Day trips from London: 3 stunning places to visit outside the city

If you follow me on Twitter (if you don’t, what are you waiting for?), you may know I’ve spent some days in the UK at the end of November. This wasn’t my first time in London. Over the years I’ve been there a few times and I am not the biggest fan of the city. It’s not because it’s not pretty (it is very pretty), but it just didn’t have the right vibe for me.

This time, I went there to meet with one of my dearest friends. She’s been living there since the spring, so she was my guide and we did less touristy stuff. Staying in a more residential neighborhood in West London and seeing how people actually live there, made me change my mind a bit.

That being said, one of the things I love the most about London is that you can take so many day trips from there. Cardiff, Bristol, Bath, Oxford, Brighton, Birmingham, Sheffield, Canterbury, Bournemouth and many other places are all a one- or two-hour train ride from London. Unluckily I didn’t get to visit all these cities, even though I’d love too.

Day trips from London: 3 stunning places to visit outside the city

Here, my top 3 day trips from London and, yes, they’re in order of preference.

Stonehenge & Bath

This is definitely my favorite day trip from London. I took this trip back in April when I was in London with my sister for Easter break (and for a Simple Plan concert). I always wanted to go visit Stonehenge and after a bit of research, we found out there were a lot of coach tours that take you to both Stonehenge and Bath.

We were never big fans of group tours, we actually never did one before. For this specific excursion, this option was the cheapest (about 60£ for the bus ride + Stonehenge tickets + guide) and it also made us spend less time on public trains or buses. The company we went with was International Friends and I’m telling you this just because we really enjoyed our time with them. They definitely made us change our mind about coach tours (so much that we did another one when we were in Amsterdam).

Most companies also offer the option to do a Stonehenge, Bath, and Windsor tour. But, in my opinion, we did the right thing by booking just Stonehenge and Bath, because you get just the perfect time in both places.

Our day started pretty early. We had to be at the meeting point at 7.30 am but, because it was Easter, the tube was opening later than usual, so we enjoyed a 20-minute walk from Tottenham Court Road to Great Portland Street. Thankfully, the weather was fine and it was kind of cool walking down empty streets in London – something I will probably never see again.

We took our bus and, after about 2 hours, we arrived at Stonehenge. There, we got some time to visit the Stone Circle with an audioguide, the Neolithic Houses, and the Exhibition. For me, it was kind of surreal standing in such an iconic place, full of history and mystery. And even the weather was surreal. I mean, look at that black sky.

Stonehenge

In the early afternoon we arrived in Bath. Thankfully, it stopped raining and we even got some sun for a while. We walked around the town with such an experienced guide who told us so many interesting stories about Bath and the people who live and used to live there.

The Circus in Bath

After the walking tour, we got a bit of free time. My sister and I decided to visit the Roman Baths (about 15£), which I definitely recommend doing. Seriously, this is the most famous attraction of the town and everything there is so well preserved. Having studied a lot of Ancient Roman history and literature in school, visiting this place was one of the highlights of the trip for me. After that, we also had some time to visit the Abbey.

Roman Baths in Bath

The architecture in Bath is breathtaking and I love how everything looks so well put together, probably because most of the buildings are made of the same golden-colored stone, the Bath stone.

The Making of Harry Potter

Okay, so where do I begin telling you how cool this thing is? If you’re a Potterhead, but even if you just watched the movies once, this place will blow your mind. This wasn’t even my first time on a movie set, but it was so so so cool. I’m still at a loss of words.

Compared to the Warner Bros Studio Tour in Burbank, CA, this tour is cheaper (35£). Also, since this is not being used to film anymore, you don’t have to follow a guide through the backlots and soundstages. You get to walk around on your own and you can stay for how long you want to.

On their website they say the average visit time is 3 hours. We booked our tickets for an early afternoon slot (2 pm, if I remember it correctly) and we didn’t get back until dinner time (which is after 8 pm for us).

To get to Leavesden, my sister and I took a train from London Euston to Watford Junction (anytime day return ticket is about 17£). Just outside Watford station you can catch a shuttle bus (2.5£) that will take you right in front the entrance of the Studio Tour.

When you arrive there, you’ll have to queue for a while. Then you get to watch a video clip just to get more excited about being on the set where they film Harry Potter. After then, the Great Hall doors are opened and you’re in! You’ll find yourself in a state of complete awe. I want to let you know it’s completely okay. And it does not get better until a couple of days after.

By the time you get to the café, you might have regained the ability to talk and process things. Here you can have a butterbeer (I warn you, it is very sweet) or butterbeer ice-cream. They also offer other common snacks (sandwiches, cakes, etc.), probably for the muggles.

