As the Coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world, I can’t help but think: This sucks. For everyone.
Over the past couple of weeks, I got to see my international friends get recalled to their home university one by one before travel restrictions get in effect. One by one, as fast as they entered my life, they left. It’s interesting how the effect of people leaving creates an underlying aura of danger. And when you don’t hear anything from your home university, it merely adds to the stress.
Two weeks ago, I was minding my own business in my room when I noticed an ambulance parked outside my residence hall. I didn’t think much about it, just hoped everything was okay. A few days later, I came across a video of the same ambulance from another angle, showing someone in a hazmat suit walking in a flat. The student who got examined tested negative, but nevertheless, the video went viral around here, feeding the fire of panic that is starting to emerge among students who are caring less and less about their studies.
The University of Manchester switched to online classes only this week, about a week later than almost all the other universities in the region, so students have been complaining online for a bit now:
Last Friday, I was chilling with the folks from the Manchester University Speleology Club (MUSC) at a birthday party (which got transformed to going away party for one of the members who got sent home) when I received an email from uOttawa:
I was devastated. A mix of frustration, despair and sadness overwhelmed me. I was fortunate enough to receive the news with my caving friends, I really appreciated the support, thanks guys.
After checking with uOttawa, I was told I could stay if I wanted to. I was now faced with one of the hardest decisions of my life. To stay here, or go home. I took a few days to decide, pondering on the pros and cons, and following the news in the UK and Canada regularly. As much as I felt like going home, I thought I should stay. I came this far, stayed this long, adjusted to life here and going back would feel like I’m aborting the most important mission of my life so far.
The situation is better in Canada, the British government is getting quite a lot of international criticism on the way they’re handling the situation (I found a good video about their way of doing things: Herd Immunity vs Isolation). If I did return to Canada, I’d still be stuck at home, strongly discouraged from seeing friends and family. It’s essentially a choice between self-isolation here or at home. A full lockdown is apparently weeks (or days) away, with the closing of borders very soon. I feel like most people are leaving simply because the window for going home is closing, and the uncertainty of when it’ll open again is worrisome. When I look at the hard facts and data, the risk for me here (or at home) is low; my immune system is good, I’m young, healthy and have no underlying respiratory illnesses. Plus my medical insurance is still covering me in case anything does happen. Nevertheless, it’s still a good idea to stay safe; wash hands and avoid face touching.
After careful consideration and analysis, it made sense for me to stay. I was lucky enough to be given the choice, and I intend on taking full advantage of that.
This is by far not the most ideal circumstances, I know, but I did do this semester abroad to live new experiences, after all.
It’s been a month now, and it went by quickly and slowly at the same time. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been here for quite a while, other times, it feels like I just arrived yesterday. I’m fairly adjusted now, but there are reminders that I’m not in Ottawa any more.
Small things like the different paper size still catches me off guard. In Europe, the standard paper size is A4, which is slightly taller than the letter size in North America. Not by much, but I do notice when I fold a piece of paper in three, so I can stuff it in a bag or something. Now, the paper is awkwardly too wide to fit in my back pocket, and folding it in four would just be too narrow.
Apart from the multitudes of accents (I think I’ve heard around 5 different British accents up to now), the language is slightly different. Expressions like cheers and mate are used quite a lot, and simple things have different names, for example; peanuts are called peanuts, but when they’re in their shells, they’re called monkey nuts. Here it’s lift, not elevator. It’s a flat, not an apartment. The term class isn’t really used, it’s module when referring to the entire semester, and lecture or uni when it’s a single session (As in “I have uni this morning”), and the term course refers to the entire degree. Also, I got confused for a bit when my professor read out the number 0.05 as “nought point nought five”, to which I found interesting that even something as universal as numbers are pronounced differently here. Bus numbers like 147 are pronounced “One four seven” instead of “one forty seven”, though no one will look at you weird if you pronounce it the North American way.
I mostly cook my own food, stopping for groceries on my way back from the university (though once in a while, I’ll try out a new restaurant. I found a Tim Horton’s here, though I think it’s the American chain since it’s Tim Horton’s Cafe and Bake Shop. Had a donut there once when I felt homesick, it wasn’t the same…). It’s funny, at first glance, everything seems so cheap. “2.50 for a tub of Haagen Dazs ice cream on sale, sweet!” Then, when I think about it, it’s in pounds, not dollars. So multiply by 1.7, add a little bit in credit card charges, that’s…. umm… You know what, I’ll just double it in my head. Yeeeaaa, that tub is 5 dollars. Maybe another time. Oh what the heck, it’s on sale.
