Sunday, January 6, 2019

My Word of the Year is "Prioritize"

I first heard the idea of choosing a word to define the year rather than (or in addition to) setting New Year’s resolutions a few years ago. But while I’ve always thought it sounded like a great idea, I’d never committed to doing it. Then I saw Joséphine’s lovely post about her word of the year, and I decided to give it a try. After a bit of reflecting, I chose “prioritize.”

I’ve spent too much of my life fixating on things that aren’t important—I obsess about my grades, I let myself get angry over trivial annoyances, I get sucked into reading Twitter drama when I have better things to do, etc.

When I left to spend last semester studying in London, my goals were 1.) to see as much of London and Europe as I could, and 2.) to become more comfortable exploring on my own. I wasn’t going to let unimportant concerns weigh me down. And I mostly stuck to that resolution. I worked hard in school, but not too hard. I enjoyed each moment instead of worrying about making every day perfect.

And I was happier than I have been in a long time. Okay, a lot of that was because I was living in London and traveling every other weekend, but it was also because, for the first time, I was prioritizing what was actually important to me. I want to keep doing that now that I’m back home.

prioritize my mental/physical health over academics

This means sleeping seven hours per night, taking time to meditate and stretch for a few minutes at night and in the morning, and taking more study breaks to relax or spend time with friends. In 2018, I realized getting straight As at the expense of my happiness (and even my ability to actually learn the information I’m studying) isn’t worth it. 

spend at least one hour per day studying Spanish

I studied Spanish in high school, but I haven’t actively kept up with it for years. My semester abroad, along with some realizations about my career goals, made me realize how dissatisfied I am with speaking only one language. (Also I love Spanish so much?? I can't believe I ever stopped studying it.) I’m closing in on day 100 of my Duolingo streak (add me as a friend if you want!), and I’m always open to recommendations for novelas and other Spanish-language content! 

explore more

When I studied abroad last semester, I spent every free moment exploring London or planning a weekend trip to another city. That made me realize I take my own city and country for granted—when I’m home, I spend a few too many Sundays holed up in my room doing homework. I want to take more walks and visit more places in Indianapolis, and I want to visit a couple of other cities too. (I’m going to Atlanta over spring break, and I can’t wait!)

check Twitter and Instagram only once per day

Social media adds value to my life—it’s a great way to keep up with friends—but it quickly starts to feel draining the more time I spend there. I’d rather prioritize pastimes that make me feel more fulfilled, like reading, language study, and talking to real people around me. 

Do you choose a word of the year? Or have you set any New Year’s resolutions? I’d love to hear about your goals and plans for 2019!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Top Six Books of 2018

It's time for my favorite blog post of the year: my best-books-of-the-year recap! I read 40 books in 2018; here are my six YA favorites (in the order that I read them).

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock

The first book I read in 2018 was easily one of the best. Set in 1970s Alaska and told from four equally-gripping points of view, the story creates a strong sense of place that can only be described as enchanting. The beautiful setting and fascinating characters are complemented by sparse-yet-powerful prose that epitomizes everything I love about literary YA and reminds me why I love reading. I cannot recommend this enough.


Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

I can count on maybe one hand the number of books that made me truly tear up, let alone cry. Far from the Tree had me sobbing in the kitchen as I tried (and failed) to listen to the audiobook while making dinner. (Side note: I highly recommend the audio narration as well as the book itself!) This heartbreaking-yet-heartwarming story of three half-siblings reconnecting with each other and discovering their roots is spectacular. Far from the Tree is by far Robin Benway’s best book yet—and that’s saying a lot.


I listened to this one on audio as well, which I think helped me fall even more in love with its main character. American Panda is a fairly character-driven book, which works so well because—whether you read the print version or listen to the audio version—it’s impossible not to cheer for Mei as she as she tries to balance her own dreams with her parents’ aspirations during her freshman year at MIT. I especially loved that the story takes place during the protagonist’s college years (although she's only 17—she skipped a grade due to her super-smarts)!


