It’s crazy how fast time flies and how things progress.

Honestly, I pay for this domain name. I need to stop abandoning it for long stretches. Also, if I keep it alive this year it’ll be a 5 year old blog. I don’t think I’ve ever kept a plant alive that long.

So. Anyway.

When last we spoke, it was the beginning of a long, dry, hot summer in the UK. We didn’t see rain here in Essex for over 50 days. It normally rains here at least once a week if that gives you an idea of how crazy it was. Ah, but ignoring the parched earth it was glorious. We roamed the local country park a few times both with and without picnics. We went to Mersea Island and played on the beach. We even accidentally came at high tide and had to drive through the sea a little bit. Don’t worry, the Mini did fabulously.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this summer was the need to leave the windows open as much as possible, especially at night to try and drop the temperature in our bedroom from 29º down to 25º (if we were lucky). During the daytime we mostly had to chase flies and the occasional rogue wasp out of the living room because of this, but then the Flying Ant Day Accident occurred.

Flying Ant Day is a strange British phenomena. Normally, these pavement ants do not have wings and are happy to live their lives underground. However, there is a point in the summer that they reach breeding season and all seem to grow wings and fly en masse. (Apparently it’s not just a single day and happens across the UK all summer long, but it’s still an impressive swarm when it happens near you.) This type of swarm is like midges or gnats, but much larger. They don’t really do anything to you other than get in your face, but in a swarm it’s awful.

HOWEVER, they do seem to like the light, very much like moths. And we have a streetlight outside of our bedroom window. “Well that’s a bit creepy to watch, but surely no harm right?” you say to me. Oh but wait. One of us accidentally left the bedroom light on when we’d gone up to open the windows and then shut the bedroom door so the cat couldn’t get out of the house.

Perfect. Storm.

M was still having a glass of water and otherwise getting ready for bed downstairs whilst I came upstairs to sort out my clothing for work the next morning, only to be confronted with something that looked like a scene out of a horror film. HUNDREDS OF FLYING ANTS ALL OVER THE ROOM. They were in the windowsill, the curtains, the lampshade, the bedding, the laundry, and all over the floor. They were crawling the walls and ceiling. Honestly, the photo doesn’t do justice to the horror of it.

My initial reaction was just to stare at them and then scream for M to bring up the fly spray. (Why I thought a can of fly spray would fix this I don’t know.) I stood, riveted in the doorway, somehow thinking that if I took my eyes off of the swarm that they’d all come down the stairs and into the rest of the house. Thankfully, M came up and had more common sense in how to deal with the scene.

Long story short, M emptied an entire can of Raid in our room and half filled a Dyson vacuum with flying ants before we went to bed two hours later, sleeping in the guest bedroom. Everything in the room that could be washed was washed, including the bedding that I had just changed that afternoon. 😥

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Plagues of ants and drought aside, nature decided to just get a bit rude in general. The heat spiked to new and exciting levels, and the train network is not currently equipped to deal with weather so extreme. This had happened last year and there was about a week that it was nigh on impossible to get on a train into or from London.

This year they did try to do some things to help with the heat. A lot of the rails in the stations had their sides painted white in an effort to drop the heat whilst the trains were at the platforms and prevent the tracks from buckling and warping. However, when the weather stations starting predicting a heat spike so intense that it could make new records, the train companies just decided “sod it” and preemptively cancelled trains at about 9:30 the night before. Awesome, right? At one point they could only run a train an hour from Colchester to London, and I’m amazed those trains didn’t get stopped more from overcrowding and overheating inside of them. It was insanity.

Supposedly, Greater Anglia is getting new trains out in 2020 and they’ll all come equipped with blessed air conditioning. Why do I feel like the seats are going to be even smaller though?

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When I was able to get into work, I was able to work on my last project as staff at the NHM. We’ve already processed all the Toxodon fossils that Darwin sent back from South America on his Beagle journey and posted them online, but the chance came to reunite two portions of a Giant Ground Sloth skull that haven’t been together since Darwin cut them into two pieces. Not only did I get to witness the event, but I got to scan said pieces! It was all very cool, and a fitting way to end my work.

You see, I had applied and been accepted to do a PhD at UCL whilst working alongside the NHM. But we’ll get back to that later!

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FINALLY, we got rain in Essex again. It took weeks for the grass to go back to green and the cracks in the earth to heal, but it was amazing to have it back. We joked that my mother in law is apparently a water spirit, as every time she comes to Essex it rains. If we’d have known, we’d have had them over much sooner!