Getting around is not too difficult. The busses are better than the ones in Ottawa, but they don’t have an indicator for the next stop. So I have to guess when I need to get off the bus, which can be a gamble in some cases, especially when rain is involved (which is often). Also, if you’re waiting for the bus here, you need to signal your intention to board to the bus driver by kind of pointing at the road in front of you. A bus almost drove right past me once.
I rented a bike at Biko Bikes, a student-run bike rental shop in the Student Union building. I went there the first time they opened for the semester and evidently it was pretty busy. So busy in fact, that they didn’t have any working bikes that could be rented out, so we had to wait for them to fix some. As I waited, I asked if they needed a hand with anything. I have some experience working with bikes, after taking mine apart back home a few times. The volunteer then gave me something to do in the back of the shop. About 30 minutes later, he asked me: “You’re waiting to rent a bike right?” I said yes, and he answered “You want to rent the bike you’re working on?” “Yeah!” And so I continued fixing it up for the next couple of hours. After the shop closed, I dealt with the paperwork, paid a nice sum of £15 (with a £40 deposit) to rent it for the entire semester and I rode off with a rented bike, to which I already had an emotional connection with. I now volunteer at the bike shop on Wednesday evenings, getting my hands dirty helping students fix their bikes, so awesome.
Academically, things are going well, though it is a little difficult to get back into studying mode after about two months off. I’m taking five classes, two of which are aerospace engineering topics, so that’s fun. My schedule is lighter than I would’ve thought, but this is due to the fact that there are no tutorials and lectures are only 2 hours per week.
Due to the small amount of in-class time, studying here is much more self-regulated. This is accentuated by the fact that final exams are worth 80% of your final grade, compared to the 60-70% that I’m used to. There are no mid-term exams here, only labs and a handful of assignments, so revising along the semester is key, although a lot of students here simply cram during the last two weeks of the session before exams (and by cram, I mean sleep in the library).
So far, it’s going okay, though I feel like I have a bit more adjusting to do. The absence of close friends is taking a toll on me; I don’t laugh as much as I used to, I stay in my room longer than I’d like, I chat with friends and family in the late hours of the day. It is nice to talk to other international students, we’re all going through the same thing; we miss home. So talking about it is alleviating. The trick I’ve been told to solve homesickness is to go out and make experiences. Every time I force myself to go out and do stuff, I’m always glad I did. So in a few weeks, all should be great.
I’m so exited! Today I will visit real castles for the very first time. Getting up early this morning was tough, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it. The trip is organised by a local society for international students wanting to visit the country, for a very reasonable price.
First stop is Conwy (about an hour away), a castle built by the English in North Wales in 1283 and was constructed in only four years. It was built as a means to control the Welsh, who weren’t exactly happy that the English were in their territory. After several attempts and sieges, it was eventually captured by a Welshman who snuck in during a holiday, killed the two guards and opened the doors for the Welsh army. Learning about British history is quite interesting since it goes back sooo far compared to Canadian history.
I watched the walls of the castle in the distance making their way closer and closer, to which I realized the immensity of the stone structure. This was built in the 13th century! And is still standing to this day!
I decided to walk around the ground level first, and then make my way up at the back of castle. I observed the foundations of the houses, imagining the bustling medieval life. Each tower had their own role; the kitchen, the well, the church… Inside each of them was a set of steep spiral stairs that led from the bottom all the way to the top. Climbing them, I realized how in shape these people were; the steps are a little less than a foot high, making climbing 80 of them quite the challenge. As I wonder through the many hallways, rooms and staircases, I stop to observe the view through some windows, some of which are only slits to prevent unwanted enemy projectiles inside. As much as climbing the stairs was exhausting, the view was well worth it. Good thing I brought my jacket, it’s quite windy up here.
After exploring the castle for a couple hours, a few friends and I decide to go eat some fish and chips, which is a local specialty apparently. It was even better than the ones I ate in London, simply delicious. But I still craved a salad after. Even though I’m stuffed, I wouldn’t mind a little something sweet- Oh look! A bakery! As I walk in, the smell envelops me in a pastry wonderland. All these goodies on display, but it’s all stuff I could get at home, so I ask the baker; “What’s traditionally Welsh?” She pointed at some welsh cakes. They looked like small, thick pancakes with raisins in them. “I’ll have that.” Tasting one on my way out, it was a little dry, but not in a bad way. It’s pretty good, but I can’t eat more than two, I guess I’ll keep them for the bus ride then.