Okay, maybe this book’s romance feels a little cheesy, but in the best possible way. Let’s Talk About Love is one of the most adorable books I’ve read in a long time, and each chapter brims with absolute joy. It features a biromantic asexual protagonist (whom I adored) navigating a major crush, and it talks about different types of attraction and different ways you can love someone. Bonus points for the best ace rep I’ve read and the fact that the story takes place the summer after the protagonist’s second year at uni! 


Over the past few years, I’ve established a tradition of reading one Emery Lord book per summer. Each time, it’s a joy and a gift. And while it’s difficult to rank her books, I think this one may be my favorite yet. When We Collided has characters so vivid you can feel their emotions soaring off the page and a setting so vibrant you’ll swear you’ve been there. And best of all, like every Emery Lord book, it treats friendships, family bonds, and even self-acceptance like the epic love stories they are. 


How could I leave this one off the list? It was wonderful to revisit the cast of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, but more importantly, Leah on the Offbeat shines in its own right. With a painfully relatable protagonist and a storyline that made me desperately nostalgic for my own senior year of high school, Leah on the Offbeat fully lived up to my expectations. We are so lucky to have Becky Albertalli’s books. 


What were your favorite books of 2018? Link me to your best-of lists in the comments!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Five Stories From Scotland

I recently took a weekend trip to Edinburgh and the Scottish highlands, an area with a rich and storied history. Here are five of my favorite tales that I learned about while exploring England’s northern neighbor.

George Heriot's School, where J.K. Rowling's
daughter studied—forgive the bad lighting!

1. How a 1600s royal goldsmith created Voldemort—in a roundabout way

George Heriot was a wealthy goldsmith who loved giving away vast swaths of his fortune. One of his favorite projects was George Heriot's School, which offered top-quality education to the poorest students of Edinburgh. 

By the late 1900s, the school had become one of the most expensive education institutions in Britain—but it did offer a few scholarships each year. One scholarship recipient? J.K. Rowling’s daughter, who studied there in the 90s.

As she worked on Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, Rowling spent time wandering through Greyfriars Kirkyard, a graveyard neighboring the school, seeking inspiration. Most famously, the name “Tom Riddle” was taken from a gravestone here. (I saw the gravestone during the day, then returned with some friends at 12:30 in the morning!)

The real Tom Riddle's gravestone
The school itself inspired a few facets of Hogwarts too—including the House system!

To see more Harry Potter headstones, visit Greyfriar's Kirkyard—but maybe during daylight hours! If you're interested in other Harry Potter-related sites in Edinburgh, check out this list.

2. How a 1735 witchcraft law was used to arrest a fraudulent medium in the 1940s

In the 1500s and 1600s, Scotland was obsessed with witchcraft. They conducted between 4,000 and 6,000 witch trials, significantly more per capita than in England at the same time. (In fact, to raise public enthusiasm for witch-catching, King James commissioned a new English translation of the Bible that viciously condemned witchcraft. That’s why we have the King James Bible today.)

Scotland loved witch trials so much that their outdated laws remained on the books until the 1940s, when a Scottish medium named Helen Duncan rose to popularity. Widely considered to be a fraud, she was hated by the spiritualist community and disgruntled customers. Government and fellow mediums alike wanted her off the streets—and section four of the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which covered fraudulent spiritual activity, provided the perfect loophole. Duncan was tried before a jury under this law and served a year in prison. 

Duncan was the last person to be imprisoned under this law, as it was repealed soon thereafter. The law was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which saw five prosecutions before it was repealed and replaced by new EU consumer protection regulations. 

To learn more about the history of witchcraft, murder, torture, ghosts, and other such things in Edinburgh, catch one of these nightly ghost tours. They're free, but tips are encouraged!

3. The story of David Hume and his statue

Touch his toe for good luck!
Enlightenment-era philosopher David Hume was widely-hated in his time. As a secular thinker who promoted rationalism and ruthlessly questioned organized religion, he made his share of enemies.

