Rain, Snow and Internships

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This past month has been pretty exciting in Paris is terms of all the different weather conditions. First there was an unprecedented amount of rainfall, causing the seine to flood and worryingly closing many metro and RER stations. Not only that, but lots of the stations still open had leaks all over the place with the water being collected in buckets. It wasn’t amazingly reassuring… Next came the snow which was quite exciting. Paris itself looked beautiful in all its white sparkling glory but it seems the city isn’t really cut out to deal with adverse weather and many stations were closed and all the buses cancelled for a while.

While all of this has been going on, I’ve been steadily getting through a mountain of work – a lot more than last semester. However, despite the stress of this work and lots of speaking French, I managed to fit in a little visit to New York (or at least Paris’ mini Statue of Liberty) and a trip to Normandy, which was also affected by floods at the time. Even though much of the area was water logged it was still very pretty and visiting the D-Day landing beaches really left an impression. What as more impressive was that the soldiers each carried the weight of another person on their back up the beach whilst under fire. I tried to carry my boyfriend, Charlie, up the beach and promptly collapsed. I would never make it as a soldier.

Throughout all the fun, excitement and work one thing that has always been at the back of my mind has been to try to get an internship for the coming summer. This has been quite difficult to do from another country and has involved a skype interview as well as an assessment day squeezed in in early January, 2 days before I was due to fly back to Paris for my exams. Since one of these first exams didn’t go fantastically well, I’m going to put it down to this assessment day (which also had me missing out on other more fun plans I’d put into place before this last-minute interview).

I was lucky enough to interview with such an accommodating company but others have not been as helpful. I’ve known some people who have had to fly back at short notice, at their own expense for an assessment day. This means missing classes and sometimes losing a large amount of money from your own pocket. This kind of thing is something to bear in mind when doing a year abroad, you have to be prepared to be flexible and to pay. Fortunately, I have now managed to find an internship for which the final stage was a telephone interview – lucky me!

With my summer plans in place, I’m looking forward to focusing more on my French work, knowing that I won’t have to hurry back to England any time soon. This is only good news as I’m becoming more and more << Parisienne >> by the day (see photo for proof!).

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Very happy with my new Beret!

Round 2

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My first week back for my second and final semester starts tomorrow. This time around I was ready for the inefficient French system and really tried my best to be organised. This meant sending emails to all the modules I wanted to do at the end of the December. However, despite my best efforts I’ve somehow ended up doing something a bit different from my original plan. The good news is that I haven’t missed the first two weeks of classes, so compared to last time, everything is looking good.

After having spent a great few weeks at home catching up with my family as well as managing to see some friends that I hadn’t seen since June it’s safe to say I wasn’t too pleased about coming back to Paris on the 7th of January to do my exams… Just to make it worse I only got back to my flat the night before my first two exams, and it really wasn’t easy dragging all that extra Christmas present weight up four flights of stairs. I couldn’t be happier that my exams are over and after a very well timed trip to London and the return of my boyfriend later, I’m now very excited to be here and to get back into the swing of things.

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Now part of the Sorbonne!

Then again, now that the exams are out of the way, I’ve had more time to worry about my seriously full timetable. I feel very very sorry for the actual physics students here who basically work 8:30 – 18:00 every day. A very different experience to a Durham timetable in my opinion. One piece of exciting news is that my University has become part of the Sorbonne, which happened on the 1st of January which meant I came back to new signs and logos all around the campus. This also makes it a lot easier for me when people ask which university I got to, a ‘The Sorbonne’ is a lot simpler than ‘Université Pierre et Marie Curie’!

One thing I noticed straight away once I was back was that after three weeks of only speaking English, I was really struggling to understand any French. It really is one of those things where you need to use it or you’ll lose it! Even after a week of just enjoying Paris and relaxing I’m still not sure I feel ready to start learning in French again. Hopefully, by the end of next week I will have picked it all back up.

So since nothing new or exciting has really happened to me recently, I wanted to take a look back at my favourite moment from my first semester. For me this was realising that I was finally comfortable living in this new city. This was the moment when I realised that I can do the whole year and really enjoy it. I realised that I know the city, I can understand French, I can sort things out in a different language and live all by myself. I can’t say that it was a very memorable moment, or that I remember where I was when it happened, but there definitely was a moment and it was a really great feeling.