Next stop is Caernarfon, another English castle built in the 1200s. As I arrive, I couldn’t help but notice it’s in much better shape than Conwy, and also much bigger. Walking through the main gate led us to the interior courtyard, which is quite big. Not really knowing where to start first, I head towards the tower across from me. Inside, I find the Royal Welsh Fuseliers Museum. I locate the entrance, in the wall beside the tower, to which I find many displays about this regiment I’ve never heard of. Quite the history lesson! After visiting the museum, I explore around the castle. As with the one in Conwy, the many stairs and passageways offer hours of fun. Unfortunately, after exploring only half the castle, I hear a bell ringing, which I imagine is announcing the castle’s closure; it was 3:45 after all. The bus is picking us up at 5, so I have some time to kill. I feel like a nice walk by the river, and the bridge is right there. The castle looks majestic from here, great for pictures. The tide is low, leaving seaweed on the pebble-ly beach, which emits that classic sea smell. It reminds me of the many trips I did to the east coast with my family. Man, I miss them. A sudden rush of homesickness overcomes me. I feel like I’ve been here for months, and yet it’s only been two weeks. I’ve met so many people, but no quality friendship has been made yet. My squad and my best friend is in Canada, and what I have so far here, are just acquaintances. “I just need more time. I’ve got plenty of it, but I’m sure once June rolls by, it’ll all be gone in a flash.” Time calls, the bus will arrive soon, better get back to the pick up point and head home.
Looking back, spending that time alone in the park by the river, across a majestic castle, was a moment of self reflection I needed. I realized that it’s been gogogo for two weeks, and I need to simply relax once in a while. I don’t have any trips planned for the next couple of weeks, so I think that’ll be nice. Unless something unexpected comes up, we’ll see.
I got up early to meet the caving club members at the nearby sports centre. Last night, almighty Google said it would take 6 minutes to walk there. I seemed to have adjusted my schedule well, taking in account snoozing, getting ready, eating breakfast, along with walking time. As I arrive, friendly, familiar faces welcome me and help me get ready for the adventure ahead. I met a few of them at a social event a few days ago, so familiar faces were nice. I choose a pair ofrubber boots that fit me, it’s a little hard, most pairs are either too big or too small for my feet, but at last, I found some bright yellow ones that fit me quite nicely. They seem to call the boots “Wellies” which took a little used to at first, but the term grows on me. As the leaders organise people into cars, I take a moment to breathe in the fresh Manchester air. Five people are chosen to squeeze in a Ford Fiesta. I chose to sit in the middle back seat, to be polite. As we’re driving, it reminds me of a self driving car since there’s no steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle. Still got to get used to that.
The trip is scenic, driving through the English countryside. I watch the green rolling hills covered with a pattern of small stone fences holding in grazing sheep. Certain twists and turns reveal valleys with small towns wedged between the hills, not fully awake yet. “You don’t see that in Canada.” I thought. The car slows down, there are two sheep on the road, minding their own business. As they move out of the way and we drive by, I notice dyed markings on their backs, probably from their owner. After about an hour, we arrive in a small town called Castleton, mostly made of stone brick buildings. It feels like travelling back in time, in the middle ages but with cars instead of horse-drawn carriages. The church, the inn, the houses, all built from stone bricks and wooden shingle roofs. Some chimneys were lit, puffing out smoke, dissipating in the sky. The car parks beside a war memorial laid with wreaths and poppies around the old stone monuments. We walked not five minutes before entering a building through a low wooded door. Even the shortest of us needed to duck in order to get in. The others were already there, preparing our equipment. The leaders helped us getting ready: “These are the undersuits, put these on then grab an oversuit to go on top. Find some your size. I recommend getting one size larger than you usually do, you’ll need to be able to squat comfortably. And don’t wear anything else but your underwear, or else you’ll get cold. If you want to have some dignity, there are bathrooms behind you if you want to change there. You should leave your phone in your bag here, it’ll get pretty wet down there.” I spot a green wool onesie that seems my size. It was comfortable and a great fit. As I put it on, I notice a huge hole in the crotch area. I’m debating weather to keep it or find another one. “It won’t hold much heat if there’s a hole in it.” I thought “But it’s the same story with the boots, all are either too big or too small.” I finally decided to test my luck with another one. After a couple tries, I find one that was a little snug, but hole-less. Next was the oversuit. They remind me of the engineering coveralls back home, but thicker and waterproof. Same story; couldn’t find one my size. “Maybe I’m just too slow, plenty of people here are my size.” I opted for the XXL one with a belt to keep all the extra fabric not flapping around. This aint a fashion show, so who cares. “I hope you all don’t mind getting wet and muddy.” One of the leader says to the group. It would appear so; most of these oversuits are covered in dried mud. “This is going to be fun!”