Towards the end of the summer it was finally beginning to cool down, and the Heritage Open Days EU project kicked off, opening access to historical places that are either usually closed to the public or paid entry only. Most everyone went to the castle, but I had a list of some of the more obscure and usually closed buildings that I desperately wanted to see, and a husband with an infinite sense of patience for my love of all things old.

We were only able to do one of the open days, but in that day we went up and down Colchester and managed to see the inside of the Anglo-Saxon church (the oldest in town), the facade that houses the archaeological discovery of a Roman theatre (you can easily walk by it), the interior and the view from the upper floor of the old abbey gate (the only thing still standing of the abbey), and most of the structure of Tymperleys, home to William Gilberd, scientist and physician to Elizabeth I (and now a place with most excellent scones).

Autumn began to creep in with cooler weather, and with it came the time to go back to school again. I could have sworn I was never going to do a PhD, but here I am. In fairness, my future predictions have been pretty wildly off the mark so far, so it’s not exactly surprising.

Before the official start of term, all of us in the SEAHA program (Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology) convened in a village outside of Brighton for an induction into the way of things, and a chance to get to know and bond with our fellow students. I am so, so glad they did this for us, and not just because the hotel was amazing. Getting to know everyone in advance really helped make the first few weeks much easier.

One can’t stay in opulent hotels forever, and after the weekend retreat we were ready to begin lectures. Of course, this is SEAHA and we are anything but standard, so they included a trip to Stonehenge halfway through the first module, so we could write up a presentation in the second half about what we would do to modify the current A303 Stonehenge tunnel plans to make them better, using our mixture of experiences. It was more of a challenge than expected, but we ended up with new friends out of the experience and I can now tell you far more about the proposed tunnel project than I ever thought I could.

With autumn also came the harvest season, and this year I was feeling crafty. There are shedloads of sloe berries and growing on the side of a quiet road near the fields I jog past, and eventually I got up the idea to go harvest them and attempt a batch of sloe gin. You aren’t supposed to pick them until after the first frost, but the hot summer had rather killed a fair few of them, so I just picked them and froze them in the freezer at home to make up for it.

They were then added into a jar with obscene amounts of sugar, and of course, some gin. We left them to infuse until just before Christmas, then strained and decanted them out. Some have been given as little Christmas trinkets, with the firm advice that they’ll be better if they’re left until about mid-January to drink. I for one am excited to try ours out, perhaps mixed in with some prosecco, or even by making a proper sloe gin fizz!

As it does every year, my birthday snuck up on me. This year is the last year of my twenties. M thought it amusing to get a tiny cake and put 29 candles on it, so I brought out the fire extinguisher just in case. (Did you know you can buy fire extinguishers and fire blankets on Amazon Prime? Best late night purchase M’s made in some time!)

I didn’t really have any grand goals to achieve by the end of this year, and I’m still not sure what I want to do for my 30th birthday party. On one end, I could have a bunch of people around and make a big do of it, or it could just be the two of us on an adventure somewhere. I should probably sort it out before springtime.

Regardless, this birthday was a fabulous birthday, with cake, a new coat I’d been lusting after, and an evening out in the lovely medieval section of Colchester. 🙂

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Classes back in swing, birthday survived, and coats brought out of storage, we trundled into the cool autumn air. Except this time, I had friends from the US coming around with me! As is the Great American Tradition when coming to the UK, we managed to traverse across a wide swathe of the country in a little over a week. The two of them even carried on into Wales, but alas, I had to get some work done for the module. We did try to give them a weird and wonderful ride through bits of the country that not everyone goes to see on a typical tourist tour, but some things you’ve just got to see – like Stonehenge!

It’s always so exciting when people come to the UK, whether or not they’re coming to say hello. Being on an hour’s ride into London means it’s usually easy to catch up with people, schedules permitting. It was hard to part ways, but back to the States they eventually had to go, and the cat finally decided to come out of hiding and take up her roost in the living room again.

Module one was completed with much grumbling and typing, but completed successfully. I’m now at the tail end of module two, which had a bit of a twist to it this time. We had the option to do a basic laboratory procedure in the lecture hall, or we could liaise with our supervisors and do one elsewhere that might further relate towards the PhD. Needing to learn how to run an SEM and process photogrammetric data anyway, I opted to go back to the NHM. Over the course of two weeks I have learned how to dehydrate a specimen, coat it for SEM, run the basics of an SEM, and process photogrammetric images! It all sounds rather fancy for staring at a fly face for two weeks. I’m currently tweaking the write up of my experiment, and it goes in for submission next Monday. Looking forward to what the next module will hold!