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I can be French!

 

 

 

To finish off, I wanted to talk about my aims for the next semester. Hopefully by my last blog post I’ll be able to look back at this and say that I achieved what I set out to do. My reason for studying abroad was to experience living in a different country, look at physics from a different point of view but mainly to improve my French. With everything that happened in the first semester, I felt like I didn’t put my all into this, I still improved but I didn’t feel like I made the most of every situation. Because of this, my aims for the next semester are to make more French friends, speak more French in general and really make an effort to do this. Wish me luck!

 

Christmas in Paris

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Since my last post I’ve been incredibly busy, but now that I’ve arrived back home to PROPER chocolate and tea, I’ve finally found the time to fill you in on Christmas in Paris.

There’s so much to do in Paris at Christmas time and I really tried to squeeze it all in. The Christmas traditions are similar in France, but one of the biggest differences was the serious lack of mince pies. This was a devastating discovery until I found them in my local M&S- problem solved. Another slight difference is the Christmas cake, the French have the “Galette des Rois” – the cake of Kings. The cake is traditionally enjoyed on the 6th of January, celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem. This led to an interesting discussion in my French class, where we learnt that it’s actually a very expensive cake. This is down to the current butter shortage which is most likely due to the fact that China has discovered croissants! (Amongst other reasons).

Being the organised person that I am, I drew up a plan that allowed me to do all the Christmassy activities as well as squeezing in my final French test. Fortunately, Paris got into the Christmas spirit very early on, with these cute Christmas lights going up in the second to last week in November.

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The first Christmas lights I saw!

As well as getting ready for Christmas, I was also lucky enough to celebrate Thanksgiving twice, with one of the celebrations being a pot luck. I was quite confused at first, having never heard of a pot luck before, but it turns out that everyone brings a different dish so you end up with a variety of things to eat. The good thing is that most people can’t be bothered cooking meat, so there was loads of vegetarian food I could enjoy as well! It’s actually such a great idea that I’m hoping to do it again back in Durham.

Christmas lights are kind of a big deal in Paris, so I felt it was important to see the famous Champs-Elysées lights as well, which were even better seen from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

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From the Arc de Triomphe.

This was actually a traumatic outing due to the freezing cold temperature. I’m not sure why but Paris feels even colder than Durham ever has, it has me thinking that I won’t be able to survive the temperatures when I go back to Durham next year… Despite the temperature, Paris didn’t quite get the same amount of snow as England, something I was quite sad to miss out on. Why does it only snow when I’m not there?? Nevertheless, I did still manage to catch a winter cold – twice! Luckily, I was well cared for and provided with endless paracetamol and hot drinks.

By the beginning of my last week in Paris before the Christmas break I was fully recovered and ready to fit in as much as possible. First on the list was the Christmas markets. I managed to fit in three of these before I left. The first was called the “Village de Noël” and even though it was right in the middle of a business district, which was not the nicest location, it was very cute and had loads of stalls. I even got to meet Père Noël and stand in an English telephone box (?)

The best market by far was the Notre Dame market. Even though it was quite small, it definitely looked the best and really got me ready for Christmas.

I also took the opportunity to finally go to all the shops I’ve been walking past since I arrived. I stocked up on some fancy chocolate and visited two of the biggest department stores, both of which were suitably decked out for Christmas. Just to make sure I’d really looked everywhere, there was also a trip to a big shopping centre on the edge of Paris (they had a Primark!). Everything was very pretty and so I took a lot of pictures since I can’t imagine I’ll be seeing the same kind of things in Debenhams next year.

The final adventure, and possibly the most exciting, was a trip to Disneyland. This was something I’d been looking forward to for weeks and it was made even better by the cute Christmas decorations and the Christmas parade. We were lucky to have really good weather as every other day there was almost constant rain. We made the most of it and spent the day outside, walking around both parks. I was exhausted by the end and we didn’t even get to go on all the rides! I’m already looking into when I can go back to finish them off…

All in all, I had a pretty great November and December, and I did actually do quite a lot of work – I promise!