A short walk through Castleton later, we arrive at the foot of a tall cliff, maybe 70-80m high. I read the infographic sign headline: “The Devil’s Arse, biggest cave entrance in the UK.” I ask one of the leaders about the name. “It used to be called that, but when queen Victoria visited the cave, it was considered unproper, so they renamed it Peak Cavern.” The entrance to the cave was the shape of an almond carved into the rock maybe a dozen metres high, with a touristic showcase inside. I ask about the star-shaped wood structures on the ground. “They’re tools to make rope, 100 years ago, rope-makers lived and worked here. If you look closely enough, you can spot the foundation remains of the houses along the right-hand side of the cave.” an older gentleman answered, who was suited up to come with us. He seems to have a lot of experience caving, so I kept a mental note to direct him any questions I had.
As we entered the cave, the sunlight shining through the clouds slowly dimmed away and bright floodlights lit the corridor-shaped cave. We passed through a locked gate, the floodlights were no more, and our headlights remained our only source of photons. We arrive at an open chamber with a steep incline at the back. On the incline was a slide. Seems like plexiglass. We split up into two groups of 8 and the first group went ahead, down the saddest slide I’ve ever seen, due to a high friction coefficient. Mud and sand prevented proper sliding to take place, so a few people just walked down beside it. I waited with the second group, observing the wet ceiling around me. A few minutes later, I install myself onto the slide and push myself down into the darkness. I have no idea when this slide is going to end and not ten seconds later, I arrive at the bottom with my bottom all muddy. After waiting for the others, we proceed through a long corridor for a little while. The ceiling was almost semi-circular with several rock formations that looked like round holes carved by thousands of years of erosion. I was walking on an elevated bed of clay, slightly soft to the touch. Beside the bed, a small stream of water trickled down the corridor, serpentine in nature, forcing me to cross it a few times. The next chamber accumulated the water in a large puddle, with an artificial dam holding it in place. As I continued down the corridor, the ceiling got lower and lower, eventually forcing me to an awkward squatting duck march, my helmet rubbing against the rock. The ground started changing from rock to clay, then from clay to water. I arrive face to face with a large puddle, the ceiling suddenly drops to a meter above the murky water’s surface. As I start walking through the water, I can feel the hydrostatic pressure on my boots getting higher and higher. The depth is now greater than the high of my boots. Cold, murky water floods into them. I grunt at the sudden rush of cold enveloping my feet. The ceiling is getting lower and the water deeper. It seems to stabilize around thigh height, with the ceiling around a foot above the water’s surface. I have my torso bent forward, keeping it above the cold water, feeling the rocky ceiling with my hands and back. Hurray! It starts to rise and quickly I get the luxury to stand on dry land. Yet my cold, wet clothes are sticking to my legs, slowly sucking away my heat. As I move along, they warm up to my body temperature, so I barely feel them. What I do feel, is the water sloshing around in my wellies, making my feet heavier than usual. I consider stopping and pouring the water out, but I then realize that it would be a good idea to leave it in, since it’ll eventually warm up and keep my feet “warm” during my next water encounter.
I arrive in a low-ceiling chamber, where I could stand in a few select spots. A leader is sitting beside a small crevasse on the ground, asking if anyone wants to go in. My hunger for exploration drives me into it. I put my feet first and slide down on the wet rock into the dark. It’s only about a foot wide, and inclines slightly to the left. At the end of the crevasse, my feet feel a flat rocky surface. I enter feet first into a small open area, not even big enough to turn around in. The small hole continues down, which I decide to go into, feet first, sliding on my back with the ceiling only a few centimeters away from my face. I feel a sudden drop with my foot. Holding myself with my arms, I try to feel how deep this drop is with my feet, to which no bottom could be found. “Ok, now is a good time to head back. No way I’m going down there.” I then make my way back up, pushing with my feet and arms in the most awkward positions possible. When I got out, a great sense of satisfaction fills me. After squishing through those tight spaces, I now know that I’m able to fit in such small crevasses.
