New York

One day in May this year, in the midst of panicked revising and one too many snacks, my friend called me up to ask if I wanted to go with her to see a play she’d spontaneously bought tickets for – only after I said yes did she tell me that the play was in New York. So began the months of booking flights, finding an airbnb, and mass excitement as we planned are first trip to New York (for the grand total of four days there). I thought, instead of doing a day-by-day description of what we did each day, I’d go through the things that were completely different to London – from transport to food to the weird and wonderful.

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Times Square

Our first full day we managed to find our way to a CVS to pick up the necessities, swinging by a Dunkin Donuts on the way back to see what the fuss was all about. Then we started our journey to more central Manhattan, which is where we first experienced the subway, which still confuses me. We succeeded in finding the right station and descending into the depths of their underground, purchasing a Metrocard that we could use for the rest of the day. We then failed by going through the barriers, only to see that we were on the Uptown platform. ‘Not a problem’ we thought, our naive London minds going instantly to memories of ending up on a Northbound Victoria line train instead of Southbound. Surely this number 6 train would be the same.

We were very wrong.

Turns out that for some stations, the only way to get on the right platform is by crossing the road above the station itself. There’s no underground path to the right platform, no, you’re stuck. So starts the hasty exit and the pleading with the staff on the other platform to please let us through because our Metrocards told us that they were ‘just used’ so couldn’t possibly let us onto another platform. It’s safe to say that for the whole subway trip we reminisced about the London underground system, with the coloured tube lines that have names instead of a mix of numbers and letters. We also missed the armrests some tubes have, which stop people from taking up three seats instead of one. (It seems we also lived up to British stereotype and complained a bit).

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Grand Central Terminal

What I found most interesting about the layout of New York was the fact that it was a grid, all straight lines and corners – very much unlike the higgildy piggildy layout of London with it’s various twisting alleyways and secret paths. With New York, your directions were just ‘straight up until you get there’ or ‘take a left then a right’. Each street was a number, counting up and down. Still didn’t mean that we had an easy time not getting lost. We had numerous, desperate hunts for wifi spots in order to connect to Citymapper so we could find our way around.

On a side note of public transport, their traffic light system needs some serious work. For pedestrians, there are no buttons to press in order to get the lights to change – you just have to wait until the red man turns white (instead of our green). Not only that, but when you cross the road, cars can still turn in. No wonder there were so many signs for the majority of accidents happening on corners – as you cross the road, cars are still speeding around bends, hurtling towards you as you try and make sure you don’t end up being roadkill.

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We went to see Hamilton and it was incredible.

Besides the obvious highlight (aka Hamilton is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen/heard/experienced), food was what I was most looking forward to trying. Everything seemed to be bigger and far sweeter than anything we’d ever tasted, and experiencing a proper Diner was great fun – from all the memorabilia on the walls to the waiters carrying fishbowls of filter coffee. However, there were a few things that weren’t as good as I had hoped – chocolate, for one. Hershey’s chocolate doesn’t even hold a candle to the classic cadbury bar. There was also a place that asked me whether I wanted my tea ‘hot or cold’, as if ‘cold’ was an option for a mug of green tea. Barbaric, I tell you.

And the final thing that left us completely perplexed, was tipping. My god, the tipping. We had some vague idea that you tipped around 15% at lunch, 20% at dinner, and that was all we knew. We were already astounded by the fact they had notes for $1, and the coins were all cents and quarters. Somebody seriously needs to write an ‘idiots guide to tipping’, though come to think of it there probably already is one. What had us confused was the way you tipped when charged by card. How it’s supposed to happen is this:

Your meal costs $20, so they charge you that amount and on the receipt you write on the tip, eg. $5, and then the total $25. They then take that receipt and ‘close’ the cheque (side note, you don’t ask for the bill, you ask for the cheque), charging you for the total you’ve left.

Yet no one told us this. So up until the final day, we were asking to be charged $25, and writing $20 total and $5 tip on the cheques. After getting the impression that the waitress was acting offended when we asked to be charged $25, we asked if she could explain. Then came the laughter, the look in her eyes which, as someone who works in retail knows, meant ‘I am so telling everyone this when I go on my break’, and general amusement at the British girls.