But the group of people who hate him most of all? Philosophy students at the University of Edinburgh in 1997, when the statue was erected. The University decided to spotlight David Hume’s work all year long, and by the end, philosophy students were beyond tired of debating his ideas.

In an act of revenge, they started a rumor that touching the statue’s toe would bring good luck, and students fell into the habit of visiting the statue before an exam. Hume would have hated this tradition—he scorned all things superstitious—but it’s remained popular with students and tourists alike.

To learn more about monuments and statues on the streets of Edinburgh, check out Sandeman tours—my guide was wonderful!

An old shoe shop x-ray machine at the National
Museum of Scotland

4. The worrying way shoe shops gave workers radiation sickness

The National Museum of Scotland is one of the best museums I’ve visited in Europe. Their collection is impressive and engaging enough that you could spend a few hours there, but it's well-organized enough that a short visit can be satisfying too.

I came to see Dolly the sheep (the first animal to be cloned), but I was also fascinated by an unexpected fun fact: shoe shops used to own small x-ray machines that would scan your feet to check how your shoes fit. They were the norm from the 1920s to 1970s, until shops realized their sales associates were being exposed to unacceptable levels of radiation.

For more stories about scientific history, visit the National Museum of Scotland.

5. The unlikely life of Maggie Dickson

Maggie Dickson's pub, where I went for
dinner on my second night in Edinburgh
In 1723, an Edinburgh fish hawker named Maggie Dickson stayed at an inn south of the city whilst traveling. She lived there for a while, working in exchange for her lodgings, and during this time she became pregnant out of wedlock. Worried for her job and her future, she concealed her pregnancy, leading to a miscarriage. 

This was illegal at the time, and when she was discovered, she was arrested under the 1690 Concealment of Pregnancy Act. She was sentenced to hang from the gallows, a sentence she served on 2 September 1724 in the Grassmarket Edinburgh, a town square where public hangings often took place. 

She was pronounced dead, but as her body was being transported for burial, she jolted back to life—it turns out the rope was too short and had merely suffocated her until she lost consciousness. But since Edinburgh at the time believed in literally following the letter of the law, she had served her sentence—which was, after all, simply to “hang from the gallows.”

She was forgiven in the eyes of society and of God, and she lived the rest of her life in a flat overlooking the Grassmarket, from which she was known to shout encouragement at hanging victims. And from that time forward, Scottish courts always sentenced convicts to “hang from the gallows until death.” 

To learn more about this death-defying woman, visit Maggie Dickson’s Pub, located just underneath Maggie Dickson’s old home.


To learn more about the stories of Scotland, I highly recommend visiting yourself. For advice on how to do so cheaply, check out my friend’s post on how she spent a weekend in Edinburgh for less than $250! And if you have any favorite stories from Scotland, share them with us in the comments!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Five Reasons to Do a Homestay For a Weekend (+ Northern Ireland Trip Recap)

I recently visited Northern Ireland for the first time! I had a phenomenal weekend enjoying the natural wonders of the region, but what really made my trip special was the wonderful nonprofit HostUK, which matches exchange students studying in the UK with UK host families for a weekend. Thanks to this organization, I got to stay with a lovely family living just north of Belfast and spend a day traveling with them along the Antrim Coast. Here’s why I loved it, and why you should do a similar program if you get the chance.

1. Visit somewhere you never would have thought of

Hexagonal rock formations at Giant's Causeway National
Trust Site—myth says they were formed by a Northern
Irish giant fighting with a Scottish giant, leading to similar
rock structures on either side of the sea.
Without this program, I doubt I would have thought to visit Belfast on this study abroad trip, let alone my host family’s small suburb or the northern coast! As beautiful as it sounded, I would have written off the area’s natural wonders as being too far from the city and too inaccessible.

