Spring Break in New Orleans: my time in the “Big Easy”

By Eleanor, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

One thing I knew about the American college experience was the concept of “spring break”. While in the UK we have a break from university around Easter, US colleges have an earlier break period around early to mid-March. This is often an excuse to travel, relax, and party at destinations domestically and internationally. I had friends in the US travelling to Florida, California, and even abroad to Mexico, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico. For me, I had one place in mind; New Orleans, Louisiana.

The beautiful French Quarter

Before I started researching for Spring Break, all I really knew about “NOLA” was from the Disney film “Princess and the Frog”; jazz, voodoo men, alligators and magic. As I narrowed down the options, NOLA seemed to be the perfect location, as I wanted something a little bit different to the usual spring break fare. Once owned by the French as part of its colony in the state of Louisiana, New Orleans seemed distinctly different from any other US city, due to its unique French-inspired architecture and history of slavery that gave birth to jazz music. It is also undeniably a party town; its slogan is “laissez les bon temps roulez”, French for “let the good times roll”.

Jackson Square

While we knew we wanted to travel, we also knew we were still students. So, we booked flights using Spirit (the US equivalent of EasyJet), and went for a hostel over a hotel. This saved us hundreds of dollars, and provided a lot of fun. Over our 4-night stay, we made friends with other young people from all over (although mainly a bunch of French students who were on a similar study exchange to us, in North Carolina), with hostel guides who would tell us where the best spots in town were. It was also rated the best hostel in the US several times, and it definitely lived up to our expectations. While not in the French Quarter at the centre of town, being further out meant we got to ride the historic St Charles streetcar (the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world) in and out of town, only 15 minutes each way.  

The south is famous for its food; while we tried to live off packet noodles and cereal bars in the hostel to save cash, we also sampled some southern hospitality. The first place we ate after landing was Popeyes; while it is technically a chain restaurant, it was founded in NOLA and was one of the best chicken burgers I’ve ever eaten, especially the Mardi Gras mustard. We also sampled proper creole food (a combination of French, Carribbean, Spanish and African cooking unique to the South); po’boy sandwiches (fried seafood on French bread) and jambalaya (a cajun/creole rice dish) were my favourite. Like the rest of the US, the portions blew us away! For those with a sweet tooth, I would recommend grabbing beignets (square fresh doughnuts with powdered sugar) at Café Beignet or Café du Monde (just like those in Princess and the Frog), but they may give you a sugar rush.

The haunted Andrew Jackson hotel, with typical French quarter architecture

Something we were also really interested in was the culture of voodoo and all things creepy in New Orleans. To learn more, we went on a ghost, vampire and voodoo walking tour of the French Quarter at night. Often seen as ‘evil’ or ‘satanic’, our tour guide Stella keenly explained to us the true nature of voodoo; practiced by freed enslaved persons from West Africa and passed down to NOLA inhabitants today, the practice of voodoo combines elements from traditional West African traditions with Catholicism. This practice being different from what European settlers had known led to it being demonised and turned into something it was not. As someone interested in spirituality, the voodoo shops and altars to Marie Laveau (the high priestess “Voodoo Queen” in history) were like places I’d never seen before, and I even made my own offerings to the altar of the Voodoo Queen herself.

I was genuinely so sad to leave NOLA and head back to Jersey, and not just because of the 15 degrees drop in temperature. New Orleans is one of the most unique places I have ever visited; while you’re aware you’re definitely in the US, the amalgamation of French, West African and Caribbean influences on the food, spiritual practices and architecture made it a true gem. We obviously took full advantage of the live jazz bars and patio nightclubs full of other college kids, but it was refreshing to experience a new region of the US away from the urban hustle and bustle of Jersey and NYC. I would go back in a heartbeat and urge anyone who studies abroad to consider NOLA as a travel destination.

New York, New York; The Iconic Landmarks

By Eleanor, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

It’s no secret that one of the main reasons I chose Rutgers for my year abroad was due to its vicinity to one of the most famous cities in the world, compared to other destinations in the US offered by Manchester. I feel I made a great choice. My apartment at Rutgers was literally one minute’s walk from New Brunswick train station, perfect for someone like me who tends to run fashionably late. From here, New Jersey Transit trains run directly to New York Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan, taking between half an hour to 50 minutes. For the price of dinner and a cocktail ($28, around £22) I could get a return train to the city that never sleeps. Here’s my experiences at some of the most iconic landmarks in the world.

Arguably the most iconic image of modern NYC is Times Square. Over my time here, I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with it. One issue is that it’s always teeming with tourist trying the get THE SHOT, which can be annoying as you feel like you’re gate-crashing a hundred photoshoots at once. It’s also obviously on Broadway, so try to avoid it around matinee/evening show times to dodge crowds clutching their Playbills. It’s also a bit of a sensory overload of advertising and bright lights. However, it is a bit exciting to be there, and can get you some cool pictures for your own Instagram. I also managed to see Chicago on Broadway as a birthday present (starring Pamela Anderson as Roxy!), which was amazing and surreal.

