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Travel Thursday: Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh castle.jpgAlthough I think London is the foreign city that has my heart, Edinburgh is a close second. I don’t know if it is the stunning architecture, the incredible history, the friendliness of the people or the fact that it is just big enough to feel like it would take months to really see it all, but still small enough to feel homey, but I adore it. In fact, despite my sheer adoration for everything London has to offer, if I was really going to pack my family up and move them to a city in the UK, I’d probably pick Edinburgh. London would be the place for me if I was single, but Edinburgh definitely seems more like my speed with a husband and two kids.

Not that I’m moving over seas any time soon (or ever).

I’ve only been to Edinburgh twice, but both time I’ve visited Edinburgh Castle. I guess that’s not really a surprise since both times I was leading a student trip and if there’s a castle or cathedral in the area, it seems student trips will stop there. We actually visited three castles/palaces and three cathedrals during our nine day trip (and one of those days was spent entirely in flight).

Edinburgh viewEven by castle standards, Edinburgh is pretty spectacular, if for no other reason than it has the best view of any castle in the UK that I’ve visited. I love the fact that it is set up on top of the hill. The view is breathtaking. Since I’d already visited the castle three years ago, I didn’t do nearly as many touristy things on this visit. I’d already seen the crown jewels and watched the one o’clock gun fired. So this time I spent a lot more time just walking around and taking everything in. I got to casually stroll through the castle, which was lovely. I spent time looking out over the entire beautiful city. It was such a nice break from neurotically counting my students to make sure they were all accounted for.

It was also nice to have just a bit of time to myself. On these trips, I rarely let students out of my sight, however, since there is only one way in or out of the castle and I knew my students would have no way to get into any trouble or get lost inside the castle, I was able to give them all an hour to just explore and enjoy. Sure, I made them promise to stay in pairs (and most stayed in groups of 4 or 5), but I let them feel a bit more grown up and explore without one of the adults looking over their shoulders. This also meant I got some quiet time to myself. Sure, I could have hung out with the other chaperones, but we’d also been together pretty much nonstop and it was nice to just walk around and take it all in.

The history at this castle is pretty amazing. Even by the old standards of the UK, this castle is old. St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building within the castle walls dates back between 1130-1140. It is so amazing to not only see this building still standing, but to be able to step inside and touch this piece of history. I also have to admit to being more than a little obsessed with the TV show Reign for awhile, and even though I know that about 90% of the “historical” element to the show is bunk, I still loved following the story of Mary Queen of Scots. To me it is so cool to visit the castle where she actually gave birth to her son, James VI.

Although I’m not big on military history, one of my chaperones is a former Marine and he thought it was pretty cool that the Scottish National War Museum and memorial are located inside the castle. He did have a slightly funny moment when he saw what was labelled as a soldier’s privy and thought it might a bathroom set up for military members (as part of a thank you for their service). Since he had to go to the bathroom, he was disappointed to find out it was just a exhibit of what bathrooms were like at the time prisoners of war were kept in the castle.

castle far offSpeaking of bathrooms, the only downside to visiting the castle this time was that I really had to go to the bathroom! I got a little turned around and could only find the bathroom in the cafe. Unfortunately there were only two stalls and the line actually extended out the door, around the corner, up the first set of stairs, onto the first landing and partially up the second set of stairs. I think I spent 20 minutes of my free time in the queue waiting for relief. I was really glad I had not followed the lead of my students and gotten coffees to help warm up on the slightly blustery day.

Long wait for the bathroom aside, it was a great day.

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Travel Thursday: UK Day 1-Edinburgh

Edinburgh long.jpgThree years ago, I led a student trip with EF Tours that went through England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. While I loved each country, since it was an 11 day tour, we didn’t get much time to spend in each country. We spent the most time, four days, in Ireland. From there we took a ferry over to Wales where we spent less than 24 hours, most of which was either on a bus or in a town well after everything had shut up for the evening. The next morning we were on the road heading to Edinburgh. We got to spend a day and a half there, but it was not nearly enough time. I fell in LOVE with Edinburgh.

So, when we were planning our next trip, I knew Scotland had to be more of a destination. In fact, I wanted it to be one of our primary destinations, so I picked the England and Scotland tour. I was so excited to be going back to one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

We landed in Edinburgh, after some rather hellacious turbulence, a little before 10 in the morning (UK time). I’d been up since just before 9 am EST, which meant by the time we touched down, I’d been awake for 20 hours. Since the best way to avoid major jetlag is to stay awake and keep on trucking, that is exactly what we did. We boarded a bus, amidst some truly terrifying wind and headed first on a bus tour of the city and then on a walking tour of it. Despite being on a plane and a bus for many hours, I still managed to get over 14K steps in on that first day during our walking tour.

