Thursday, December 17, 2015

     I am home!!!!  I loved being in Wales, and enjoyed every moment of it, but am also very happy to be back.  In this, my last blog post, I wanted to share some things I learned while studying abroad.  The point of this blog was to chronicle my adventures AND, perhaps, encourage someone else to study abroad.  It is in the spirit of that second point that I will sharing things I leaned that would have been nice to know before I left. 

     Ask for help:  it is always good to figure things out on your own, but it is fine to ask for help.  Please note:  asking means asking.  In some cultures it is odd to constantly be asking others how they are, so if you need someone be direct.  Most people are willing to help if you need it.

     Police officers are your allies:  feel uncomfortable walking by yourself, waiting for friends in a new area?  Go stand by a police officer.  Explain that you are by yourself.  Unless they are rushing away they should be happy to let you stand by them.  If they are in a hurry, ask for a nearby well-lit area where you can wait.  Will you feel a little dorky?  Yes.  Will you also feel 100% safer?  Yes.

     Learn the vocabulary:  at some point you will say something that makes the "natives" laugh, like:  pants or fanny pack.  Recognize that no one is being mean, ask for clarification, explain how your own culture uses the word/phrase, and then use your new found words to more fully embrace the new culture you are in.

     Meet your instructors:  this is a good idea at home or abroad.   But with a new system it is key that you have a way to understand what is happening.  And, there will likely come a point where you miss class either for travel or sickness.  When that happens, you want the instructor to know who you are.

     Try new things:  you may not love Blood Pudding but may enjoy Haggis.  Don’t let someone else tell you what you will or will not like. Try it for yourself.  Pro-Tip:  want to try something new?  Check the appetizer/starter portion of the menu.  That is the perfect place to find a cheaper/smaller portion to determine whether or not you like something. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for a sample. Not all restaurants can give out samples, but it never hurts to ask. 

     Remember, it's okay to do things from home.  Do you miss Taco Tuesday?  Make tacos!  You don’t have to abandon every normal practice from home just because you are abroad.  Of course you want to be as engaged in your new culture as you can be, but don’t abandon the familiar all together.

     Travel as much as possible:  day trip to a nearby city?  Go for it!  Trains and buses can be very cheap, and often have student deals, so don’t be afraid to go someplace multiple times. 
BUT, remember you can do more than the “touristy” things.  See a cute tea shop?  Pop in and enjoy a pot of tea while watching the world outside. This leads into the next point…
Remember to relax:  you don’t have to be moving 24/7.  At many points, you will have to decide between being a tourist and a traveler.  Tourists run from place to place, see as much as they can, and never stop to breathe.  Travelers see what they want, stop when they want, and go with the flow.  It is more than fine to be a tourist, and if you have more than one day in a city, it is great to play the tourist the first day so you know what you want to come back and see.  BUT, it is also okay, and necessary sometimes, to slow down.  Oftentimes the best experiences you have will be the ones you stumbled upon rather than planned from your guide book. 

     Don't assume that your way of doing things is normal.  Just because you are expected to order from you table at almost every establishment in the states, doesn’t mean that is the same everywhere else.  There are lots of pubs where you are expected to order at the bar.  It’s different, but it is also not an issue.  If you are ever confused about the protocol, ask.   

     Talk to your friends/family:  with modern technology it is easy to stay in contact.  Your parents will feel much more at ease with you traveling if you keep them updated.  Also, remember the world keeps spinning while you are away from home. Stay in contact with friends; you don’t want to miss out on this portion of their lives just because you are abroad.

     Don't focus on friends/family to the point that you miss spending time with new friends.  Having a rough day?  Of course stay in and call your family.  BUT, remember that you can always talk to the new friends that are there with you too.  It can be tempting to focus only on the people you left behind, or only on those you have recently met, but the most enjoyable time will be had when those two focuses are balanced.  It takes some work, but it is worth it.

     Talk to other people about their native cultures:  be honest about what you know and what you don’t.  It is amazing the things you can learn! 

     Answer questions asked of you.  They may be repetitive, like "what are the differences between here and home" but people are asking because they are genuinely interested.  

