Friday, December 19, 2014

The Dog Days Are Over

Three months. That's how long I've been living in the UK. Though that might sound exciting to some, I'll be honest: I've spent about 90% of that time sitting on the couch (usually in sweatpants) looking for a job. Job hunting is challenging at the best of times, but considering I've been in a foreign country, living in a small-ish town where I know next to no one and lacking the funds to take advantage of the free time I've had on my hands... well, at times it felt downright depressing.

Roughly 60 or so job applications, four interviews and countless hours spent taking laptop selfies with Ben's dog Herbie later, I am happy to report that I have found a job! Come January, I'll be working as a Support Administrator for a specialist fundraising/direct marketing agency - in London! Neither Ben nor I have ever lived in such a massive city, so moving there will be an exciting change for both of us. Plus, it sounds like I'll get to learn a lot at my new job, which I'm really looking forward to.

I don't want to sound like my time in the UK has been all bad so far, because it definitely hasn't: I had a spectacular 25th birthday, have taken advantage of having beautiful English countryside on my doorstep and, perhaps best of all, really got to know Ben's lovely family. That said, these past few months have also been filled with a lot more stress, self-doubt and sheer exhaustion than I would consider ideal. Thankfully, the dog days are over - London here we come!

Some photos of Herbie and I over the last few months - I'm sure gonna miss this pooch!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Countryside Cycles

I consider myself lucky in that not only do I come from an amazing part of the world, but so does my British boyfriend! We've been living with Ben's parents in Shropshire, a county in the West Midlands, for a few months now while we look for jobs. Although it's probably not somewhere we'd choose to live long-term at this point in time (it's better suited to families, in my opinion!) there is a lot to be said for Shropshire, namely its abundance of tranquil countryside.

This is something Ben and I have tried to take advantage of whenever possible these last few months, especially when taking much needed breaks from job hunting! Throughout the autumn months, we frequently went for bike rides through small nearby villages with babbling brooks and churches steeped in history, past fields of sheep and houses with names like Pear Cottage... basically, quintessential rural England. Even though we were rarely more than 10 miles from Shrewsbury, Ben's hometown of nearly 100,000 people, it always felt much, much further away. Cycling through the Shropshire countryside has often been an ideal remedy to job (or lack thereof) related stress and, in times of frustration, reminded me to be grateful that I'm living in such a picturesque, postcard-worthy place.

P.S. It looks as though my job hunt may be over - stay tuned for details!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Now I Ain't Sayin' She a Tree Digger

As much as I love spending Christmas at home, there's one aspect of my family's holiday traditions that I've never liked: our artificial Christmas tree. We've had it for probably a decade or more, but I'm just as against it as when we first got it. True, we don't find pine needles around our house for months (and months) afterwards, but it's just not the same! 

With this in mind, you can imagine how pleased I was when I found out Ben's family (who I'm spending Christmas with this year) not only get a real tree every year, but they dig it up themselves. So earlier this afternoon, off the six of us went to a nearby Christmas tree... farm? (or field? forest? I'm not really sure what you'd call it) in search of the perfect tree.

Ben's mum Julie wanted a smaller tree...

... but she was outnumbered by those of us in favour of something slightly larger.

Once we'd all agreed on a tree, it was just a matter of digging it up (a job the girls left in the capable hands of Ben and his dad Dave).

It got wrapped up...

... and we brought it home!

Then, after nearly an hour spent untangling lights (a universal Christmas problem, it seems), stringing tinsel and hanging ornaments, voila!

Unsurprisingly, turns out I'm a big fan of going out and getting your own (real!) tree. Plus, it smells amazing - I'm enjoying the scent of pine (and watching Elf) as we speak! Only 18 days until my first English Christmas!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Churches, Castles and Tea Rooms

While the idea of living abroad can sound quite glamorous, in my experience you usually end up in a routine similar to one you'd have at home: going to work (or in my current situation, trying to find work), going out for a meal or to the movies, going for a jog or taking the dog for a walk... it's easy to forget that you should be taking advantage of your new surroundings. Well, this past weekend Ben and I did just that, and took a day trip to Ludlow, a quaint (I feel like I use that word too much when talking about England, but it's just so fitting most of the time) medieval market town in the county of Shropshire.

The adorable streets of Ludlow

As Ludlow is known for its array of culinary delights and fantastic sounding walks in the surrounding area, I've no doubt that we could have easily spent a whole weekend there - but I feel like a day was enough to see the main highlights: 

Climbing to the top of the St Laurence Church

Not only is Ludlow's St Laurence Church the 13th most popular free attraction in the West Midlands, it's also one of just 18 churches given a five-star rating in England's Thousand Greatest Churches by Simon Jenkins. Okay, so maybe its claims to fame aren't that impressive but if you're up to climbing the church's 200 steps (in a very narrow staircase - claustrophobes beware) the rooftop does offer some truly spectacular views of the Shropshire countryside.

Exploring the ruins of Ludlow Castle

Dating back to the 11th century, this castle has aptly been described as the 'very perfection of decay'. It's in tact enough to be able to explore its many rooms but its derelict state still leaves plenty to the imagination. Notable castle tenants include Prince Arthur (brother of Henry VIII) and his bride Catherine of Aragon (whom Henry VIII later married and subsequently executed).

Having afternoon tea at DeGrey's Cafe

It might not have made BuzzFeed's list of 21 charming British tea rooms to visit before you die but DeGrey's still had plenty of old English character. Having tea and scones with clotted cream and jam has definitely become one of my favourite things about living in England.

All in all, it was a lovely day in lovely Ludlow. Not only that, but it reminded me that I need to break out of my routine more often and take advantage of all the churches, castles and tea rooms that England has to offer!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Meetings with Monks

For me, traveling in Southeast Asia was a time of many firsts: It was the first time I accepted an invitation from complete strangers to eat a meal at their house, the first time I rode a motorbike, the first (and last) time I took a 24 hour bus journey... the list goes on and on.

It was also the first time I saw a monk which, I quickly realized, is a very common sight in this part of the world. During the time I spent in Southeast Asia (particularly in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) I met and befriended many monks who, in addition to being some of the kindest and most genuine people I've ever come across, were absolutely fascinating to talk to. I often asked them questions and ended up learning quite a bit about how they live.

Making my offering of Goldfish crackers to a monk in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Here are a few of the things I learned during my various meetings with monks:*

• They live very simply and do not receive any kind of income; they survive solely off donations and offerings from people who use their 'services', which can include performing blessings, teaching and spiritual counselling

• They take vows of celibacy, and females should never touch male monks (though I'm not sure the same applies to males touching female monks)

• They live communally in temples or pagodas

• They are required to shave their heads and wear robes, usually in orange or red for males and pink for females

• If there is ever a situation where non-monks are eating with monks, the latter eats first

• It's not only for adults, children can also be 'monks in training'

• For some, being a monk is something they may try for a year or so, while others remain monks for their whole lives (I met an elderly man who had been a monk for over 70 years!)

• They are not allowed to drive vehicles, however they can use mobile phones and computers

Learning about and befriending monks was without a doubt one of my favourite parts of traveling in Southeast Asia, and is one of the things that I miss most.

* Just as there are different types of Buddhism, there are different types of monks, so the rules I mentioned may not apply to every single monk. I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, this is just some of what I learned while speaking with monks during my travels!