Continuing down the cave system, another creek lead down the passageway. This time, it carved a trench right smack in the middle, giving the passageway the cross-section of a mushroom with a thin stem. The trench is barely wide enough to fit in, facing sideways. It’s depth made the walls of the trench reach my armpits. As I’m strafing through the trench, I hear the sound of a waterfall getting louder and louder. “We must be getting close to something.” The trench ended in a steep cliff, the creek spilling over the edge into a tall chamber. The drop was about 4-5 metres high, with a large puddle at the bottom, fed by the waterfall. The puddle split into two creeks flowing in opposite passageways out of the chamber. A chain and ladder assisted us down into the chamber. I followed the leader into the passage on the left, stepping into the creek that flowed down the narrow passageway. He pointed out a rock that we stepped over, saying “Some people take it as a challenge to go underneath it, instead of simply stepping over it.” “Maybe on the way back.” I said, since we crossed the group ahead of us, I thought that we’ll make our way back through here afterwards. The passageway lead to a sump; where the water level reaches the ceiling and thus is a dead end without proper diving equipment. On the way back, I decided to go under the rock this time. The space under it is maybe a little above a foot in height, so I lay down in the creek to crawl under the rock, cold water rushing into my face. I power through and get up after, proud of my little stunt, with my entire front dripping wet. “I can’t feel my toes” is the running thought in my head. The feeling goes away for a little while then comes back after any water-related obstacles.
Returning to the chamber with the ladder in it, we go down the passageway on the right, which bears a striking resemblance to the other one on the left. After around 10 minutes of walking through the creek and puddles, we finally arrive on solid ground. A small hole above to the right, leads into the dark and the creek continues down strait. Following the creek, we arrive at what appears to be a sump. A rope tied to the rock wall led into muddy water, where the ceiling went low over the surface into the darkness. The leader goes ahead, splashing his way through the water. He says “There’s a few inches of air under the ceiling, so it should be fine. As long as you don’t have to hold your breath, it’s ok.” It wasn’t a necessary part of the trip; there was a detour we could take to avoid getting wet. Again, my sense of adventure wanted to try it. Following the leader’s instructions, I float on my back into the cold water, pulling myself along with the rope. I could see the other end through the couple of inches above the water, it wasn’t far. My headlight flashed a few times, indicating that the battery was low. My helmet rubbed against the rocky ceiling and I plunged my head into the water. Using the rope, I pulled myself across, coming out of the water a few seconds later. I was little confused as to why I unnecessarily dunked my head in the water, but glad I did it. I felt the cold shock through my body as soon as I got out of the water. I moved a little bit to warm up, transferring heat to my water-drenched clothes. I now know by experience the purpose of the wool undersuit I was wearing.
Continuing down the cave system, we arrived in a chamber with a very steep incline leading up. A knotted rope was attached at the top, which came in useful when we started climbing. “I’m used to rock climbing, so this shouldn’t be too hard” I say to myself. As I started climbing, I noticed the cold affected my hand in a strange way, greatly reducing my dexterity, adding to the difficulty. I still made it, with great trust in the rope. The top ledge was covered in mud and clay, and a dark narrow crawlway started at the back. When everybody climbed up, the leader said, “Prepare to channel your inner earthworm!” as he squiggled himself into the muddy crawlway. I followed him on all fours, watching my oversuit change colour from red and blue to a milky coffee brown colour. The small crawlway had two grooves on the ground, made from countless hands and knees before me shaping the clay. I laugh at myself in this situation; “I miss standing, lol.” After a few awkward slides through muddy crevasses into more puddles and creeks we arrived back at the top of the tall chamber, where the ladder was. Heading back where we came from brought me a feeling of relief. “Ok, now I can’t feel my toes.” But now that we’re headed back, the cold, numb feeling is more tolerable. The leaders take us by a small detour, climbing a small underground hill, and reaching a nice spot on dry mud. I notice a few black waterproof bags in the corner and a small plastic bag hanging from the low ceiling. “We call this place the treasury. In those bags are emergency supplies in case cavers are stuck down here and can’t come out due to flooding. This nice elevated spot is a good place to set up a shelter, which can be found in the bags.” As the leader explains, I look around at the plastic bag hanging from the ceiling. I take a closer look and notice that it’s a radon test kit, measuring radiation doses in the cave. I remember the paperwork I signed before coming down here, saying that “We are not responsible for elevated radiation doses that could cause cancer bla bla bla…” I’m down here with professionals, I’m sure it’s fine.
We head back to the entrance, passing by the artificial dam to bathe and clean ourselves in really cold water. We scrubbed each other’s backs with brushes and rolled around in the water. “Ok now I can’t feel my entire foot. It’s just all cold. Everything’s cold.” I know that we won’t be crossing any water on the way back from here, so I put my foot up on a rock, tilt my boot backwards and watch the little waterfall of water, sand and mud exit my boot. As we walk back through the steep slope beside the slide, I notice the floodlights, lighting the entire cave with ease. The colour of the ambient light starts to fade from an artificial yellow to a natural bluish colour from the outside clouds. Fresh air at last! But the worst was yet to come: wind. I just washed myself, and still soaking wet, walked outside into the English countryside. A slight wind pierced right through my layers, stealing my heat. Only five more minutes until we arrive at headquarters and we can change. Arriving into town, I still admire the stone architecture of the old buildings around me.