     Be prepared to have people single you out and make assumptions based on your accent.  Realize it is because they don't know any better, and remember how it makes you feel.  There will come a point when you are not the one with the accent anymore.   So remember that feeling to help others in your future feel more secure. 

     Finally, enjoy every second of your experience.  Whether you are traveling the world or sitting at home with your flat mates, know that this is a once in a life time experience, and savor each and every moment.
     For anyone reading this that wants more information about studying abroad, or more specifically the Brad Henry Scholarship please email me at or contact me via social media (Facebook:  Chandler Steckbeck, Twitter:  @feminist_ace).
     As my final note, I would like to say thank you.  First and foremost a huge thank you to Governor Henry.  Without your generosity this fabulous adventure would not have been possible.  Secondly, to all the faculty and staff, both at NWOSU and at Swansea who have made this trip enjoyable and productive in terms of academic credit.  Finally, a huge thank you to my family:  you have supported me in so many ways while I was away.  I am so thankful that I had this experience, but also very happy to be back with you.

     Thank you to everyone who has followed this blog and my adventure!  Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

     Tonight is my last night in Wales.  Tomorrow night is my last night in the UK.  I plan to come back, but for now, it is goodbye. 
     This last week has been incredible.  For some reason, everyday things seem so much more meaningful when you know the clock is counting down. 
     I have said it before, and I will say it again:  I am going to miss Wales and the people I have met here.  I know I still have two trains, a bus, three airplanes (with two shuttles and a sleep in-between 1 and 2), and a car ride before I am home, but it already feels like I am gone.  Other than the few essentials for tomorrow morning, my room is packed.  My clothes are laid out, my bags have been weighed, and I have said goodbye to many.
     So in this, my last blog post in Wales, I want to say a heart felt goodbye to anyone I didn’t have a chance to see in person.  I will miss each and every one of you.  Whether we met in class, on the bus, in church, or in another country all together, please know that you played an integral part in the amazing adventure I have had.  I love and will miss you all!

     To my US friends and family:  I will see you soon!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

     There are so many different kinds of beauty in this world.  There is the loving beauty of a family and the security they provide.  There is an innocent beauty in children.  Places have beauty too.        There is an impressive beauty in Paris where the buildings are tall, towering, and very old.  There is a wild beauty in Scotland where there are miles of untamed hills.  There is impressive and terrifying beauty at the Cliffs of Moher.  There is powerful beauty in the movements of ballet dancers.  Finally, there is majestic beauty in certain buildings, like Bath Abbey.
     Since coming to Swansea, I have learned to better appreciate beauty.  I have had the opportunity to walk through some of the best museums, view the best collections, and see some of the variety this world has to offer.  Two of those recent experiences, watching the Russian State Ballet perform The Nutcracker and visiting Bath Abbey for a service, were truly amazing.
    I initially bought tickets to see Nutcracker because it was being performed by the Russian Ballet.  After watching Cinderella earlier though, I was genuinely excited for the performance.  But nothing could have prepared me for it. 
     Every move was perfect, every costume shone, and every leap was impossibly high.  The show felt as if it lasted 20 minutes because it was so engrossing.  The live orchestra was fantastic and there was never a moment to focus on the coughs or uncomfortable seats that I am sure where there.  The beauty of this ballet was powerful, because it successfully pulled an entire audience, or at least just me, away from the mundane world filled with buses and essays, into a world where the Rat King will always fall and Sugar Plum Fairies dance.
     Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the Bath Christmas Market, thanks to Swansea Uni.  I enjoyed every aspect of the trip.  From visiting the Jane Austen Centre to exploring all 161 little booths, everything seemed to be perfect.  Then we went to Bath Abbey.  A friend and I happened to be walking by the front of the abbey, as they were welcoming people in for a short service.  We decided to go.  It was one of the most rewarding decisions I have ever made.
     I had visited the Abbey previously, and had admired the HUGE organ, but hearing it play was a different experience all together.  In modern churches, the idea is to have carpet everywhere to dampen the sound.  All the reverb is cancelled out, so the notes stay “pure.”  I think the Abbey was designed with the opposite in mind.  Apart from the seat covers on the pews, the abbey is made of hard surfaces, stone and wood, so the sound echoes again and again. This means that notes sometimes linger, leaving a “sour” sound.  But it doesn’t sound wrong.
     The notes linger because they are powerful.  To dampen the power would be to take away from its beauty.
     To say I love the city of Bath would be an understatement.  Lively yet relaxed, unlike London or OKC (although those are two vastly different sized cities), Bath seems to offer something new and beautiful around every corner.  I understand why Jane Austen was so focused on Bath:  it truly is an amazing place.
     Well, as I write this I am officially in my last week in Wales.  I leave Cardiff Sunday and layover in Dublin for 16 hours.  Then I fly from Dublin back to the US.  I am excited to be going home, I can’t wait to see my family!  But, I want to come back.  I want to go home and see my US friends and family and then come back to my Swansea family.
     I am not ready to leave the church that has so welcomed and loved me here.  I am not ready to leave the Uni that has provided a fun and exciting education.  And I am not ready to leave my Swansea family.  I want to see my family at home and then come back here.  I want to wake up in my flat, lack of hot water and all, and walk down the hall to hear giggles from my flat mates.  I want Nandos on the weekend and walks to Spar through the rain.  I want trips to Mumbles and adventures in Bath.  But I also want my family from home.  In a perfect world, I could combine Swansea and NWOSU, and I could merge Alva, Enid, and Swansea.  But this isn’t a perfect world.  I can only be in one place at a time.  Which means, in just a few short days, I will be leaving this home, and headed to another. 