Rainy Times Square

New York also has some of the most famous museums in the world. Most obvious is the American Museum of Natural History, which overlooks Central Park and has stuffed wild animals and scenes right out of ‘Night at the Museum’. My favourite museum I visited however was the 9/11 Museum. Sadly, in modern history New York has been known for those tragic events in 2001. While this may seem an odd choice of destination to visit, the exhibits and storytelling of the museum are really well done and pay tribute to the people of this great city in a fitting way. When we first visited in September 2021, the final two opening hours on Mondays were totally free to enter, but I would even say paying admission is worth it

The entrance to the 9/11 museum

One of the most famous things about New York is its skyline. There’s a few ways to see it in all of its glory; if you don’t mind splashing the cash, the “Top of the Rock” experience in the Rockerfeller building is $40 and gives you the classic Manhattan skyline experience, from all angles. However, you can get on the Staten Island Ferry for free to see views of the Statue of Liberty up close as well as lower Manhattan, such as the One World Trade building where the Twin Towers once stood.

The view at the Top of the Rock

My favourite was the view from Brooklyn at night. Me and a fellow Brit I met at Rutgers had gone to NYC on a whim one Saturday in February, and followed our noses around the Subway to places we hadn’t been in the Fall semester. After a lot of confusion and accidentally ending up hallway through Brooklyn, we left the Subway station and walked toward the Hudson to get our bearings. And we ended up at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with the sun having gone down while we were underground; we were greeted for the first time by the fantastic sight of New York by night.

The Manhattan Bridge in the foreground, with the Brooklyn bridge in the background

In terms of views, and especially on a budget, I can’t recommend Central Park enough. Unlike other major cities, New York is lucky to have a huge park right in the centre of the city; at double the size of London’s Hyde Park, Central Park really feels like you’re in another world. Even after my trips ‘to the city’ being in the double digits, I feel like I didn’t scratch the surface. At Christmas time, I loved going to the Park to watch the ice skaters under the Manhattan skyline, and in spring the cherry blossom on the trees is magical.

The south end of Central Park at Christmas time

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An Ode to New Jersey Weather

By Eleanor, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

When people have asked me “How is America?” one thing I always mention is the weather, in typical Brit fashion. However, I feel justified in this as during my time studying abroad, I have braced all temperatures, and at a more leafy university, found a new appreciation for the outdoors.

When I first got to Rutgers in late August, it was roughly 25-30 degrees; this was expected for the summer, but I didn’t realise it would stay warm until the end of September! This was a pleasant way to start the year, compared to the usual grey fresher’s weeks at the start of a Manchester academic year.

A sunny Rutgers day

As I settled in further and the temperatures did begin to cool, something I noticed about Jersey, and especially in Rutgers’ leafy campuses, was how beautiful autumn could be. By autumn in England, I was used to mushy puddles of fallen brown leaves and grey skies. In Jersey, the trees turned all shades of red, yellow and orange, with hardly any rain.

Autumn on Douglass campus

When we left to go home for the Christmas holidays, it hadn’t become TOO cold yet; I assumed my Jersey-native flatmate had been exaggerating when she warned us of the need for snow-boots and thermals. However, coming back in January was a different story. I experienced temperatures up to minus 13 degrees daily, and snow; proper thick snow that stuck around for days, in temperatures so cold that it didn’t melt into slush. We even had a makeshift snow day, making real snow angels and attempting to sledge down a hill (albeit on a pizza box).

Spring in Jersey for the rest of the second semester wasn’t too dissimilar from temperatures at home, so my “big coat” didn’t get put away until April. Once it warmed up though, I could once more appreciate the nature on campus, this time in the shape of blossom which appeared to be on every single tree. As my time at Rutgers came to an end, the sun came out much more and my final day in Jersey was a lovely 24 degrees; in a cyclical kind of way, it was like the day I first arrived.

Blossom on campus

As someone who chose Manchester for university as a way to be part of a major city, I surprised myself with how much I appreciated and took pleasure in the nature and surroundings of Rutgers. While the university is in a mid-sized town, the majority of my classes were on Douglass campus. This part of the university is situated a little further out from the main centre, near forests and amalgamated with Cook campus, which has its own farm. I am looking forward to getting back into city life for my final year at Manchester, but during my time at Rutgers (especially when I’ve felt lonely), appreciating nature and taking time to observe my surroundings has been great for my mental health.

Trials and Tribulations of International Travel

By Eleanor, Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA)

As it tends to do, the Christmas holidays came and went in a flash, and it was time to return to New Jersey. But would we (and our belongings) make it there in one piece?

Continue reading “Trials and Tribulations of International Travel”

Home Comforts When You’re Far From Home

By Eleanor Gaskill-Jones, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, USA

It’s no secret that one of the hardest things about studying abroad is the homesickness; it’s one of the first things the Go Abroad team warned us about as we prepared our applications.

No-one thinks it will happen to them, and I certainly didn’t. I’m a big girl, I thought, as I packed my life into 2 suitcases and waved goodbye to a grey Manchester Airport Terminal 2. The sight of the Manhattan skyline as we landed into Newark Airport smugly reassured my confidence, and I was certain I could handle being 3357 miles from home. How hard could it be? It’s only America, they speak English and have the same TV shows as us!

How wrong I was.

Continue reading “Home Comforts When You’re Far From Home”