Sightseeing in sub-zero: a tourist’s guide to winter in Uppsala

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Considering that I’m on exchange in Sweden for a full 10 months, you’d have maybe thought that friends and family would confine their visits to see me to the spring and summer months. Whilst summer temperatures in Sweden are never going to set any records, my hazy recollections of the first weeks here in August are marked by long warm days, where having fika outdoors, wandering through parks in the sun and even taking off the occasional layer *gasps*, was a tauntingly brief reality. Unfortunately for those who booked to visit me, however, the perks of being a summer tourist were a very distant memory when they came in November, January and February respectively.

 

Uppsala’s a wonderful place to be a student throughout the seasons, but when you’ve only a few days to experience what it has to offer, and those days happen to be consistently below zero and filled with intermittent bursts of snowfall, sleet or icy rain, the pressure to get creative with your tour-guiding is on. To save future Uppsala-students this panic, I’ve compiled this handy list of sightseeing musts, for when the elements are very much not on your side.

  • Escape the cold by ducking into Uppsala Domkyrka. The tallest cathedral in Scandinavia, this masterpiece boasts some truly beautiful wall paintings, King Gustav Vasa’s tomb and the relics of Sweden’s patron saint – St. Erik. It’s also free to enter, open until 6pm and, as a bonus, has an amazingly effective central heating system…

 

  • Use your student ID (guest cards from the uni also work) to get free entry to Museum Gustavianum. Learn about the university’s history, wander around one of the world’s oldest anatomical theatres and marvel at the Augsburg Art Cabinet, a 17th-century cabinet of curiosities which is, quite simply, mad.

 

  • Botaniska trädgården is maybe more attractive in the warmer months, but is still worth a visit for the tropical house (also free entry for Uppsala students) as an escape from the cold.

 

  • Bror Hjorths Hus is one of my favourite spots in Uppsala. A little out of the way, it’s well worth the walk for a look at the quirky art of local favourite Bror Hjorth, displayed in his own home. (Also free!)

 

  • Uppsala konstmuseum is another great place to seek refuge from the cold whilst getting to feel lovely and cultural. Set within the castle, the museum has a decent collection of artwork, regularly changing – so perfect for multiple visits with friends! (Need I say, this one’s also free…and open late on Thursdays, if you need somewhere warm to wait before getting dinner)

 

  • If you’re blessed with a sunny day, it’s worth embracing the cold and walking/biking to Gamla Uppsala. This site, inhabited since the 3rd Century AD, was an important economic, political and religious centre before activities were shifted to present-day Uppsala. There’s a museum (not free, sorry), a 12th Century church which still holds services, and most impressively of all, monumental burial mounds which offer an amazing view across to the cathedral.

 

  • If you want to pretend to be a true Swede for the day, a trip to Fjällnora Recreation Centre is a must. Serving as a haven for swimmers, hikers and canoeists in the summer, this massive lake entirely freezes over in winter, and swarms with skaters and cross-country skiers. It’s accessible by bus from Uppsala centre, and equipment is available for hire at a reasonable price. I went skiing with friends a few weeks ago, and can honestly say that despite it being the coldest day of the winter so far (lows of a very chilly -13°), it was absolutely worth it for the scenery and the fun of trying a new, and very Swedish, sport.

 

  • Bandy is a sport I hadn’t encountered before moving to Sweden, but for those also not in the know, it can be summarised as a slightly less exciting version of ice hockey. It’s immensely popular in Sweden, and Uppsala has its own team – IK Sirius – which plays regularly throughout the winter in a stadium not far from the centre. It’s possible to watch for free as a student, and though I’ve only been a spectator, I’ve heard it’s also possible to play.

 

  • If outdoor activities aren’t really your thing, however, or the cold is simply just getting to you, it’s always good to know that cafés and Nations are only ever around the corner. Both are an integral part of student life here, so you can easily justify spending a significant part of your tourism-time indulging in fika or enjoying drinks.