     So with my remaining time here, I am determined to enjoy myself.  I have a week left to make memories here, and I intend to make those memories good.  

Welcome to the Christmas Markets!

The Jane Austen Centre

Jane, Bill, and I.  :)

At Bath Circus looking at the Crescent.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

     My time here in Swansea is officially winding down.
Monday I will go with friends to see the Russian Ballet perform Nutcracker.  Next Saturday I will go to the Bath Christmas Markets, and then I will have a little over one week left in Swansea before I head home.
     I am excited to see my friends and family at home, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how much I will miss Wales.
     Wednesday my flat had an International Food/Thanksgiving Night.  There were around 20 of us there, and it was wonderful.  Everyone brought food from his or her home country, or just something yummy, and we had a huge spread!
     I made Pumpkin Pie and Stuffing.  We had a Caribbean dish called Bakes (fried dough with a delicious cheesy stuffing), a Finnish Apple Tart dessert, a variety of Spicy Chinese Dishes and Curry, and lots of other interesting new things. 
     When talking with another American, we decided that having international food at Thanksgiving was very proper as the first thanksgiving consisted of food that would have been foreign to the Pilgrims.
     After a delicious meal, we began to play games and even had a mini Salsa Dancing party.  And as we broke apart later with people heading to their various homes, I realized that this might have been my favorite Thanksgiving. 
     My normal Thanksgiving at home consists of my family going to a family friend’s house, and eating and watching football all day.  I love that time with our two families, but this was special because it was so many families coming together.
     Laughter and accents flew around the table, and food was plenty.  No one was worried about what they were wearing, whether or not the dish they had brought was perfect, or strategizing for shopping the next day.  We were just a group of friends living and loving life together.  It is moments like that one that I will miss.
     The next day, yesterday, a big group of friends and I went to Mumbles, a little local area near Swansea, to a Christmas Parade.  It was not overly fancy, and the turning on of the lights was, quite honestly, a little disappointing, but trying to walk to a bus stop along the coast was a lot of fun.
     Again, nothing special happened, except fun.  The weather was just cool enough to keep you from getting overly warm as you walked, the clouds were low over the city lights across the bay, so the lights twinkled on the buildings and then again in the clouds.  There wasn’t much of a breeze, so the ocean looked like black glass with occasional bumps and ridges.
     It was a beautiful evening filled with laughter and fun.  Again, I will miss these moments.
     I don’t mean to say that I cannot have that type of fun in the States, but the people will be different.  My friends here are returning to their home countries shortly after I do.  I am sure we will all continue to stay in touch, but our laughter will echo through a computer instead of down a crowded street to the beach.
     I have learned so much since coming to Wales, quite a bit of it academic in nature, although I know this blog hasn’t focused on the academic side as much.  I know I will return home in a few short weeks a changed person.  More confident, more courageous, more willing to “go with the flow”, and perhaps more willing to embrace each moment in life as they can be so precious.   