In between modules, M and I left the country again. My parents were going to see one of our exchange students and her family, and they were kind enough to invite us to stay at their house as well. We took them up on their generous offer and ended up with an absolutely unique experience of the Netherlands that one could only get from a local, and got to see my parents! I would definitely like to go back to the Netherlands, but perhaps when it’s a bit warmer. Those winds coming off of the ocean have nowhere to go but straight into your bones.

Whilst there, we took a train over for a day trip into Germany as my mom had never been. It’s fascinating to see the sharp difference between the Netherlands and Germany, seemingly just across the border. We’d hoped to see the Christmas market in Dusseldorf, but arrived a little too early. It wasn’t a lost trip though, as we got to see the famous Rhine River and a painstakingly redone Altstadt, built back up after the war.

Christmas showed up soon afterwards in a big way. When not covering our house in tinsel and Christmas cards, we were out and about and enjoying the festive spirit of it all. Got the chance to pop into Paycocke’s House and the Grange Barn out in Coggeshall for their special Christmas hours. It really did feel like going back into Tudor Christmastime, and I only wish I hadn’t gone by myself as it seemed like it’s really meant for company to come along.

Getting closer to Christmas, we managed a long weekend journey up to York to catch up with our Northern friends. I probably should have known better than to go into the Christmas Markets in York, but we braved the crowds and found some fabulous little trinkets and all kinds of snacks! Even managed to score a table with seats in The Three Tuns at peak pub hour in the rain, of which I was far too proud. Finally, late into the evening, we saw the Shambles quiet and then took ourselves back to the AirBNB for the night.

And then before we knew it, the last few weeks had passed and it was Christmas! We went up to Manchester to celebrate at M’s big sister’s new home. It’s a gorgeous new build with a massive back garden. Their days of househunting really paid off. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of it, as I appear to have caught food poisoning off something just before we arrived. Thankfully the sickbed was comfortable and M made sure to keep a steady supply of Sprite, so it could have been far worse. Other than that hiccup, it was really good to see everyone, especially our ever growing nephew of whom nobody can rival in Marvel knowledge. Honestly, I’d call that kid first on any game show.

We got back home for New Year’s, had a quiet night of it, and then slowly dragged ourselves back into the real world.

So here we are, a lightning trip into the present. Now that I’m not on the trains for 4 hours every day, I should hopefully be a bit better about popping in every now and then. Until we see each other next, hope you’re having a good one. 🙂

 

— Kate

Trains – Choo Choo?

Came back in last night from Colchester by the train line and I must say, I absolutely adore the train system here. To be honest, I don’t know if it could ever become a thing in the US due to the sheer size of the country, but it works well for the UK. Rather than just gush about how cool the trains are here, I thought I’d just give you an idea of how a typical journey has gone so far (we’ll stay on the rosy side and not go into the fun of when the trains go awry this time).

To begin with, I ordered the tickets online in advance. Not the furthest in advance for optimal pricing this time, but it does make a major difference in cost. Train travel has a lot of options, and booking a particular train for a particular time in advance is typically the cheapest method of traveling on the rail. However, there are also options such as off-peak, super off-peak, or anytime passes that you can buy for a day at different costs if you want some more leeway in when you’re on the train that day. Another fantastic feature is the railcard system. I qualify from age alone to get the 16-25 railcard discount, which takes 1/3 off each ticket I purchase. The card is also good for students of any age, so long as you have proof of student status. There are also a few other schemes such as the Two Together railcard, the Family & Friends railcard, the Senior railcard, or the Disabled Persons railcard. If you’re planning on making at least 2 decent-length journeys while here, these railcards will pay themselves off really quickly. God knows I’ll manage to do it.

So I booked the tickets online through National Rail this time, though there are other options such as the train companies or third parties. If you’re in a small enough place, you may need to have your tickets posted to you overnight or within a week, but living in Leicester means I have the option of picking up my tickets at a self-service machine at the station here in the city. In order to do this, you only need the card you used to purchase the ticket and the confirmation code, which is sent to you via email. When the machine prints out your ticket, it’ll look something like this:

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 07.25.18 pmWell, actually you’ll get 2-3 little stubs in total, but this is the actual ticket. The others are good to hold on to for advance tickets as they’ll usually have your seat information if you reserved a spot. Now with this ticket, I have to keep my railcard with me as they will check your ticket on the train to make sure you’ve paid for that particular train (and there are some stiff fines if you haven’t), as well as check to make sure you actually have the valid railcard for the discount.