Scotland Writer's MuseumSince I was sleep deprived, I don’t remember every single place we walked by on that first day. However, one of the first places we passed was the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum. On my first trip no one had alerted me to its existence, but it was in a simply amazing building. Since we were walking and only stopping for pictures and a brief explanation of what the place was, I didn’t get a chance to actually visit, which was probably for the best since it is dedicated to Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Although I have read some of Burns’ and Scott’s poetry, Stevenson is the only one I feel really acquainted with and even then, I’ve only read two of his books, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so a visit to the museum might not have been the most interesting to me. Still, the building was the perfect example of why I fell in love with Edinburgh on my first visit. The buildings are breathtaking. Even the “new” portion of the city looks completely historic.

We passed by the museum on our way from the new section of town to the old. Although, like I said, it’s hard to separate the two since pretty much every building in the city looks like it is at least 200 years old. One think the Scots definitely have on us is a sense of true history. America is such a baby country in comparison!

Since our tour guide found out early on that many of us were Harry Potter fans, she made sure to point out some historic Potter sights. The first of which was the Balmoral hotel, the place where JK Rowling wrote several of the Harry Potter books. She also took us past the Elephant House cafe, where Rowling also worked on her books, making sure to mention the cemetery the cafe looks out over where many of the names of her characters came from. In fact, not long after we stopped outside the famous eatery, which was jammed packed with other tourists waiting to pay homage, we headed to that very cemetery.

Edinburgh cemetaryWhile my group was quite hungry and wanted to find lunch rather than explore the grounds of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard looking for their favorite character’s names, we did get an initial look around, which included some really cool stories about hauntings that supposedly have taken place in the graveyard. In addition to some rather terrifying looking mausoleums, when we met back up with the rest of our group, we found out that some of them had a sort of spooky encounter while they looked at the graves. One of my students went to pick up what she thought was a piece of trash on the ground, near one of the mausoleums. Despite being gated, as soon as she got close to it, she heard strange noises coming from inside. At first she thought they might have been animal noises, but then realized it was some sort of metalic clinking. Only one other person was near her, a fellow classmate, and he heard it to, but moments later, it went silent. They said they didn’t stay to find out what had made that noise, but bolted pretty quickly.

gothic rocketThe Kirkyard was the last official stop on our walking tour. After that we had plenty of time to explore on our own before we had to meet back at the Walter Scott memorial, which our tour guide lovingly referred to as the Gothic Rocket. Apparently it is open to climb up for a small fee. A few of my students contemplated it, but realizing how exhausted they were decided that since they’d been up for about 28 hours, they shook the idea pretty quickly. Instead they spent their time doing a little shopping among some of the “posher” stores on the main drag. I’ve been to the UK five or six times now and I’m not really that interested in shopping, especially not for clothes, but I went in and stood in the front of stores while they had looks around I did find a Whittard’s tea shop, which I know from previous trips that I love, so I did get my group to head in and to my delight, many of my students also fell in love with their tea. I think everyone walked out with a Whittard’s bag.

Despite being so tired that some of my group actually fell asleep in The Jolly Ristorante while waiting for their food, we had a great first day in Edinburgh. By the time we got to our hotel, Edinburgh First Pollock Halls, which was actually dorms for the University of Edinburgh, we were very ready to go to sleep. We’d been up for about 32 hours and wiped out doesn’t even begin to describe how we felt. Still, we were all excited about our next day, when we’d get a chance to explore even more of this amazing city.

Edinburgh city

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Teaching Tuesday: Student travel

travel picture.jpgI’ve just arrived back in the states after traveling for nine days in the UK with 18 students and 3 other adults. This is actually the fourth trip I’ve planned and led to the UK and although at the end I was exhausted and so ready to be home, I’m already planning my next trip!

I led my first student trip 16 years ago, long before I had any children of my own and when the 23-32 hour travel days were not quite so hard on me. My first trip was through Explorica. We took the London Theater tour and it was a lot of fun. As part of the trip, we got to see two West End productions, Blood Brothers, which all but one person in our group of 13 did not care for, and The Woman in Black, which we all adored and were even rather scared by. My only problem with this tour was that our guide was strangely anti-American. He was constantly making snide comments about America and Americans, which I thought was odd considering he was leading a group of them around London. We also got paired with a middle school group and since most of my students had either just graduated high school or were going to be seniors, the age difference was huge. I felt so bad for the one male student in my group, who had just graduated, who had to room with 3 boys going into 8th grade. He was pretty miserable.