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

     The Emerald Isle is rightly named.  Driving through the countryside of Ireland, the green seems almost fake.  Do you remember the long neon green grass that is used in Easter Baskets?  I always wondered what person thought grass actually looked like that.  Now I think that person has been to Ireland.
     Because it is finally getting VERY cold, some of the flowers are starting to die, just enough that they are faded around the edges, but still vibrant in the middle.  With all the colors, Ireland seemed like a painting.  It doesn’t seem like one place could lay claim to so many colors.  Even the houses were bright! 
     They ranged from yellow, to blue, to green, to pink, and every color in-between.  Yet they didn’t stick out.  The bright colors blended perfectly with the landscape.  Ireland is a different kind of bright.  It is not the happy bright of the Caribbean or the sophisticated bright of an Art Gallery.  Ireland is a natural bright.  All of the colors are a reflection of the world around them.
     Although the pink houses may at first seem odd, the hills and rocks change colors under the constantly moving rays of sun that peak through the clouds over head.  And in those rays you can watch the world change colors, and in the rocky out-croppings and the broken down old castles you can see flashes of a natural pink, so suddenly the pink houses don’t seem as strange.
     The same is true for all of the colors.  And as you explore you find the odd ‘normal’ colored house, be it red brick or white paneling, and suddenly that is the building that doesn’t fit with the rest of the view.
     Even more impressive than the greens and the multi colored houses are the sheer drops to the sea.  If you were to look as far into the distance as you could anywhere else, you would see the earth give off a gentle cover, and you would see the land as if it was rising to meet that curve.  Not so in Ireland.  When you look as far as you can go, you see the world curving and you the land coming to an end.  And you know at that end there are mighty waves and gigantic cliffs.
     I got to visit some of those cliffs, the Moher Cliffs, and was completely stunned.  It was freezing and windy, but it was beautiful.  You could see the stratifications in the rocks, but they weren’t the sandy browns and reds of the US, these were black and grey and green, and when the waves came up to slap the face of the cliff they blended with the water as if they were one.
     Because the water was not blue, or green, or clear.  It was the oddest combination of all of those.  It was as if all the green from the Irish land was combined with all of the blue of the visible sky and transformed into a near translucent heaving body that lapped at the cliffs and at the horizon.
I felt as if I should be able to see down to the bottom of the ocean, but also as if the water was roughly blown glass, thick enough to walk on.
     The sound of the waves hitting the cliffs is indescribable.  Less sharp than a gun shot, but bass drums are deeper.  Not the slap of a hand to a face, or a pat from hand to leg.  Loud but gentle.  Firm but not disagreeable.  And when the waves hit the cliffs, the water droplets would fly up, if they managed to beat the wind, and form an incandescent shower when they passed through a beam of sunlight. 
     Standing on the edge of the cliffs was perhaps the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed, with the raw power of the ocean below, the breathtaking height of the cliffs, and the sprinkles of seawater that seemed to float through the air.

     So in short, Ireland was beautiful.  The group I was with was wonderful.  Our guide was fantastic.  I have enjoyed every part of my trip ‘across the pond’ but the Irish leg of my adventure will almost certainly stand out as one of the best parts.
The view approaching Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle

The beautiful Irish Countryside

The Cliffs of Moher

A little rebuilt Medieval Village outside of Bunratty Castle 

Bunratty Castle 

The front of Bunratty Castle

Thursday, November 19, 2015

     I had an epiphany today. 
     I visited the Cliffs of Moher, on the Irish coast.  It was incredibly windy and cold, my cheeks were stinging in the freezing air.  Below, near the surface of the water, birds flew back and forth, but the wind was so loud I could not hear the cries I am sure they were making.
     The whitecap waves, a hundred feet below the walkway, broke with such force against the cliff walls that to stand in certain places meant a seawater spray would soon hit you.
     As I stood there, cold only where the wind ripped the fabric away to reveal exposed skin, I realized that I am at peace.
     However much I may hurt over recent events, I am at peace.
     When I first learned what was happening in Paris on the 13th, I broke down and wept.  That man could commit such heinous crimes hurts my very soul.
     Since hearing about those attacks, I have been focused, unknowingly, on the negatives of this world.  After an event such as that, it is so easy to look at your fellow travelers and wonder, what if they are like that too?  And in doing that, I worried needlessly.  Not because my fears are invalid, but because there are certain things that I cannot control.
     This is one of those things.
     However much I would like to, I cannot bring back all the people who died, throughout on the world, in the past several weeks.  Nor can I help them or their families by focusing on how I feel.  Because when I do that, my motives all become selfish, and I do nothing to help heal this broken world.
     So my epiphany is this:  I am not in control, and that is okay.
     Just as I can have no control over the waves breaking on the cliff walls, I can have no control of other people’s choices.  I can make suggestions, but have to leave the ultimate decision up to them.
     That is a terrifying thought for this stereotypical oldest child, A-type personality, but it is something I must embrace.
     I am not sure why the waves at the Cliffs of Moher brought this all to mind.  Regardless of the reason, it was a moment of clarity I needed. 
     I have so enjoyed my trip to Ireland, and will be posting pictures soon, but first I wanted to address this topic that has been weighing on my heart since last Friday.
     I miss you all dearly and would, if I may, leave you with a few words of advice.  Wherever you are, and whatever you are experiencing, be it joy or tornadoes, new babies or earthquakes, enjoy today.  Surrender control, and love others deeply.

     I can’t wait to see you all in December!!!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

     I have struggled with writing this post because as of Monday, I am in the second half of the semester.  It seems silly as a date as a societal construct for marking time, but I feel it.  I can feel my time here drawing to a close.  And I don’t want it to end; Swansea has become home.
     I don’t remember the first time I called Alva home.  I am sure it was sometime in my freshman year, probably in a text to my roommate.  But I don’t have a distinct memory of a time I identified Alva, a place where my family did not live with me, as home.  The same can be said here in Swansea.  Suddenly, Swansea is home.  Of course, I miss my family and friends, but Swansea is no longer a place I am visiting on vacation.  It is somewhere I live.
     Maybe Swansea is home because I have friends who love and care for me.  Maybe Swansea is home because I finally have several assignments due and I am using every standard excuse to procrastinate.  Maybe Swansea is home because my flat mates have become true friends.  Or maybe, Swansea is home for all of those reasons and so many more.
     It seems silly, but I think the things I will miss most about my time here are not the opportunities to travel or the new adventures, but the everyday things.  I will miss laughing with my flat mates when a cat jumps through our kitchen window at lunchtime.  I will miss my professors here who know so much and are so kind.  I will miss hearing all of the accents.  I will miss my home.
     I know I have more than a month left here, but the time is growing short.  I am officially in the second half of my term here.  I don’t know that I am ready for that.  I miss my family, but I am starting to realize that I have more than one family.  I have the family I was given at birth, complete with a mom, dad, brother, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I have my Northwestern family made up of friends, acquaintances, and professors alike.  And now, I have a Swansea family.
     Just as I miss my family while I am here, I will miss my Swansea family while I am away as well.  This experience has been so wonderful.  I don’t want it to end.  I know, believe me, I know, I have plenty of time left, but I also know that my time is finite.  That is so clear here because I know when I will be leaving.  The plane ticket is booked.  I know when my time here will end.
     But, that is not the only time that will be ending.  Soon, my time at Northwestern will end.  Then my time in a post-grad program and as a PhD Candidate will end.  One day, even my time on earth will end.  I know that seems rather deep and possibly silly as I was just talking about a cat jumping through the window, but it is true.  I am not guaranteed a certain amount of time here on this earth.  So I have to make every moment count.
     That means repeating myself (and remembering to slow down) when I accidently speak “American” instead of English.  Making every moment count means laughing and enjoying this time with my flat mates.  It even means doing my best on every assignment that comes my way, working hard and putting effort in on everything, because I am not guaranteed time to come back and try again. 
     But most importantly, living to make each moment count means celebrating the special moments in each of my families.  I always heard the adage “home is where the heart is” and thought it meant that my home would always be where my family lived.  But now I know that is not true.  My heart is now spread across the world; it is in Enid, Alva, and Swansea.  By the time I finish with school, I don’t know that I will be able to count all the places I count home.  And that’s okay.

I miss you all dearly, and can hardly wait to be back with you all again.