But since HostUK doesn’t ask you where you’d like to go (although they ask you how much money you’re willing to spend) Northern Ireland was chosen for me. And I couldn’t be happier that it was. I got to drive with my host family along the Antrim Coast Highway, a scenic driving route that follows the northern coast of the country, stopping at National Trust sites along the way. I got to see Giant’s Causeway, with its rock formations unlike anything I’d seen before, and Carrick-a-Rede, the famous rope bridge that crosses gemstone blue water that I couldn’t satisfactorily capture with my camera. Even my host family’s town was a beautiful escape from London, close enough to make a trip to Glenariff Forest Park before I flew home on Sunday.

2. Try authentic local food

People crossing the Carrick-a-Rede (from the Scottish Gaelic
"Carraig-a-Rade," meaning "The Rock in the Road") rope
bridge from the mainland to a small island
Not only was my host family kind enough to introduce me to the Ulster Fry (side note: potato bread? The most delicious thing in the world), but they also took me to Morelli’s, a local favorite that serves fantastic honeycomb ice cream. (They were shocked when I said I’d never tried it before—is it just me, or is it not much of a thing in the US?)

3. Learn about local culture from experts

Thanks to my host visit, I know more about political divides in Northern Ireland, UK currency, and the geographic subdivisions of my host family’s town, and more! I also got to speak with my hosts (one of whom is a maths teacher and a career counselor for students) about the UK uni application process and so much more.

Plus, I got to experience day-to-day local life. I hopped between Asian food supermarkets looking for spices and desserts with my host family’s son, who had just returned from studying in Japan. I went to my host family’s church on Sunday morning. These experiences are hugely different from what I’d do on a normal vacation, but when it comes to travel, different is good.

4. Put your culture in a new context

This picture in no way does the view justice, but thanks to
glacier movement, you can find panoramic valley views at
Glenariff Forest Park.
Whether you’re interacting with local students every day or (like me) taking classes with predominately other US exchange students, doing a homestay will allow you to share aspects of your culture in ways you might not have before. I was reminded how ridiculous US driving habits are when my host family expressed surprise at seeing so many southern Irish cars on the road. (“Dublin is a three hour drive from here!” they said. “That’s really not that far,” I responded.) We also talked about US politics and higher education, and we shared travel stories from our National Parks as we hiked through Northern Ireland's National Trust sites.

5. Make connections 

Ultimately, HostUK strives to connect people across cultures, and at least in my experience, it absolutely succeeded. I loved getting to know my host family as people and talking about our respective lives. Being invited to eat, travel, and stay with a near stranger forces you to get to know them more quickly than normal and connect in brand-new and fulfilling ways. It was an unusual experience for sure, but in the best possible way.
You can find out more about the program, apply for a visit (or to be a host!),
and support the organization here

If you’re an international student studying in the UK, I can’t recommend HostUK enough! The process is easy, and it’s free except for travel, tickets to any sites you visit, and a gift for your host family. 

Have you ever done a homestay (for a weekend or longer)? If you’re from the US, have you ever tried honeycomb ice cream? Let me know in the comments. 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

How I Spent a Day in Cambridge for £22

Good morning, and welcome to my very first post as a newly-minted travel writer!

Last Monday, I took an impromptu day trip to Cambridge. (Seriously, I booked train tickets at 9 p.m. the night before—I'm trying to become more spontaneous throughout my semester abroad, and I'm off to a great start.)

I had a fantastic time, and I managed to avoid spending money aside from the £22 I spent on train tickets. Here are the spots I visited:

1. The Cambridge Visitor Information Centre

Because I decided to visit the night before, I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do in Cambridge. So I asked the experts. There was a short queue, but the staff was welcoming and knowledgeable. I asked my favorite question—"What are your favorite hidden gem sites that people don't usually ask about?"—and stored the answers for later. 

Cambridge Central Library

2. Cambridge Central Library 

Every time I visit a new city, I have to visit the public library; it's a non-negotiable. Located on the second floor of a shopping centre, this library took a few minutes to find, but it was just as inviting as the visitor centre.