I’ve been winter camping before, been much colder. I’ve been canoe-camping in the rain before, been much wetter. But never have I ever been that cold and wet at the same time. Changing into my dry clothes was a very special type of comfy feeling. My feet itched as my blood recirculated through them. I helped to clean up and we were on our way back. Tired and exhausted, I dozed off in the back seat of the Fiesta. Suffice to say, the shower that followed was one of the best showers I ever had…
Looking back, it was an awesome experience. Now I know a little more what to expect when it comes to caving, the next time will be much better (I hope). The feeling of exploring the unknown was by far the best. Squeezing through those crevasses and braving the cold pushed the boundaries of my body to a point I never would’ve known if I didn’t go. I’m definitively going to the next outing organised by the club, but for now, it resting time. Got another trip lined up tomorrow.
I got a message a few days ago from a friend working a co-op term in Versailles saying that he’s visiting London this weekend. I figured, why not? It’ll be nice to see a familiar face, and to give London an actual visit.
After checking with my budget, I decided to take the bus instead of the train. It was about a 5 hour ride, since it left early Saturday morning, I slept through a good chunk of the ride.
I met up with Alexandre in Trafalgar square, where we walked around, chatted for a bit and checked out the British Museum.
I definitively need to come back and pay another visit to the British Museum, it’s huge. Essentially, all the artefacts found by the British Empire throughout history are here (plus some other stuff). Everything from the first grindstones used by the Mesopotamians to Iranian astrolabes, medieval chess sets, native American totem poles, and even the Rosetta stone.
After visiting the museum, we decided to try some famous English fish and chips. Let’s just say, I was not disappointed.
After stuffing our bellies, we walked around the Thames river, admiring the view of London at night:
We said our goodbyes and parted ways to our hostels (the one he booked at was full). I was planning on visiting the Imperial Museum the next day, but saw an ad in the newspaper (yes, I read those) for an exhibition called “Moving to Mars” at the Design Museum, about human missions to Mars. It was only around until mid-February, so I thought it was now or never; one of the reasons I wanted to travel Europe in the first place was to visit as many space museums as I could, so this was a great find. I totally nerded-out with all the space stuff inside:
Sadly, I had to catch my bus back to Manchester. I stopped in Birmingham for a connecting bus and had the chance to walk around a bit:
When I finally arrived in Manchester, I felt a feeling I haven’t had in quite a while: familiarity. “I’m back.” I then realized that I’ve been exploring the unknown this entire time, and for once, something felt like home, it was nice.
I did a lot of exploration in the past couple of days. I find that the more I know about my surroundings, the more I feel at home. The city is in itself pretty big, but I’ll have an entire semester to explore it. For now, I’ll make sure I know my campus first, which is quite beautiful in it’s own way. The medley of modern and Victorian-era buildings make for an interesting mix:
I also visited the engineering department of the university to sort out my class schedule. There’s quite a few that seem interesting, it’s too bad I can’t take them all. Trying to make a schedule is like playing whack-a-mole: As soon as you pick a class, a conflict pops up. Resolve the conflict, a new one comes up. Replace the class, everything seems fine. Add another one, more conflits pop up. I’ll get it, it just takes careful planning.
Meeting international students is an interesting experience. Basically, we’re all standing around chatting in groups, saying all the same things; “Where are you from? What are you studying? Why did you choose Manchester?” and looks like the groups, squads and cliques are formed by looking at people, but in reality, we all just met a few days ago.
I met so many people, so fast, from so many places, that my brain has a hard time keeping up with the new names and faces. Thankfully, smartphones exist so they can do the work for me. And yet, even keeping up with all the group chats is a demanding task. I have a feeling as time goes on, we’ll all settle into our own groups with similar people.
Yesterday, I was chatting with a few people after an orientation session and just when the conversation started to fade, I proposed going to grab lunch. And here we are, munching on some burritos like old friends, 45 minutes later:
I did some shopping for raising the coziness level of my room and grabbing some utilities. Sheets, plants and forks are just examples of my shopping list.