On my second trip, I decided to try out EF tours. I was immediately impressed with their service. We went on the Discover England trip and it was amazing! Granted, we had a slightly rough start as our flight out of Indy was cancelled. We spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to get all 12 students and 5 adults to the new flight they’d managed to get us on in Chicago, but eventually EF got us a bus service and instead of flying to O’Hare, we rode. This meant a rousing game of balloon volleyball in the Indy baggage claim area waiting for our bus to show up and then some rather amusing races in O’Hare as we waited for the terminal to open so we could go down to our gate. We arrived there about 3 am and the terminal didn’t open until 5. The kids never once let the delay get to them. We had a blast.

The tour was also really fun. This time our guide was an aspiring actor and not only were several of the girls drooling over him, but he was entertaining and seemed to like Americans. Plus, on this trip we got to see a show at the Globe theater, which was just awesome. I’d wanted to do it on the first trip, but hadn’t quite known how, so this time, I worked with my EF tour consultant and he’d arranged it for us. Even though we had to stand to watch the show, my students LOVED it.

Three years ago I branched out a bit and took students to England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The tour that we went on The Britannia, is one that no longer exists. My group had an absolute blast. We got to visit Platform 9 3/4, stay in a haunted hotel in Wales, did a haunted underground tour in Scotland (even if it wasn’t remotely scary), and ate absolutely delicious bon bons while touring the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. We were paired with a rather obnoxious group from Texas, but we all bonded over just how obnoxious the Texas mothers were (it wasn’t really the students who were the issue). We saw some amazingly beautiful places on the trip, but trying to squeeze 4 countries into 11 days was a bit much. We spent way too much time on a bus and hardly saw anything of Wales or Scotland. One issue of student trips is that they are sort of “tastes” of countries, so a lot gets missed.

Our most recent tip was a bit more limited in scope. This time we decided to explore only England and Scotland. We spent 9 days moving from Edinburgh down to London and it was pretty fantastic. We never spent more than 5 hours on a bus (and that was a hard day) and got a chance to really explore more of the cities we stayed in. The kids definitely got a taste of very different cities and life styles and it was cool to talk to them on the way home because some absolutely adored the fast paced life of London and others much preferred the slower pace of York or Edinburgh, but they all found something to love. When I asked for their favorite moments, they had trouble narrowing it because they’d loved so much of it. Even at their most exhausted, they were thrilled to be on tour.

Traveling with students is pretty phenomenal. I love getting to see them out of the classroom. They are more relaxed and let their guards down, so they really share their personalities with me. They laugh so much more. They confess their quirks and love to be silly. They geek out over places they’ve learned about in history classes or sights they’ve seen in movies (we saw several places where various Harry Potter movies were filmed). They marvel over how much they enjoy visiting places they knew nothing about and maybe weren’t even initially enthusiastic about seeing. They develop new friendships. They learn about other cultures and really listen to people they meet from other countries, which is so cool. Their feet ache and they are sleep deprived, but they still laugh and sing on the tube as they ride back to the hotel after being out for 15 hours. They try bangers and mash and haggis and fish and chips. They eat more ice cream than any human should consume. And they love it.

I can’t explain how much I love seeing the looks of joy on their faces when they see something they’ve always wanted to see. I can’t explain how much I delight in giving them a piece of the world so far removed from the tiny little town they come from. I can’t explain how much I adore seeing them interacting with people from other countries, truly enthralled in their experiences. And I won’t lie, I really enjoy how appreciative they are to me for giving them the experience.

The only downside (aside from extreme exhaustion) is that it is a LOT of work. Sure, I got a mostly free trip to the UK (except for lunches and souvenirs), but I put in more hours than I can count getting ready for it. There were recruitment meetings, parent emails, pre-tour meetings, more emails, paperwork to collect and organize, health issues to memorize and plan for, dietary issues to plan around, packets of information to put together and go over, tip money to collect, more emails–and that was all before we even left. Once we got there, I was responsible for 18 students for 9 days. I had to make sure everyone had their money, passports, tickets, and luggage at all times. I had to make sure everyone was up in the morning and in their rooms in the evenings. I had to make roommate assignments that pleased as many people as possible. I had to make sure no one got lost and made it on to all forms of transportation, including the London underground during rush hour. I had to make sure that during “free time” all students were with a chaperone. Since we were paired with two other school groups, I also had to make sure my kids didn’t get lost on walks to attractions. I cannot even count the number of times I counted heads to make sure they were all accounted for. When kids had medical or dietary or personal issues, I had to deal with them. I had to miss out on a few things I would have liked to do because a student wasn’t feeling well or a few of them didn’t want to go on one of the walking tours. And, I had to take and post pictures of our trip on Facebook, Tweet about our trip and send daily Remind messages so parents could be at ease that the kids were having fun and ok. I’m not sure I got more than 6 hours of sleep the entire trip.