I browsed the UK covers of some of my favorite YA novels, spoke with the staff about libraries in the UK v. the US, and stopped by a small exhibit-slash-reading room housing documents about Cambridge history and genealogy.

3. Trinity College and the Wren Library

The Wren Library was the best recommendation I received from the visitor centre. Owned by Trinity College, it's a working library that displays a small yet impressive collection of historic texts. I only spent maybe 45 minutes there, but being surrounded by the work of so many brilliant minds was my most thrilling experience all day. Here are some highlights:

Sadly, no photography was allowed at the Wren Library,
but here's a photo of the beautiful Trinity College!
  • The original manuscript of A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner
  • A first-edition copy of On the Origin of Species, with annotations from Charles Darwin's professor, Adam Sedgwick. He deeply struggled to reconcile Darwin's ideas with his religious beliefs, and this book now gives insight into how religious academics grappled with the idea of natural selection. 
  • Isaac Newton's own copy of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, with hand-written corrections for the second edition

Travel tip: the library is only open for about two hours each day, so make sure you fit it in to your timetable!

4. Reading by the River Cam

Because I'm student myself here in the UK, I did some studying of my own during my trip to this college town. I found a bench outside the Wren Library, which sits near a bend in the River Cam. Then I read a few chapters of Small Island by Andrea Levy, which I'm reading for my "Modern British Novel" class.

5. The Corpus Clock

Neither words nor my bad iPhone photography can truly convey the creepy beauty of this art installation-meets science experiment-meets timekeeping device. Unveiled by Stephen Hawking almost 10 years to the day before my visit, this clock is guarded by a metal insectoid "Chronophage" and keeps time through traditional clock-making mechanics.

I highly recommend sitting on the fence across the street, pondering the passage of time, and reading the clock's Wikipedia page as you watch the Chronophage march steadily forward.

The Mathematical Bridge

6. The Mathematical Bridge (plus other wandering sights)

Next, I spent some time wandering the streets of Cambridge, admiring the stunning architecture, scanning the storefronts for quirky shops, and keeping my eye out for local oddities. I made sure my path included the Mathematical Bridge, known for its unusually sophisticated (for its time) engineering.

Essentially, this bridge uses a "series of tangents that describe the arc of the bridge, with radial members to tie the tangents together and triangulate the structure, making it rigid and self-supporting." (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

I couldn't cross it, as it was part of a closed-off campus, but admiring its strong and clever structure from afar was more than enough.

The entrance to Gonville and Caius College

7. Gonville and Caius College

This division of Cambridge University, where Stephen Hawking first worked upon completion of his PhD, was closed to visitors during my time in Cambridge. But that didn't stop me from walking around the closed-off gate, feeling entirely star-struck. (Let's be honest: the entire day I felt star-struck, amazed that I was walking the streets of the town where one of the greatest minds of our time lived and died.)

My only complaint: just beyond the gates there was a memorial on the walkway to Francis Crick—and as an adamant defender of Rosalind Franklin, I cannot abide that. However, I refocused on the brilliant work of deserving scientists such as Hawking, Franklin, and more, marveling that I was quite possibly walking in their exact footsteps.

7.5. Evensong at King's College Chapel

Sadly, I couldn't attend this nightly choral service at King's College, as the student performers had only just arrived back on campus. (Daily performances resume along with classes this week.) However, I've heard wonderful things about this free serenade, so I had to mention it—I definitely would have gone had I been able!

The beginnings of a sunset over Pembroke College

8. Pembroke College

This school's grounds and chapel are free and open to the public, so I stopped by en route to the train station. I wandered through the maze of greenery surrounding the institution's buildings, imagining I was a real British uni student there, before the clock tower struck seven and I knew it was time to head home.

Overall, Cambridge is the most beautiful university town I've ever visited. It's extremely walkable, with more than a day's worth of activities within a few miles of the train station, and the stunning architecture alone provides hours of free entertainment. I highly recommend a day trip if you're in London!

Did I miss any sights? Let me know in the comments.