This ticket was actually run through machines at 6 different points, so HOLD ON to these more-orange-than-golden tickets. In this instance I was coming from Colchester back to Leicester which meant feeding it through the gate at the platform to get to my first train, then to get off that train platform in London at Liverpool Street Station. I then fed it through the Underground turnstile to get from Liverpool Street Station (Don’t just call it Liverpool, even if the context is known. You will be giggled at by locals.) to King’s Cross St Pancras International Station and again through a turnstile to get out. (Technically there is King’s Cross Station and then across the street is St Pancras International Station, but the Underground stop is good for both. Trust me, you don’t walk far to get to either – maybe 5 minutes if there’s a queue to leave the Underground?) Pro tip at this point – see the little cross at the bottom middle of my ticket? That means that your fare on the Underground is included in the cost of the ticket so long as you’re going from point A to point B. Just run it through the Underground turnstile like a day pass and it lets you right through. Of course, (as I am coming to see about a lot of things) the Brits kinda just assume you know basic facts like these and it’s not mentioned in any obvious points. Finally, this ticket will be run through a machine again to get on the platform at St Pancras, and then depending on the time of day you get to your destination it’ll go through the exit machine and possibly be eaten. I got in late on this round and they’d just opened all the exit gates so they wouldn’t have to be staffed in case of machine muck-ups. You can also see the stamp on the bottom middle where the train conductor checked my ticket.

So what about the trains themselves? Well, it depends if you end up on a commuter train or a long distance one. From Colchester to London I was in a commuter train similar to this, run by Abellio Greater Anglia, which stopped about every 10 minutes for about an hour to get to London:

This is one of the more spacious commuter trains. There’s been at least one I ended up crammed in the exit passageway by the door, standing for the whole ride. At least you can stick your head out the window?

 

Then when I left London for Leicester, I got on a train with East Midland Trains that only stopped at Leicester, Loughborough, East Midlands Parkway, Long Eaton, and Derby (pronounced Darby). Seeing as I was the first stop, it was a nice straight shot. That train looked more like this:

You can’t fit more than a small duffel bag or a jacket up in those racks btw. RyanAir-sized luggage is even too big. There is a luggage rack on each end of the carriage though.

This all seems pretty straightforward, but then the anthropologist gets let loose and it gets to be pretty entertaining. (For me anyway.) It’s one thing to ride the trains. It’s another thing on how to follow the cultural norms of the trains. Let’s continue with this particular train journey. From Colchester to London, I had stood at the platform and just kinda zoned out until the train arrived. Unlike in the US, it’s pretty odd for a stranger to come up to talk to you. As the train came in to the station a woman had asked me if she had the right one, and we all quietly shuffled into the carriage. It’s not an everyday phenomena, but sometimes when I say something I’ll get people asking if I’m American or Canadian, which happened this time. She said she could never tell the two apart, and a very well-timed Canadian that just happened to be on the train chimed in to represent the Canadian homeland.

From that point, Canadian Jake and I chattered for the rest of the ride into London. If you catch other North Americans on a train and they seem friendly enough, it tends to be fine to talk to them, even if they’re strangers. It can be a nice little slice of home to hear a reference (like “Rocky Top”) that’s totally lost on the locals here. I’m glad I talked to Canadian Jake, as I now know of a promising burrito joint at King’s Cross to check out. Getting on to the train to Leicester was more of the average experience. Everyone is very polite and courteous, but beyond that you really don’t talk to anyone you don’t know, even at a table seat. You just read or write or gaze off into space and hope you don’t accidentally end up staring at someone. Train trips are MUCH faster with friends.

Speaking of friends, I watched two girls out of the corner of my eye at the table seats to the right of me pop open a bottle of wine and have a few drinks while nibbling on snacks on our journey north. Drinking laws are much, much more lax here than they are in the States, and you can not only buy alcohol on the train from the food carriage/trolley (depends on the train), but you can totally just bring your own and drink it – the staff on the train couldn’t care less. I’ve not yet done it, but it feels like I’m being a little wicked and breaking all the rules I’ve grown up with. Give me a month or so though, as it’ll probably amuse me far more than it should. It’s the little things that are fun like that. 😉

Hmm… Have I missed any important bits? Have any questions? Feel free to leave me a comment, especially if there’s something about life here you’ve been curious about. Otherwise you are subjected to my totally random topic choices! Well, I’ve got a field trip tomorrow with the programme to Sheffield at 8 am, so I should probably wrap things up soon anyway. All is doing well here. 🙂

— Kate

 

Let’s just go!