 

All I Want For Christmas Is…

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If there’s anything to take away from Koln during the cold and dreary seasons of pre and current winter time, it’s definitely the obsession with the Christmas Markets (aka Weihnachtsmarkte). There is a grand total of 11 different “main” markets spread across the city – ranging from the the tourist zone in front of the renowned Dom to our very own LGBT+ Christmas Avenue near Rudolfplatz.

I’m personally not a huge fan of all things Christmas, notably the overplayed Mariah Carey tunes and whatnot (call me a Grinch, I’ll take it). However, these markets are pretty impressive. They are built overnight on the 27th of November (saw it wit’ me own eyes!) and keep running till early January. They’re not so much ‘santa this’ or ‘elf that,’ but more so the more traditional delicacies of Christmas time. It’s safe to say I’ve had my fair share of Gluhwein (boiled red or white wine, to put it simply) and assorted roasted chestnuts as of now.

Unfortunately, due to exams, I was unable to see the winter wonderlands under the few days of snow we had beginning of December – I hear it was splendid – though these markets have become quite the practical rendez-vous point now that we (I) have more time to spare, “Yes, lets meet under the weird looking Christmas gnome next to the ice-skating rink.”

Weirdly enough, this is the only real taste I’ll have of the full-on Western Christmas spirit because I am off to Vietnam / the Philippines for the actual Christmas Day and New Year. It was a spontaneous decision, and I can’t say I regret trading in the -6°C for some beach time and 30°C sunshine. That said, I wish you all a very merry holiday and look forward to catching up in the new year!

Till then, yours truly,

Alex

Lapland Larks

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Hej hej,

Apologies in advance for what is about to be a somewhat hyperbolic and unrepresentative reflection of how amazing studying abroad is, but, still riding the high of recent travels, I want to endorse seeing life in a different country as a unique experience to exploit your new geography and travel to places more accessible than from the UK.

Before coming to Sweden, I’d only a very vague understanding of what and where Lapland is, and had never considered it to be somewhere I’d prioritise travelling to. I had visions of lots of snow, extreme cold and perpetual darkness in the winter months, which wasn’t entirely unappealing, but also didn’t do much to sell the idea to me. When my newly-found friends decided to book a trip advertised at the welcome fair, however, the fomo hit, and I too signed myself up for 5 days in the far north on the ‘Lapland Express’ tour.

As a budget tour catering for students, compromises were made to keep prices low, including taking an overnight coach to spare expenditure on accommodation and transport. Laden with a rucksack filled to the brim with every piece of warm clothing to my name, I was collected from town, and we began the long drive north. Amazingly, despite what seemed to be the entirety of the UK being coated in a generous blanket of snow in previous days, Uppsala had been distinctly free from wintry weather, which I soon realised wasn’t a reflection of the situation in the rest of Sweden… Once we were outside of the city, the scenery changed dramatically, with every road, house and tree obscured by thick layers of snow. I won’t lie, the reality of spending 17 hours cooped up on a bus was as unpleasant as it sounds, but the excitement of what lay ahead (and occasional drama on the road – stopping the bus to avoid collision with a baby elk etc.) kept spirits high.

The distance from Stockholm to Kiruna

Our first stop was Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city, famed for its enormous iron-ore mine, which – fun fact- is causing the entire city to be gradually relocated 3 km east to allow for further extraction. After a quick change into warmer clothes, we were bussed to a local activity centre, where we immersed ourselves in the full tourist experience, driving snowmobiles across the snowy plains and being taken by husky sled back to base. It was a fantastic way to begin the trip, and definitely succeeded in waking us up after such a long journey!

The afternoon was spent touring the city, but we didn’t have the energy for much more. The darkness isn’t totally complete, as you can see from the photos, there’s a degree of light at midday, but we’d arrived right in the middle of the polar night season, meaning that for the entirety of our stay the sun never actually rose above the horizon. Regardless of how often you check the time, your body can’t keep up with such a dramatic change, and I spent most of the afternoon bus journeys napping and then waking up, disorientated, to see that it was pitch black at 3 pm…

On Tuesday, we left our hostel and headed further north, stopping at the Ice Hotel on route for a tour of the production rooms and a nose around the ice suites. I can confirm that the beds are very comfortable, but the visit did nothing to help me understand why people willingly pay £150 to sleep in the extreme cold, despite the attraction of some seriously stunning artwork. Before arriving at our accommodation, we made another stop to visit a Sami community, who continue to practice their traditional livelihood of semi-nomadic reindeer herding (though nowadays with the aid of snowmobiles and helicopters). After feeding the reindeers lichen, we warmed up inside a lavvu, a tent heated by an open fire, and drank a broth made from reindeer antlers. All very touristy, but bucket-list activities for any trip to this corner of the globe.

