By Stephen Fulham (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA)
I’m writing this sat in the departures lounge of Raleigh-Durham airport, waiting on my delayed flight. I’m not going home just yet, I’m just headed to Chicago this weekend, and still have another couple of weeks left in the US.
I realise that I haven’t blogged since April so thought I’d update y’all (I’m acclimatising, sorry) on the last few months. In this time I’ve completed finals, celebrated my birthday, gone travelling for a few weeks, and started an internship.
The last month or so of the semester at UNC really flew by. Actually, to be fair, the whole semester did. Spring/early summer in Chapel Hill is something special. Campus blooms, the sun shines, and the quads fill with students. Granted, humidity also hits 65-80% which can be a bit much at times.
My final assessments included papers (essays), group debates, and finals (traditional exams); I even found time to submit some work for extra credit in one class. Unlike courses in Manchester, my UNC classes only had a maximum of twenty or so students. Each class was taught exclusively by one person, some by professors and some by graduate students. UNC are quite strict on grading so I had all of my results back within ten days of taking my finals. This is obviously a lot quicker than the several months which it takes at Manchester to get marks returned. I did okay, but have to wait for my Academic Advisor at Manchester to convert the grades before I can know really how happy I am with them.
Two days after my finals were done, I took an overnight bus from North Carolina to New York City. A group of us stayed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – which was awesome, if exceptionally hipster and so, so different from where I’d stayed in Midtown (Manhattan) over Spring Break – for a few days. It was only my second time in NYC but it is probably already cemented as one of my absolute favourite cities (definitely better than London too!).
From there, Tristan (a Scottish exchange student I met through UNC rugby, with whom I roomed in Charleston) and I headed to San Francisco (via Texas) mostly because of a flight for less than $100 each which is absurdly cheap. There we met up with Arrun, also on exchange at UNC from Manchester, for the California leg of our travels. One afternoon we took the Bart (metro) up to Berkeley, a college town almost as quintessential as Chapel Hill. The students there were still doing finals so campus wasn’t as busy as it might’ve been had classes been going on. Despite being biased towards Chapel Hill, I thought the campus pretty much matched UNC’s in terms of being scenic. It had a very Mediterranean feel, with white walls and orange tiles on a lot of the university buildings – probably linked to the Spanish and Mexican influences on California. It was pretty amazing to see Alcatraz (where we actually met an ex-prisoner!) and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, before travelling to LA on another overnight bus. It rained while we were there, to our dismay and some locals’ joy (California was then experiencing a severe drought). Seeing Hollywood Boulevard, mere steps from our Airbnb, as well as the Hollywood sign and panoramic views of the City of Angels was awesome, but the weather and our lack of a car meant we didn’t see LA at her finest.
After that we took the Amtrak (America’s cheap but pretty sparse train network) to San Diego. I wore myself out playing beach volleyball alone against the two other guys and then fell asleep for less than an hour on the sand. I woke up, my pale Irish complexion burnt (the lines are still there even now) thanks to a lack of sun cream. Being just a half hour drive from Mexico, the Mexican food in San Diego was unreal. $2 octopus tacos were a definite highlight. Had we been a week or so earlier our visas would’ve allowed us to go into Mexico for the day. I should also note that avocados in California are light-years better than anything I’ve had in the UK, or even anywhere else in the US. The taste of a guacamole dip at a little Mexican ‘mom ‘n’ pop’ (family-run) restaurant will live with me for the rest of my life. That sounds excessive; it isn’t. And neither were the number of Anchorman references during this stop on our tour.
Up next was New Orleans: brimming with jazz, dancing, and incredible food. Think jambalaya, gumbo, shrimp and/or catfish po-boys, crayfish, and alligator to name just a few. This was, I think, the most fun city I have ever been to. Other than walking around the French Quarter, there aren’t huge amounts of touristy things to see in NoLa, but the atmosphere is definitely worth soaking up. That said, Café du Monde is kind of mandatory. It began as a French colonial outpost and café, and has continued serving coffee and beignets (warm, sugar coated doughnuts) after the Americans bought the Louisiana Territories from France. I have to say, the café au lait was nothing special (Tristan, who is much more into coffee than I am, wasn’t impressed either) but the beignets were pretty memorable.
Then it was on to Chicago for a long Memorial Day weekend. We stayed with my friend Dori, who was on exchange at Manchester from the University of Illinois during my first year. It was great to see her and finally experience Chi-City (so stylised by Kanye West) which I had heard from many to be on a par with, or even better than, New York City. The food there probably about ties (Chicago hot dogs, deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches versus deli meats, fresh bagels, street meat, dollar slices of thin pizza).
Chicago is on Lake Michigan (which is bigger in area than Wales!), and one can walk straight out of downtown to the beach which is pretty damn cool. The city centre is full of beautiful parks. The SkyDeck is worth checking out, although I have to admit I was a little terrified when in the glass room which sticks out of the hundred-storey-plus Willis Tower. Dori gave us a great tour of the city, and we went to a Chicago Cubs game on Memorial Day itself. While it seems not dissimilar to rounders, the atmosphere at the game makes it so much more. Peanuts, beers, and forty thousand plus natives cheering at Wrigley Field made my first experience of America’s favourite pastime extra special.
After that, I stayed in the DMV (locals’ name for the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) for five or so days with my friend Anna. In DC itself one can pretty much walk between all of the major attractions, just like in central London. Granted, this became a bit more of a challenge given the heat wave which had hit DC while I was in town. The Capitol, White House, National Mall, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, Smithsonian Museums, and Arlington are all very close together. Anna taught me how to pick apart (I’m still not entirely sure of the correct verb here) crabs with my hands which provided a bit of a workout, which maybe almost balanced out the huge table-covering portion we ordered before heading to the Orioles game (Baltimore’s major league baseball team). We drove to Delaware to go to a NASCAR race. Neither of us had been to one before and, knowing that I’d be living in the South for a semester, it’d been on my USA bucket list since before I came, even if I’d forgotten about it for most of the semester. The trucks (yes, trucks, a lower budget version of F1 which still has a huge TV audience) roared around the mile-long track a couple of hundred times while we were there. We then went down to Ocean City, MD, (apparently the equivalent of Myrtle Beach, SC, where I stayed for a few days over Spring Break) just to try their crab-stuffed pretzels. They were worth it, I can’t lie.
Then it was back to Chapel Hill for a night before moving to Raleigh (the capital of North Carolina). My internship is in Rep. David E. Price (D-NC04)’s district office, where I’m doing things similar to the stuff I’ve done in the UK before. Rep. Price sits in the US House of Representatives (their House of Commons equivalent) for parts of North Carolina including most of the Triangle (Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham) and a number of other counties. I’m now living in student apartments, sharing a kitchen and living space with three other guys who are also doing internships involving government. Two weeks there have already flown by. There are beach volleyball courts in the dorm complex so I’ve taken that up again, despite a flock of geese which seem to follow me around a fair bit. Next weekend I’m going to Wilmington, on North Carolina’s beach, for a beach volleyball tournament so that should be fun too.
As ever, hit me up with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org