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Beautiful view from our trip on the Staten Island Ferry

With a lack of signs and queues, it’s sure that NYC is a very different place to London, but I loved it nevertheless. The pancakes were incredible, Broadway simply magical, and the High Line is a sight I won’t soon forget. Part of me wished those four days would never end, but my bank account was very glad that there was a limit to our stay. And that, in a nutshell, was my experience of New York.

p.s – to any English travellers, do not, I repeat, do not, ask where the ‘loo’ is. It is always the restroom. ‘Toilet’ might get some funny looks too.

p.p.s – to any London travellers, be warned that not only to people make eye contact out in the open and on public transport, but Americans are prone to starting up conversations with complete strangers. Gone are the subtle sighs and tuts, instead are out-loud complaints and nudges to the person next to you. *shudders*

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Guide to University: subject disparity

The first thing you’re asked at university is: what are you studying. It’s not surprising, really, if you think about. People want to know what subject has driven you to this point and whether or not it’s the same as theirs. Unfortunately, the subject you pick to study defines you in ways you may not like. For example, people who study medicine are clever, those who study physics are astronomically clever but never get dates, those who study philosophy are pretentious, english students just like reading old books, history students are all mainly male – same goes for war studies, etc, etc, etc.

Thankfully, in this day and age, these immediate presumptions about subjects, these ridiculous stereotypes that are more false than true, are slowly dying out. Still, the amount of times I encounter them are ridiculous.

‘Classical Studies with English’ is the full title of my degree and, honestly, I probably don’t help matters with my explanation of it. As soon as I finish saying the title, I’m met with blank stares and crinkled brows, so I quickly clarify with ‘basically, lots of books’. In all honesty, there are a ton of books that I have to read, so that’s not a lie, but there is so much more to it. It’s about learning language, culture, the context of literature, how to write well – and that’s just the English side of the course. In my Classics side, I’ve learned about ancient history, philosophy, literature, archaeology, language – so many different areas, it’s a surprise it all fits into one degree. Yet, when I’m asked about Classics, my short answer normally starts with ‘ancient greece and rome’ then goes to ‘do you know Homer?’ and, finally, ‘have you seen the film Troy?’. It’s pretty dire.

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So there are my faults and failings for all the world to see, but it could be worse – and I’m doing my best to change that. However, not everyone is of the same mind and there is one thing that helps cause this: contact hours. Contact hours are the amount of hours you’re at university each week – and by that, I mean the hours of lectures and seminars you have, not the hours you’re at university having a coffee or studying in the library. Contact hours vary considerably between subjects, and the reason for this is that some subjects need more teaching, whereas others require more time for individual work and research. Take physics or maths, for example. The quickest way to learn is to have lots of lectures and seminars, as it would be pretty difficult for students to be just given a textbook and sent on their way. However, when you get subjects like English, students need time to actually read the books, research critics, write essays etc etc. Despite knowing this, most people – students included – still make presumptions on the difficulty of your degree based on your contact hours.

At this stage, I’d just like to remind you that – at least in the UK – every student pays the same amount. Whether you have a lot of contact hours or very few, each student pays £9,000 a year.

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I live with two medical students, one of them being my brother (but I’ll save that topic for a different post). My brother is in his final year, and the other one is in their third, so they both are in hospital from early in the morning to at least late afternoon Monday-Friday. This makes perfect sense; they’re training to be doctors, to help heal people, so they need practice and experience rather than just staring at a book all the time. I, however, only have 8 contact hours a week. This is supposedly so that I have enough time out of lectures to read all the material set and write my essays etc, but there are some weeks where it doesn’t feel like enough time at all. One week, I had two essays to write, three books to read, and 2 critical papers to study for every module. It’s tough. Those who say (insert subject name here eg. Classics) is an easy degree are idiots. Each and every degree is difficult, and you get as much out of it as you put in.

To the outsider, it doesn’t look like I work as hard as my room mates. When they come back from a day at hospital to see me reading on the sofa having had only one lecture that day, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that they make comments about how ‘easy’ my degree is compared to theirs. I mean, look at how much they work! I couldn’t possibly understand how difficult their degree is. And, one of my favourite comments, ‘reading isn’t work’. You can imagine my frustration at a house party where I was the only one not studying medicine to hear my room mate say ‘Eleanor’s work this week is to read Frankenstein. Man, I wish that was what I had to do! That isn’t work!’.

Ok, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading Frankenstein, but that’s beside the point.

