-laden coughs and gags during the Shakespeare lecture last Friday)! I still wonder where I got the illness from, though… a girl has to wonder.

Before I drowned in a mix of hot tea, cold medicine, and mucus, I had a pretty enjoyable weekend. Jen, Danielle, Nicole, and I all headed out to London Chinatown on Saturday night to get some fancy-pantsy dinner (at a reasonable price) and other things around the area. Once we left dinner at the Golden Phoenix (or something like that; there were many-colored phoenix restaurants), we had no idea what to do. Planning is everything, friends! We walked into what claimed to be the oldest bar in London, saw it was too busy, and promptly left. We wandered into a frozen yogurt place accurately named Snog (sarcasm), met an Australian guy who thought Texas and Pennsylvania were close to each other, and saw a West End show. Wait, what? You saw another show?! Yes! At around 7:30, we weren’t sure what we wanted to do to end the evening. We looked down the street and, as if placed there by angels, “Shakespeare in Love” presented itself. So, we figured, why not check out what seats they have available right before the show starts?! Long story short, we got decent seats for 15 pounds. Pretty amazing, if I say so myself, especially for a Saturday! The show was FANTASTIC and I loved it so so so much. I would definitely recommend it; for Shakespeare fans, it’s HILARIOUS. For non-Shakespeare fans but fans of good theater, it’s HILARIOUS. Either way, you’re winning!

Saturday was pretty awesome, so naturally Sunday had to be the beginning of my sickness. Jen and I pretty much did homework all day seeing as we both had copious amounts of reading for classes on Monday, and towards the end of the night I began to get a runny nose. I had been complaining about a scratchy throat for a day or two, but the nose thing was new and completely unwelcome. I remember Jen saying something like “I swear if you get sick I’m disowning you” to which I replied “Trust me, I think it’s just a weather thing I’ll be fine.”

No, you won’t be fine, Riley. You just won’t be.

I woke up Monday morning not being able to breathe. My nose was congested and my voice sounded blocked up, the perfect recipe for a cold! With these wonderful thoughts in mind, and no medicine with which to doctor myself, I trudged off to class. Though, I will say, I did take an ibuprofen for my throat pain and all of the tissue packs I had on my person. Needless to say, I barely had enough tissues for the whole day.

Now, Mondays are my worst days in terms of class because I pretty much run from 11 until 5 with crummy one hour breaks in between.  With this cold as my cross, Monday was even more atrocious. I attempted to get some medicine in between class by travelling to each of the three campus stores, but none of them had anything worth my pounds. The line in the bookstore was too long for me to give it a fair look, but it’s safe to say their wares were probably too expensive. Such is London.

After I suffered through all of my classes and refused to talk because of my disgusting voice, I convinced Jen to travel to Sainsbury’s and Budgens to find medicine. I ended up buying, after much deliberation, “Sainsbury’s Max Strength Cold & Flu Day & Night” (wow so generic) which is pretty much Dayquil/Nyquil and some Sudafed Nasal Spray for my terrible sinus congestion. One of my flatmates was sweet enough to give me a box of her tissues, but the day proved to me that I would need much more than just one box. Therefore, I bought two boxes of Kleenex, one called “balsam mansize” (what I’m assuming to be the lotion kind) and a normal one. Both were softer than the toilet paper and napkins I had been using, obviously, so they were both cherished.

Two days later, I am feeling much better. The cold has moved down to my throat where it kills me with random coughs that make people jump (trust me, it actually happened today on the Tube). My wonderful friend Nicole bought me some cough medicine because we have twillnesses (twin illnesses… too much?), so that has been helping somewhat.

Cold aside, I actually did some cool things today as well. Nicole and I went to Chiswick House for our Architecture class today, a trip with a travel time of about 50 minutes by Tube. It was pretty cool, kinda bland, but I guess that’s what Lord Burlington was going for when he attempted to revive the Italian Renaissance in England. After Chiswick House, I had to travel to Blackfriars to get to Shakespeare’s Globe as I had bought a ticket for “The Comedy of Errors.” I was nervous about travelling there on my own, but I survived unscathed! I feel like a true Londoner. I may have arrived to the show 20 minutes late, but I can’t say enough how cool the Globe is. I had a standing seat (LOL) and everyone literally just stands in front of the stage. It is so cool! The show itself was hilarious (and the guys in it weren’t that bad to look at either) and I am so glad I went, even if I was late. Growing experiences, yay! I will say, my favorite part of the show was when two of the guards came out and did a silent filler scene. An explosion had just happened onstage, making one of the statues’ heads break off. The one guard picked up the head and held it in the air Hamlet-style, looking at the other with a knowing look. Everyone was chuckling; ha-ha, Shakespeare joke in a Shakespeare play ha-ha. But the real kicker was when both of the guards picked up brooms that were lying on the ground, put them between their legs, and tossed the head between them LIKE QUIDDITCH. Everyone in the crowd cheered and clapped; how cool is it that Shakespearean actors incorporated Harry Potter into one of their plays? INCREDIBLY COOL!

To end the post, I will say a few things: Even though I won’t be doing daily blogs, I will still try and keep this blog updated at least weekly. You guys (especially my family and friends) deserve to know what’s been going on! Hopefully this post sufficed. See you next time!