The university has opened online registration, and I am officially signed up (as much as I can before my campus visa checkpoint – don’t ask, I have no idea) for the University of Leicester! My student ID should be ready for me when I get there. I’m excited. 🙂

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 10.34.34 pmScreen Shot 2014-08-26 at 10.34.43 pmAlso got word from the Museum Studies department with a tentative schedule of the first two weeks, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see that classes aren’t really early so far. I was trying to prepare myself for 8:00 times, but 9 and 10 are totally cool too. Just from the titles, it looks like a fascinating start!

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So now I’m only really left with buying a ticket for the bus, a ticket for the train to Leicester, and packing my bags. It’s one thing to sell off most of your life to get ready to live out of what fits in a suitcase. It’s another thing entirely when you start to fill up said suitcase. SO MANY THINGS. SO MANY CHOICES. What have I forgotten that might actually be really important?

Considering I’m to be living in Leicester for a year (10 months actually, then 2 months out interning, then who knows where next?), I really can’t bring all that much along with me. I suspect leaving the country makes a minimalist out of you eventually. I took the main idea of a packing list from Study Abroad and tweaked it a bit, but do you see anything I’m missing or really won’t need? I haven’t done a weigh in on my bags quite yet, so there may be some tossing out of things anyhow.

In reality, I can almost promise it will be me shoving what remains of my closet after losing weight these last two years into my bag with the questionably useful and/or ill-fitting but still beloved clothing going in last in case they need to be pulled out and left behind. Mom also managed to find a carry-on sized space saver bag, so the sweaters may be getting the big squeeze and going in my carry-on bag. Honestly though, I don’t think the weight limit is going to be a major issue. But with no further ramblings, I’ll leave you with the ULTIMATE STUDY ABROAD PACKING LIST. 😛

— Kate

The Ultimate Study Abroad Packing List

Clothing:

  • Underwear – two weeks’ worth (Two weeks worth? Let’s be real. All the underwear comes along. We don’t leave behind good underwear.)
  • Socks – two weeks’ worth (Yeah yeah, it’ll be the ones that aren’t questionably falling apart. They’re socks. Pretty sure I can get a new pair or two in England, just possibly.)
  • Camisoles (Layering all day, err’ day.)
  • Thermal leggings (I seriously doubt the use of these, but man are they comfy.)
  • Tops
  • Sweaters
  • Trousers
  • Skirts
  • A set or two of workout clothes (Will it promote my going to the gym? Unlikely.)
  • Pajamas
  • Swimsuit
  • Coat/Jacket
  • At least one nice outfit for formal occasions
  • Shoes (I fear my fancy sandals will not see much use, but then again, I’ve been living in Chacos since March. Yay for my body always running on high heat?)

Toiletries:

  • TSA Compliant Toiletry Kit (Enough to clean up for a day or two until I get things there. I can already sense my desperate need to shower upon arrival after learning my lesson last time.)
  • Brush and comb (If they weren’t needed right after said emergency shower, I’d say forget it.)
  • Contact lenses and solution (Yay being blind!)
  • Glasses (Does this really count if it’s on my face?)
  • Nail clippers (Teeny tiny justifiable-bringing-along-in-case-of-brutal-hangnail-attack pair.)
  • Makeup (No one likes to play games with new brands on makeup. Especially not ALL the makeup at once.)
  • Medications (Yay drugs! Now to make sure they all have my name written on them.)

Extras:

  • Some cash in £ (Pleased with myself now for having a handful of £2 coins and a fiver that accidentally came home with me last year. That’s some snack money whilst in the customs line!)
  • Purse/ wallet
  • Important documents (passport, visa, itinerary, plane tickets, ISIC card, etc.)
  • Outlet adapter (Actually not sure I’ll need one. Livin’ the USB plug life means international is SO much easier.)
  • Sunglasses (Didn’t need these once last time. I blame it on living in big sky country for the last four years.)
  • Cell phone with changed out SIM card for UK and USB charger (Many thanks for getting me that old iPhone unlocked and a UK SIM shipped over!)
  • Laptop and charger (Must not forget to change the plug on the charger!)
  • Camera w/cords and USB charger
  • Kindle and USB charger
  • Water bottle/ Nalgene bottle (Depending on space/amount of cares given, might just get one past security. I’m flying BA, they dole out tea and wine like it’s going out of style.)