Category Archives: Western Europe

A day in Cambridge

It’s 6 am and the rumblings of tourist season are already drifting through my window. My room is perched above King’s Parade, a historically significant street that attracts flocks of tourists to its shops, restaurants, and colleges. Since I don’t have class until 10:15 am, I grab my ear plugs and try and doze a little longer. Eventually I am woken by either my alarm, or the humidity from this perpetual heat wave. My family would be quick to inform you that I am the antithesis of a morning person, so it’s not till I have downed my morning bowl of matcha tea that I can contemplate my day’s schedule. Classes, homework, and some sort of evening activity.



Descending the spiral staircase from my bedroom I pop in my headphones and brace myself for the crowds. After 15 minutes of deftly dodging honking cars, screeching children, and racing cyclists, I arrive at class in the Engineering building. During my final three weeks at Cambridge I am taking one class, Behavior Ecology, which means I have lecture five times a week, and seminar twice a week, for one hour and fifteen minutes each. Lectures usually consist of a standard PowerPoint presentation, whereas seminars are much smaller and we partake in demonstrations, activities, and discussions.

After my morning lecture on predator-prey behavior, I have a two-hour break until my seminar. There isn’t quite enough time to return to King’s College for lunch, so I meet some friends at our favorite coffee shop across the street from the lecture hall. The cafe, Hot Numbers, always has delicious sandwiches, drinks, and salads; I cringe to think of how much of my food money has been spent here.

 After getting a snack and finishing a bit of work, I head to Pembroke College where my seminar group is meeting. Today we are exploring Coe Fen, a semi-rural meadow that adjoins the busy city center. Here hotels and pubs populate one side of the River Cam and cattle roam through wild fields on the other side. We follow our professor to various locations as he points out examples of wildlife behavior he explained in the morning lecture. Even through the heat and humidity is oppressive, it’s exciting to be outside and learning about the local flora and fauna.


Our professor explaining how animals distribute according to the amount of food resources in the environment by feeding the mallards and Canadian geese bread chunks.

I walk back to King’s as my mind buzzes with damsel fly mating patterns and goose feeding habits. During dinner my friends and I swap stories of our day, or of our lives back home. Evenings here are almost always different. If we have exams I will head to the library, if I feel a bit antsy I will take a sunset stroll along the River Cam, or if I have time I will take part in one of the program coordinated events. Almost every night there is some sort of optional social program or lecture, but everyone’s favorite event is the formal hall.


Dinner at King’s College


My bedroom desk where I attempt to study

During the school year most Cambridge colleges have formal hall multiple times a week. Cocktail dresses or suits are required and the three-course meal is always delicious. The grand hall rings with laughter and the tinkling of utensils. After the beautiful candlelit affair everyone goes out to the bar or club to dance off the endless wine.


Some of my friends before our second formal.


My friend is also graduating from UC Berkeley when we finish our courses in two weeks.

Since there are only three formal dinners most nights are occupied elsewise. Regardless of the evening activity the best part of every day is returning to King’s College and stepping into the courtyard just beyond the gate. On the right King’s Chapel soars toward the sky, in front is the stunning Gibb’s Building, and to the left is the building where I live. A delicate silence permeates the open space, one that is almost startling after the sudden cessation of the day’s activity. The stained-glass windows of King’s Chapel twinkle from a mysterious inward light and the cool night breeze plays with my sun dress. If the weather permits, the sky alights with thousands of stars. The sweetness of these moments provides a breath of time for reflection and gratitude.

gibbs building

Gibb’s Building is the first thing you see as you walk through the gates of King’s College.

Heading left to my building, I climb the spiral staircase, rinse off the day’s sunscreen, and crawl into bed. I listen to the murmuring of the late-night lovers or the random guffaw from friends walking home from the pub. These sounds lull me to sleep as think about all that occurred during the day and prepare for tomorrow’s adventure.


Looking over the River Cam at the back of Gibb’s Building and King’s Chapel.

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Filed under Sofia in England, Western Europe

Ups and Downs

This trip has been something that I have been looking forward to for months, basically since I found out about it. Travel has always been something I’ve been passionate about, and excited about doing and this trip is one of the biggest trips I have ever embarked on. I do not think that I prepared enough.

When it comes to planning, I normally over-plan and map everything out, as I did with packing for Spain. I had my spreadsheet, and a picture of each item attached. With the trip itself though, I decided to just let things happen on their own. Anyway, my study abroad program is mostly figured out for me: 18 days, each day mapped out within the syllabus my teacher had posted. That gave me a false sense of comfort that everything was ready for me to arrive and experience all that Spain has to offer.