It was worth it though. Traveling with students, while very stressful, is so rewarding. I’ve built relationships with those kids that will thrive and grow. I’ve inspired a love of travel in them. I’ve given them a real glimpse into the world outside their tiny neighborhood and they will never forget it. They may not have been happy with every moment of our trip, but they arrived home with overwhelmingly great memories. They grew in so many ways and really, as a teacher, that is what I live for.

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Chocolate Monday: The Cake Shop (Oxford)

Oxford cakes.jpgOne of my absolute favorite parts of traveling is trying new types of chocolate. I just got back from the UK on Thursday and I wish I could say the majority of my souvenirs were not of the edible variety, but alas, I spent more on chocolate goodies than on anything else. In all fairness, this was my 5th visit to the UK and I’m not someone who wears t-shirts or sweatshirts very often nor am I someone who collects shot glasses or random tchotchkes of Stonehenge or Stratford or Edinburgh Castle…no matter how cool I may find the actual places.

Instead I spent my money on a few Harry Potter gifts for my children, magnets for my classroom whiteboard (I’m always in need of them) and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

making cakes in OxfordOne of the coolest chocolate stops I made was at the Cake Shop in Oxford. When I set out to look for fun and unique chocolate treats in the UK, I was thinking more along the lines of candy bars, truffles and cookies. The idea of buying a cake never crossed my mind. That is until I saw the absolutely adorable cakes on display in the window of this shop. I knew I had to have one.

The shop, which is located inside The Oxford Covered Market, had about 100 small square cakes on display. Some of them were extremely elaborate like the ones in the picture at the top of this post. I really, really wanted to buy that octopus cake in my picture, but knew there was no way I would want to eat all that fondant. Fondant may be beautiful, but it is not tasty. Most of the truly gorgeous small cakes for sale were also English fruit cakes. Try as I might, I have never been able to develop a taste for fruitcake. My grandmother, who was a disaster in the kitchen at anything except desserts, made fruit cake every year. Every year I would try it and while others raved about how good it was, I couldn’t stomach it. So, despite really wanting one of those beautiful designs, I had to make another choice.

close up Oxford CakeThey had simpler sponge cakes that just had expressions like “It’s a boy!” or “Happy Birthday” on them. I didn’t want an occasion cake though. Luckily for me, there were also blank sponge cakes in chocolate and vanilla available for sale. There was also a whole shelf full of fondant decorations that could be added onto any cake. My choice was easy: a chocolate sponge cake with an adorable book (in green, my favorite color) and a sunflower. It might not have been the cutest cake they made, but it was one I thought I might actually like.

 

I didn’t get to eat the cake right away. We had some VERY long days on our tour of London and I actually didn’t get to eat the cake until the morning we left for home. Yes, that’s right, I ate the cake for breakfast. My students laughed at me, especially after I teased one for eating sushi for breakfast, but I didn’t care. It’s not the first time I’ve eaten cake for breakfast and it will not be the last I’m sure.

The cake itself was moist. It had a layer of chocolate cream on the inside that was rich and delicious. Since it was covered in fondant, it did take a bit away from the taste of itself. It was lovely to look at, but it was mostly just a bit of chewy tastelessness. Although when it was eaten with the cake, it was fine and actually tempered some of the sugaryness of the cake. Still, I ended up sort of picking the cake out from under the fondant and leaving a rather large chunk of fondant on the cake board. I ate the sunflower, but not the book. I wanted to, I really did, but instead I pawned it off on a student. Even she could only eat part of it.

I’m glad I took the chance on this little cake because it was a truly fun experience, but it was a bit pricey. My cake ended up costing about $12.50, which was definitely a fair price for the artistry that went into the cake, but since the artistry was all fondant, it’s not a price I would pay again.

Overall:

Taste: 6/10
Appearance: 10/10
Value: 7/10

 

 

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