Something interesting happened to me yesterday. I was shopping around in Poundland (the British version of Dollarama), when I felt a slight tug on my backpack. I turn around and my friend says “That guy just tried to open your bag”, pointing at a man walking away, muttering what I’m guessing is insults, in what sounded like french, who then proceeded with shopping around, like any other regular person. My first instinct was to check my bag, which the zipper was only partly open due to the stiff rubber around it. I guess I felt it before he could grab anything, luckily there was nothing in there. I spoke about it to my flatmates, who were surprised as this was the first time they’ve heard such a thing. It’ll teach me to be even more vigilant I guess. (and not to put valuable stuff in that pocket)
One joyous afternoon, I received a text from my airline saying they found my luggage and will be shipping it shortly. Receiving it was a whole other story.
The address I gave to the airline was the one for my building, but later realized I needed to give the one for the residence reception. I sent an email with the corrected address, and received a phone call a few minutes later. The delivery man said he’s arrived at the address and cannot park anywhere. I was waiting for him, who was nowhere to be seen. It was the evening, possibly at the end of his shift, so he’s getting frustrated over the phone, adding this to my difficulty understanding his accent made identifying our locations challenging. After texting me the name of the shop he’s parked beside, I quickly look it up; it was only 400m away, so I decide to run it. He wants to come back tomorrow, but I urge him that I need my bag tonight. “I’m on my way, I’ll be there in-” and my phone cuts out, it ran out of minutes. “Wha? I just activated it yesterday!? Never mind, I’ll deal with it later.” Finally met up with him a few minutes later, super nice guy. He had the right address, but I guess his GPS gave him wrong information. When he saw my name written on the form, he said: “Are your French? Moulin Rouge!” We had a good laugh. I thanked him immensely, and was ready for bed, with actual pyjamas for the first time in a few days.
Receiving my luggage gave me a great deal of relief. Now that the last piece of home is here, I can finally settle in.
After so many months of preparation, days of packing (Not. I packed the day before), and hours of travel, I finally made it. I step outside the train station and take a breath of the cool Manchester air… Nothing special, to be honest, I’m not too sure what I was expecting.
Immediately, the first thing I noticed, was that cars drive on the “other” side of the road. During the weeks leading up to my departure, I paid special attention during my daily walks to uOttawa when I crossed the street, so I was a little more prepared for looking the opposite way when the day came. The training paid off, having no close calls yet, but it’s still weird.
I completely missed my orientation, but ran into some student ambassadors who gladly showed me where to pick up the nice stack of papers that was my briefing pack. I’ll sift through it in the evening, when I have time.
I got the chance to catch a tour of the campus, walking about the various buildings, some of which are new, others are quite old. It makes for an interesting mix. I’ll be able to grab some more pictures tomorrow when I’ll explore the campus on my own. On the tour, I got to meet a bunch of other international students, all here for the same reason: to have new experiences and to study something they’re passionate about. A lot of them studied economics, marketing, psychology, linguistics and other social sciences, but when the engineers realized who they were, an instant bond was formed.
After all the greeting, I needed to collect my residence key and find the actual residence. I wondered about the Fallowfield campus, where the residences are, searching for the Oak House building and it’s reception desk. The area looked oddly more like a campsite or a cadet training centre than a university residence. I searched for a good 30 minutes, I noticed I was feeling grouchy, tired, hungry (I was running on airplane granola bars and cookies all day) and a little homesick. “I can’t just go back home, I need to find it.” I then realized that Oak House was an entire block of buildings, which I was circling around, trying to find something specific that never existed. Eventually, I found the reception area and through all my mixed negative emotions smiled at the receptionist and said: “Hi! I’m from Canada and I don’t know where I’m going.” Paperwork got sorted out and I was good to go. When I was mingling with the other international students it came up that Oak House was the party residence. “Oh great. So much for quiet sleep. Maybe it’d be cheaper to rent a hotel room for the semester?” So at the reception, I grabbed an accommodation transfer form, just in case.
I finally found my building, my flat and my room. Crashed on my sheetless, pillowless bed and lied there for a few minutes. I’m used to camping, so sleeping with a sweater as a pillow isn’t new to me. I got to meet my new flatmates, who seem all like nice people. Lets just say I was relieved to hear “Oak House is usually a loud place, but we’re a pretty quiet flat.”
One of my flatmates accompanied me to grab some groceries. Apparently everyone does their own meals here, so I grabbed some essentials to make some pasta for dinner and oatmeal for the next morning. I’m too tired right now to deal with long-term decisions like lunch tomorrow. I’m going to really enjoy sleeping tonight.