I forgot to account for arriving three days early in Barcelona with two fellow classmates. Thankfully, one of them had done some research and I was able to just ride on her coattails, tagging along on the various tours. Day one was a bit hard, but I tried to stay optimistic. Traveling itself is just extremely exhausting. I spent the whole day packing and getting ready to leave, and left the house around 9 PM to get on a five-hour plane ride at 12:50 AM. We arrived in Spain at 10:30 local time, completely exhausted. Navigating public transport, we got lost for about an hour in Barcelona, trying to locate our Airbnb. It was hard not to get frustrated with my friends, my brain wanted to take things out on someone for being so tired, and so hot, and just completely exhausted.

Day two was really the first day in Barcelona, and it was honestly a bit of a low for me at first. I had been taking antibiotics since before I had left home, and they were making me extremely nauseous and wound up, spending the first half of the day in bed trying to cope with how it was making me feel. Taking a nap in the middle of the day really did not help my jet lag. My friends explored the old town of Barcelona as I stayed in bed until about 6 PM when I felt good enough to go out. It was hard not to get upset at myself for staying in bed. There was a cycle of thoughts, about how I’d come so far only to stay in bed feeling ill, wasting time.

The afternoon made up for it though. We went to the beach and I swam in the ocean. It was one of the most amazing feelings I’ve had in my entire life. The taste of salt on my lips after I emerged from the water for the first time, was something I hadn’t tasted in years. After spending all day in bed, the ocean was so comforting and honestly just fun.

The rest of Barcelona was a similar roller coaster for me. Not so much a roller coaster as a turbulent airplane ride, like the one I had taken into Spain. It’s hard being somewhere you have never been before, and it is scary when you’re surrounded by people that don’t speak your language. I took four years of German back in high school, which is absolutely nothing like Spanish, so teaching myself the basics of Spanish has been a challenge. The first thing I asked in Spanish was where the trash can was, and I was really proud of myself. It was a moment of victory, the fact that someone understood my terrible pronunciation of the word ‘basura’.


I think the hardest thing has just been exhaustion. My body just is not used to moving this much, carrying so much. The day I had to travel to my homestay, we took a train from Barcelona to Madrid, arriving at 11:10, with another train for me leaving at 20:00 from Madrid to Segovia. I had this gap in time so I could explore Madrid for a few hours, which I don’t regret because of how beautiful and unique Madrid is. Dragging around a suitcase and a full camera bag, laptop included, through the country for hours on end was hard, though. Around 5 PM I felt completely exhausted. We had left our Airbnb a little before 6 AM, my feet and shoulders were killing me. We had spent about 5 hours in trains and the metro and I just wanted to go to bed. So I went to the train station early and waited two hours for my train. From my train, I got on a bus and my host mother picked me up around 9:15 PM. It was an incredibly long day.

The other hard part was needing to overcome a language barrier, because my host mother does not speak English, and I barely speak Spanish. When I say barely, I mean I don’t speak Spanish. I was trying to comprehend her fast-paced sentences. She spoke in a way that seemed so quick, as I was picking up on small words I knew and trying to get the big picture of her meaning. Thankfully Google Translate exists, and I had brought a small Spanish phrase book and dictionary. Even with those tools though, it was still difficult at first. I was mostly just exhausted, ready to sleep, and my brain power was close to 10% after the long day. I stayed up for another hour or two getting to know my host family, and telling them a few things about my life back home and my journey getting there.


There have been a lot of ups and downs of the trip so far, and it has been a little hard on me emotionally if I’m honest with myself, but I feel good right now about where I am. I’m incredibly excited to get to know more about my host family, this country, and of course photography – the thing I’m here to study to begin with. I’m glad I took the few extra days before my class officially started to really see some of the country on my own with a few friends. I can’t wait to see how much I grow and learn over the next few weeks.

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Filed under Lexi in Spain, Video Bloggers, Western Europe

Meet Gilman Scholar Lexi Morgan

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Filed under Lexi in Spain, Western Europe

Roses and Thorns

After a lovely day exploring the botanic gardens and the city, I lay in bed thinking about my last two weeks and all the ups and downs. Most of my time has been spent in class or with new friends, which has been challenging and rewarding in equal measures.


Back in January when I was selecting my courses, I decided to leave my biology comfort zone and try a completely new subject: world politics. I hope to one day work in the field of global health and I figured studying world politics at a foreign university would be a good place to start. As it turns out, trying to understand international relations theory in three weeks is like trying to drink from a fire hose. I am stumbling through a confusing world of Realism, non-state players, and international power balance. Every 75-minute class is a test in mental stamina, but I can already feel my understanding of the world’s political system growing and changing.


The graduation parade with undergraduate, masters, and graduate students heading to city hall to formally complete their degree.