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The issue here is that there are disparities among subjects. In all honesty, I would love to have more contact hours a week and actually feel like all my money is going somewhere. But the fact people are so quick to jump to conclusions is really quite upsetting. There are weeks when I’m set books that I do not want to read, or books where I think there is no chance I’ll be able to finish unless I don’t do anything but read. One week, for just one module, I had to read Joyce’s Ulysses. People take months to read that book, let alone a week! On top of that, I had to prepare short paragraphs answering questions on the book, and that was just for one module. For my others I had to read certain chapters or prepare essay questions, draft an essay and critique someone’s assignment due in for that week. Some weeks are a nightmare, other weeks are a dream. Obviously I wouldn’t change it for anything, I absolutely adore my degree, but the amount of times I’ve had to defend it seem ridiculous. When someone says ‘I wish all I had to do was read ___’, I say ‘well why don’t you?’. You pick your degree, I pick mine. If you’re going to be the person that complains, then do a different degree.

It’s an unfortunate fact of university, I’m afraid. My advice? Stand your ground, don’t be ashamed, and ignore the haters.

Cheezburger haters gonna hate pony haters

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Teachers change your life…or something

My family is moving in two weeks out of the house I’ve lived in for my whole life, so it doesn’t really come as a surprise that there is a lot of crap to sort through. I came across my old school reports (teachers really need to use words other than ‘conscientious’) and it came as a bit of a shock that I wasn’t always good at English. Now, this isn’t me being all ‘I am a genius, how could I have ever been bad?’. No, this is me saying that there was a time that my best subject was Maths and my worst was English; which is something a Classics-with-English student never expects to discover. I was looking through my primary school books (it’s unsurprising to see that I was never good at art), only to find that English didn’t really appeal to me early on. In fact, the comments from my teachers mainly told me to ‘stop writing about horses, think of other topics’ or ‘stop using the words beautiful and lovely in every piece of work’. It seemed sightly strange to me that, yes, although I was a seven year old obsessed with horses, my teachers were telling me that I shouldn’t write about what interested me. So what if it’s a creative writing piece with the title ‘prints in the snow’, we don’t want to see you following them to find a pony.

Ok, some of you might be thinking that they had a point and sure, I could have tried to write about something that didn’t include horses (or horse related creatures, such as unicorns or a pegasus), but that’s clearly what inspired me to write. That was what I enjoyed. Soon after my horse ban, my writing went downhill and there are comments on my sudden lack of effort and enthusiasm. Clearly I wasn’t impressed with being told I couldn’t write about the one thing that interested me.

Then comes secondary school and in my first year my English marks pick up, only to plummet in my second year (a year which I detested English due to the teacher). Then, out of nowhere, I suddenly start to get really good marks in my third year which only continue to improve throughout the rest of my education – all which was taught by the same English teacher, who I loved. Which brings us to today, where I’m pursuing a career in writing.

If that teacher hadn’t come along, I might have never enjoyed English. I might have stopped having lessons after GCSE. I might have chosen a completely different career path, maybe even choosing sciences, god forbid. It just seems absolutely bizarre to me that something like what teacher you have, which shouldn’t impact your education, changes your whole life. Maybe if I had a fantastic chemistry teacher who inspired me I would have decided to take it for A Level, and then gone on to do something like biochemistry. It’s pretty terrifying, actually, to think like that. English (and Classics, of course) is what I always think makes me, well, me. I’m the girl who is always reading, always writing, who wants to be an author, who is desperately trying to discover how I can get publishers to send me books for free to review – because, of course, everything is better with free books. Of course there are other things that make me who I am – this is where I include a shoutout to my family, my dog, my friends etc – but I’ve always thought that English was always my thing. I found a script, of all things, for a play that I wrote at a very young age (it’s about a group of kids who investigate a graveyard where there’s a vampire who they eventually defeat with the help of their dog – Scooby Doo, anyone?). Reading that, I just assumed that I always knew writing was what I wanted to do. But apparently not.

Teachers change your life. They do, as silly as it sounds. You think it all depends on what school you go to, but it also depends on what teacher you get. Maybe if I had been encouraged in primary school to write about whatever makes me interested, I would have been better at the subject earlier on instead of being upset that I was told to stop writing what inspired me. Maybe if that history teacher I had in my first few years of secondary school had taught me for GCSE as well I would have continued it. Maybe if my maths teacher didn’t ‘jokingly’ call me Twit every single lesson, I might have been more confident about my abilities.  Maybe if my PE teachers didn’t make me feel completely inadequate at AS, asking me constantly if I my handicap in golf had dropped every week, I might have enjoyed it and done better in the exam. Maybe, just maybe, teachers are far more important than you first think.