My voyage to the UK was interesting to say the least. It included considerable delays, some waiting around along with some swapping of airlines. Long story short; I’m in Manchester, and my luggage isn’t.
Turns out that snowstorm yesterday (or two days ago? I don’t even know anymore) delayed my flight to Toronto so much that I would’ve missed my connection for London. So they booked me a flight the next day with a different airline. Funny enough, I got to spend one more night at home, while my luggage was stuck in a plane headed for Toronto (due to the hatch being frozen shut, which I think is hilarious). I tripled-checked with the two airlines to make sure that it would be arranged for me to pick it up in London Heathrow.
Sure enough, after a long, sleepless flight across the Atlantic (they gave us some blankets and pillows which was nice) and one hearty airplane meal later, I’m waiting at the baggage claim conveyor-belt thingy and my backpack is nowhere to be seen. (And it didn’t help that they had trouble opening the hatch. Again. On a different plane, five time zones later)
While I was waiting, I entertained myself by timing and calculating the speed and the length of the conveyor-belt thingy with some simple arithmetic and my watch. Turns out, it takes 4 min and 30 sec for a suitcase to go around a 70m long conveyor belt at 0.25m/s, in case you ever wondered the speed of a conveyor-belt thingy at Heathrow airport…
I filled out a few forms and the airline will track it down and deliver it to Manchester. On the plus side, they’ll ship it to my residence, so I won’t have to drag all that KD and maple syrup a couple hundred kilometers north. Since there was no way I could make it to my orientation in time, I decided to take the slower, cheaper route and use the underground for the full London experience. For an underground, it sure spends a good portion of the trip above ground. Not that I’m complaining, it was great to see London from the backyard of residential neighborhoods. I’m definitively coming back here to explore further the city. I was surprised by the amount of people reading the newspaper on the tube, you don’t really see that in Ottawa anymore.
After a tube line transfer to reach the train station (a short walk outside was needed), I step outside the door and take my first breath of London air…
I exited into an exterior courtyard with benches, tables and coffee shops. I was astounded by the shear amount of smokers taking their breaks, I guess it was a designated smoking area or something. Nevertheless, I hurried my walk into the train station, feeling optimistic that my next breath of outside air will be better.
I believe this was the first time I did not wait for a vehicle of some kind during my trip; I entered the station and after my first step into the crowd, I hear: “The train for Manchester Piccadilly station is now boarding on platform one.” (You have to picture it with that nice, sophisticated british accent) I dash for a kiosk, quickly get a ticket and run to the platform. On my way, I noticed that there was no car or seat number on my ticket, so I followed the Londoners in London and boarded a not-first-class-looking car. No one seemed to mind.
The train ride was much smoother and quieter (no roaring jet engine outside my window this time!). It was about 11:00am local time, but felt more like 5pm. I took advantage of the smooth ride and dozed off while observing the English countryside.
Two and a half hours later, I finally arrived at my final destination with the clothes on my back, my electronics (and their chargers of course), my water bottle, passport (and other documents), a deck of cards and my tired, adventurous spirit.
Months of preparation all lead up to a single moment: Oh wow, I’m actually doing this! I’m actually going to leave everything that I know, for 8 months. (Yes, yes, almighty internet won’t make it that bad, but that’s how it feels) This is going to be one great adventure.
While I was packing, I’m realising that I’m not going camping in the bush, I don’t need half the stuff I usually bring when I go travelling (which is usually the middle of nowhere), I can buy stuff in Manchester; so no need to bring my sleeping bag, air mattress and don’t even think about bringing a can of propane.
I was told that the UK doesn’t have Kraft Dinner, so I decided to bring some to share with my future non-Canadian friends. I brought 8 boxes, (not shown in the picture since I decided to stuff more after I finished packing) which account for a little less than half of my things, by volume. Most of the weight is those two cans of maple syrup, which I intend to consume a few months in the trip, via the use of a classic maple syrup delivery system: pancakes.
After a heavy meal at my favorite buffet in Ottawa, Tucker’s Markeplace (which should keep me full for several hours during my flights), my parents and I went to the airport and said our goodbyes.
At first, the flight was on time, then got delayed by 15 minutes, then 30, then one hour, then two, then three. Apparently, a good-old snowstorm was preventing my plane from taking off in Toronto, delaying it’s landing time in Ottawa. Out of curiosity, I check the weather radar map, let’s just say I was not surprised.
I should be in Toronto by now, but hey, it’s better this than flying in a snowstorm. There’s absolutely nothing I can do about it right now, so might as well sit back, and enjoy the free time. (writing this blog, that is)