Before this class I didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the United States’ influence in world politics. From World War II, to the Cold War, to modern day, the foreign and domestic policies of the US have had far greater impacts then I ever imagined. This realization has been reinforced by several conversations I have had with the locals. I was surprised to find that many of them can speak more eloquently about the US politics situation then most of my friends back home. A Cambridge PhD student even told me that it is “trendy” amongst his friends to keep up with United States’ politics. Two weeks ago I would never have guessed that learning from an Iranian professor at a British institution, surrounded by peers from around the world, would challenge my identity as an American citizen. I am realizing that to truly understand your role as a US citizen abroad, you need to first understand how America’s current and historical actions have impacted the country you are visiting. As I learn more about America’s position in world politics from class, my peers, and the Cambridge locals, I become increasingly cognizant of how I portray myself and my country.

When I am not grappling with political theory, I am meeting scores of new people every day. My program is comprised of 350 students representing many countries. Over our traditional English breakfast, I learn about life in Canada, Singapore, and China. Back home I don’t normally talk to groups of complete strangers, but here I find myself speaking up without hesitation. Walking home from class on Friday I came across a group of three recently graduated Cambridge University students who were circled around a baby bird in distress. After thirty minutes of discussion we finally decided to move the little fluff ball from the busy road to the safer shrubbery nearby. We left the bird with water and sardines and I left with a promise to see my bird-rescuing compatriots again. It’s not always all roses though, being removed from your family and friends can be disorienting, stressful, and sometimes awkward. Last week I was toughly embarrassed to have mistaken a girl in my class for another girl whom I had eaten dinner with the night before. Tactless moments aside, fitting into a whole new social network is a difficult and wonderful experience.


My program’s rigorous course load, and vibrant social life, has made these last two weeks feel like two days. With each new experience and conversation my sense of self, and conception of our global community, shifts a little bit more. There are many moments where I have been uncomfortable or anxious, but from each of these moments of difficulty, I grow a little bit more as a person. I believe someone once said the you cannot have the rose without the thorns, and I couldn’t agree more.



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Filed under Sofia in England, Western Europe

Surviving the British Buffet (This Post Will Make You Hungry)

Remember when you were a kid and everything you put in your mouth was a new experience?  It’s not too late to relive it.

Britain has a reputation for terrible food, and I’m not sure where that comes from. What I will say, though, is that British foods don’t tend to travel the same distances that American foods do, and I suspect this reduces the amount of additives and preservatives injected for shelf life.  In the States, you can hardly find a salad dressing or tomato sauce without sugar added, and salt intake is on the high end even if you don’t own a shaker. British foods, on the other hand, are pretty much “season to taste,” which requires a trifling amount of effort but actually works out rather well if, like me, you’re also starting to realize how shamefully inept you are at the most basic fundamentals of feeding yourself. I’m actually more than a little proud that I’m learning to strike that precarious balance between seethingly bland and plate-of-pure-salt.


a proper british pub spread

A proper British pub spread.


The trade-off in Britain is that while perishables perish, they also tend to be RIDICULOUSLY fresh when you buy them. Like, right off the farmer’s wheelbarrow and into your kitchen. I’m starting to suspect that the myth of terrible British food is contrived to keep secret the mouthwatering deliciousness of things.  I do suspect that because foods tend to be fresher and less pre-saturated with flavourings, the British may have a slightly subtler palate. American brands compete for customers with increasingly outrageous combinations (chocolate-chip sausage, anyone?) which I suspect has conditioned our tastebuds to have a very high tolerance and a very low comprehension for more nuanced tastes. The Brits, on the flip side, are unaccustomed to such explosions of flavor and can appreciate a milder experience. (Then again, I notice that they do have a thing for chili spice, which I guess is how they get their kicks.)

I can also say that Britain isn’t likely the easiest place to be vegan or vegetarian. I have observed vegetarian and gluten-free options on products and menus, but on the whole the cornerstone of the British diet is heavily geared to dairy, grains, and meat. By far the most oft-found foods are some form of meat or dairy food in a pastry. There are meat pies, pasties, sausage rolls, Scottish eggs, macaroni pies… more combinations than I can wrap my head around, and all of them infuriatingly delicious. It’s set my efforts to reduce my grain intake back decades. Regrets? Undetermined.


scotch eggs.JPG

Scotch eggs.


One of the things that I missed the most when I arrived here was Hickory Farm’s summer sausage, but a favorite British dish of mine is “Bangers & Mash”: three hefty sausages crowning a simple plate of mashed potatoes and gravy.  I finally took it upon myself to ask the server what kind of sausages they served, which turned out to be Cumberland, and was thus elated to discover these at the market. Cumberland sausages are pre-seasoned with a distinctive combination of herbs and spices, and these have become my staple summer-sausage-substitute.  I would happily stock each, but I fear I may have a harder time reverting than converting.


bangers and mash

Bangers and mash.