We were meant to be staying in Abisko National Park for the remaining days, but a twist of fate in the shape of a vomiting virus meant we were relocated to a ski resort in Björkilden, and rather than having hostel rooms, we enjoyed the luxury of wooden cabins with lakeside views, a kitchenette and PRIVATE SAUNA! Smug is probably an understatement to describe the general sentiment, and I have to say that, standing outside our cabin watching the Northern Lights that evening, life felt pretty damn good.

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Wednesday happened to fall on the 13th of December, an important day in the Swedish calendar, also my name day, Luciadagen – Saint Lucy/Lucia’s Day. This page gives a nice introduction to the general idea. I was gutted to miss the celebrations in Uppsala, but we got a taste of the festivities when a local school came to perform Swedish carols in the hotel lobby, dressed in traditional attire with the ‘Lucia’ donning white dress and crown of candles. There were also free festive snacks, which I exploited as breakfast: lussekatter (buns flavoured with saffron) and pepparkakor (hard gingerbread biscuits).

Fortune was shining on us again, as the weather was declared good enough for a trip across the Norwegian border to Narvik to be given the go-ahead. We drove across the snowy landscape listening to Christmas songs, stopping at a fjord on route to take photos before being dropped off to explore for a few hours – the longest our guide was willing to risk waiting before returning, for fear that the heavy snowfall would close the road back. She wasn’t being paranoid: a group the previous week had delayed their return by 10 minutes, and found themselves stranded in Narvik for two days thanks to extreme weather, with only the possessions they’d brought for the day with them. I can’t really speak much for the city itself, but, as a true history student, I can wholeheartedly encourage a visit to the war museum. Military history isn’t usually my style, but it turns out that I was amazingly ignorant when it came to Norway’s role in WWII, which is well worth a look into if you’re interested.

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A fjord on the outskirts of Narvik

Wednesday evening was spent in possibly the most stereotypical Swedish fashion imaginable. Not only were we drinking glögg (Swedish mulled wine, can taste uncannily like Ribena, take care) in a cabin in the snow, we were lounging in our very own sauna, and even slapped on an ABBA mixtape to complete the picture. When the heat of the sauna became too oppressive to cope with, we all dashed outside, straight into a fresh pile of snow. I kept telling myself my muscles would thank me for the rapid changes in temperature, but I can’t say it felt like they were appreciating it the next day.

Thursday was our final day in Lapland, and, having decided not to join the excursions for ice climbing and cross-country skiing, we spent it ticking off all the wintry activities we hadn’t found the time for before. We borrowed sleds, and half walked, half slipped down to the lake, taking in a magnificent frozen waterfall on our way.

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‘Olaf’ enjoying the view 

The journey back to Uppsala was as painfully long as the first, but broken up with stops – such as a visit to the ‘Arctic Circle’, which, as shown on the above map, we’d crossed days before without the slightest notice or mention. We were warned not to get our hopes up too much, which I’m grateful for, considering that it is quite literally an inflated road sign, obscured by the dark and a generous layer of snow.

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Wow what a spectacular sight (sarcasm intended)

Christmas in NYC

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Christmas is probably my favourite time of the year. I love the Christmas vibe that lasts the whole month, decorating, carols, concerts etc. I obviously also love the food and laziness of the holiday, meaning all I have to do is sit around drinking tea and eating mince pies for at least a week. I also know that it’s guaranteed that all my siblings (who are in the country) will come home for Christmas.

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Canadian Pacific Holiday Train

This meant that one of the things I was most worried about when coming to Canada was what to do about Christmas. Since we only had 2 weeks break I decided it wasn’t worth it to come home, so had decided from August I would be staying. I expected to stay in Calgary with my flatmates, but I was extremely lucky and grateful to be able to stay with some relatives in Boston and New York over the holidays.