Back in the States, I also liked to keep a block of cheddar in the fridge to slice up for an easy afternoon snack. When I made my first grocery run in the UK, I looked at the cheddar askance. There were no brands I was familiar with, and the blocks were labeled, “Mild” or “Mature” – not “Medium” and “Sharp” as I was used to. Were these equivalent? Would “Mature” have a weird flavor?  I chanced it and bit into my first slice with trepidation, fearing a waste of a good fiver. As the taste hit my tongue, my face reflexively grimaced; it was immediately clear that this was not the cheddar of my experience.

And then the second wave of flavor hit my tongue… little neurons of new information exploding ecstatically into my brain. My eyes widened. I paused mid-bite, savoring the developing taste sensation. It reminisced of something I’d once sampled from a fancy platter of delicatessen cheeses I could never afford. But this was just a common-variety block of cheddar purchased for a few pounds from the bottom shelf of the local grocer. I quickly ensconced another chunk between the roof of my mouth and tongue, lingering on my newfound luxury as the voice of British claymation star Wallace, of Wallace and Gromit fame, burst into my memory espousing the virtues of cheese. Suddenly it stopped being silly.


butter and cheddar

Butter and cheddar.


A similar thing happened with the butter. “It’s just butter,” you’d think. But let me tell you: in Britain, the butter is so delectable you add the bread to it. Butter in the States is erroneously called “Sweet Cream,” but never have I confused it with anything I would consider sweet until it had been compensated by much sweeter ingredients. Your run-of-the-mill square of Scottish butter is another story. Add a pat of it to the plainest bread slice and poof!  Instant decadence.  I’d been prattling fanatically about the cheese and butter to my family over the phone when my mum stumbled across a relevant passage in a book she was reading called “The Cafe by the Sea” by Scottish author Jenny Colgan:

Colton’s face was comical to watch. If Flora, as a massive cheese fanatic, had adored Fintan’s creation, it was nothing to how a man raised on American cheese and finally tasting something so full and bursting with flavor and richness and full-bodied depth and nuttiness was going to react.  “Good God in heaven,” he said eventually… Colton cut himself a thick wedge, then another…  For a time there was no sound except for some slightly orgasmic noises.  “My God,” said Colton eventually.  “I mean, my God. I mean.”

“Taste the butter,” said Flora evilly.

The motto of the American market seems to be “fast and cheap;” perhaps an unfortunate artifact of the magnitude of our population and economy. But the Scots do things a little differently. A bit of googly sleuthing turned up this article on which says that European butter is cultured, churned, and allowed to ferment longer, resulting in the festival of complexity on your tongue. I’d imagine the cheese-making process is similar. Dairy products, in general, seem to be something you can depend on for happiness.  You might have heard that if you haven’t had proper European chocolate then you simply haven’t had chocolate. Sorry to break it to you, but it’s true. I thought I was above that crutch until a friend introduced me to the real stuff, and now a day is incomplete without a few squares of Lindt with my shortbread (a crumbly, buttery cookie) and tea.


chocolate and shortbread

Chocolate and shortbread.

coffee on the road

Coffee on the road


I’ve blathered before about my obsession with crumpets, and I’ll blather some more. The pleasure of a crumpet, as I recently lamented to my mum, is almost not worth the sacrifice of finishing it; the flavors still dancing away on your taste buds as you stare at the now tragically empty plate. I call this “crumpet remorse,” and I subject myself to it daily.  The U.S. is SERIOUSLY missing out on these things, and I can’t for the life of me fathom why. Instead, in the States we stock their outrageously inferior cousin, the “English Muffin.” They may appear similar, but English Muffins are dense, dry and taste in my expert opinion like compressed cardboard. Crumpets, on the other hand, are light, airy, porous, buoyant squishy sponges of flavourful fun.  Whatever you put on them, the bread absorbs it so that the entire muffin is thus infused.  When I return to the grievously-deprived States, I may leave my clothes in favor of a carton of crumpets.

How to crumpet: As I understand it, most Scots just ready it in the toaster like your ordinary slab of wheat, but since I like to fry up an egg and sausage for breakfast, I toss the crumpets into the skillet as well. The result is a soft and spongy concoction on the inside with an outwardly crispy crunch. Personally I like to top one off with a square of salted butter and (optionally) a smidge of jam. I lay a fried egg over the other and nibble on my jammy crumpet while I melt a slice of Scottish cheddar in the still-hot skillet. As soon as that’s soft, I pour it over the egg and nip into the most delicious anti-mcmuffin you could imagine.

When they hear you’ve been to the UK, Americans will love to ask: “How was the food?” in tones that sounds more in line with the question, “How was the toothache?” If you ever have the pleasure of the answer, be sure to tell them it’s terrible. More wealth for the rest of us.


dining in the UK.JPG

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