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Christmas in Flat 209

This led to me ‘adulting’ – I successfully sorted out my flights, transport from Boston to NYC, travel insurance and visa myself, which may seem pretty standard but there’s a first time for everything. After successfully getting through customs in Calgary (where I declared my sweets, chocolate and tea, making the border agent laugh) I survived my first solo flight (managing to get stuck in the window seat for 4 hours while my two neighbours fell asleep) and promptly started panicking because everything I had read online about coming into the US hadn’t happened (in case you don’t know me, I stress very easily)

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Canada covered in snow

 

Boston

I stayed with my cousins in Boston for a couple of days between finishing my exams and Christmas Eve, which had terrible weather but was still great. Here are a couple of things I did:

  • Seeing Harvard University
  • Walked around Cambridge: It still creeps me out a bit seeing British names in North America, so going to Cambridge was a little confusing. I loved walking round a small, old, red brick town, which made me feel nostalgic and very similar to home, especially after 4 months of living in a city
  • Boston Common: This was beautiful, even in the pouring rain, with statues, trees and an ice skating rink
  • Chinatown

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    Boston Common

Christmas in Brooklyn

I moved over to Brooklyn to stay with some more relatives on the 23rd. I really enjoyed getting to know different sides of my family (obviously as they live in the US it’s hard to see them, and until now I’ve spent a grand total of one afternoon with them) and they knew everywhere to show me around. We did a lot of Christmassy stuff (lots of tea, films and late mornings), and also went to a lot of cafes, restaurants and ice cream places, which suited me perfectly, as well as doing some sightseeing. I spent Christmas here, with loads of my extended family, which made it a really nice first Christmas away from home. Some of my favourite food I tried include:4DB36FAA-711F-4FF6-ACCC-2B25011DBDE4

  • 10 Below Ice Cream: Rolled ice cream with unlimited topping
  • Grilled Cheese at an American diner: This is basically a fried cheese toastie, but seems to be a must have in America
  • New York Bagels: They’re basically big bagels, but again a must
  • Frozen Yoghurt: My cousins were baffled that I’d never tried this, and I have to say it was pretty awesome
  • Cake Pop: I don’t know if this is an American wide thing, but cake pops to me mean a small ball of cake on a stick, but I experienced three layers of cake, ‘frosting’ and topping, which was also incredible
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NYE Fireworks

New Year in Manhattan

After spending nearly a week in Brooklyn, I moved to my Great-Aunt and Uncle’s in Manhattan. It was really cool to be able to stay in different areas of New York, and I was staying next to Central Park and with easy access to basically all the sights in Manhattan, which was awesome. I mostly spent my time here going to museums and sightseeing, and being fed extremely well by my aunt and uncle. I managed to meet up with a friend from home and I spent New Year with her and a couple of her friends watching the fireworks in Central Park, which was incredible but extremely cold. Some of my favourite things I did (other than the fireworks) were:

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This felt like a very NYC view

  • Seeing and going over the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges
  • Taking the Staten Island Ferry to look at the Statue of Liberty and the amazing view of downtown Manhattan from the water (and pretending I was in Spiderman: Homecoming)
  • The view of Manhattan from the top of the Freedom Tower, and the 9/11 Memorial, both of which were extremely humbling
  • Ridiculous Christmas lights in Dyker Heights
  • Wandering through Central Park
  • The Cooper-Hewitt, The Met and The Guggenheim

Overall, my break was pretty incredible, and something I definitely did not expect when I decided to come on a year abroad. It was quite tough being so far away from home and seeing all my friends meeting up back home, but I am so glad I decided to do something different, and I’m especially so glad I managed to meet some more of my family. As well as doing my first solo travelling, it was also the most amount of time I’ve lived in the centre of a city (other than Durham, which is quite anomalous) and I loved exploring on my own, even though it was strange not having a white Christmas after being surrounded by snow for most of the last 3 months. New York at Christmastime was pretty awesome, but spending time with family (even if they were different family to those I’d normally spend it with) was my highlight of Christmas for sure.

 

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