The Making of Harry Potter, Butterbeer

But it’s not over yet. After your break at the café, you get to walk outside, where you can find Privet Drive, the Night Bus, the Hogwarts bridge and so much more. I don’t want to get too much into details. Part of the amazingness of the tour is that you don’t know what will come after. You think you’ve see the best thing ever, but then you go on and there’s something even better. Like the huge model of Hogwarts. Walking into that room was just breathtaking.

At the end, don’t skip the gift shops. You’ll find a lot of amazing things, from clothes to accessories and candies. Unluckily, things aren’t the cheapest. I got just a Chocolate Frog from there, but I’m still dreaming about the Ravenclaw cardigan.

Oxford

I went to Oxford with my friend during my latest trip to London. Overall, it was a nice day. The weather was okay, it was cold but sunny. The city was a bit crowded, especially on the main shopping street. Christmas lights were already up and there was even a small Christmas market, so the atmosphere was great.

To get to Oxford for London, we took the Oxford Tube (same day return 14£), which is actually a bus. After an hour of traveling through the beautiful English countryside, we got down at High Street, right in front of the University Church Of St Mary The Virgin. Our next stop was the Oxford Covered Market, which is something you cannot miss. It is also a nice place where to have breakfast or lunch.

In the afternoon we opted for a free walking tour. There are a lot of different companies you can go with. Some of them bring you inside colleges and the Divinity School, so you have to pay a fee for the tickets and then also give a tip to your guide. We opted for a completely free tour and we just tipped our very competent and also very funny guide.

The first thing I learned during the tour is that there isn’t one University of Oxford, but that is made up by more than 30 colleges. We got see some of them: Christ Church College, Trinity College, All Souls College, Merton College, and Hertford College. We also walked by the Bodleian Library, the Radcliffe Camera, and the Bridge of Sighs.

After a quick stop in a beautiful café full of other students, we took the bus back to London. Of course it took a lot more than it took in the morning because of traffic, but there was free wifi so I cannot complain.

Have you ever visited one of these places? What other day trip from London would you recommend?

Sarah
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A day in the life: 4 college students share their typical day

The other week I talked about the Italian school system. Today I’ve decided to share the typical day of an Italian college student. I also wanted to show how different and how similar being a student in different countries or majors can be. One thing is sure, we all love our coffees and hitting snooze in the morning.

a day in the life: 4 college students share their typical day

For this post, I’ve got some help from 3 awesome ladies, who are sharing their typical day as a student. Lauren studies musical theater and blogs at Glitter & Grandeur. Blondie just graduated from college with a mechanical engineering degree and a physics minor and blogs at Blonde Roast by the Coast. Alyssa is a religious studies and political science student and blogs at The Wise Willow.

A day in the life of a Psychology student

I’ve recently (well, it’s been 4 months already) graduated from the University of Milan-Bicocca with a degree in Developmental Psychology. Of course, every semester and even every day within the same semester was a bit different. I’ve decided to talk about a typical day during my last semester of college here in Italy.

My course load was pretty light, still it felt like it was the hardest semester ever. I had to take just an 8-credits course, psychology of gender differences and inequalities, which I loved. And a 4-credits lab, which I didn’t like that much and skipped as much as I could. But then, I had to take care of the research study for my dissertation and I had to actually write my dissertation, which wasn’t easy and pretty time consuming, but it was my favorite part of all these years.

Morning

6.30 am // Rise and shine! I don’t mind waking up early (most of the times I’m up by 8 even if I’m home with nothing to do all day). But I hate the moment I actually wake up and have to get out of bed. So, after hitting snooze a couple of times, I get my coffee and my cereals, and then life gets a bit better.

7:36 am – 7:50 am // Based on how much time I wasted checking my emails and social media and getting ready to get out of the house, I used to catch either the 7.36 or the 7.50 train. If the train was on time, I usually enjoyed a slow walk from the station to the school where I was conducting the study for my dissertation. If the train was late, I got to enjoy a little power walk, but they all recommend to workout in the morning so it was okay.

8:30 am // I set up the classroom and all the material I needed and then started the activities and the tests with the kids. Some of these activities were fun, others were kind of boring for me (especially one where you had to listen to the same two sounds over and over again). But all the kids seemed to enjoy every “game” and some of them even asked me to do something twice – of course, they usually asked to repeat the most boring ones.

12:00-ish pm // I used to take the metro (aka subway or tube, we call it metro here) to go to university, as I always had a class (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, from 12.30 to 2.30) or the laboratory (Monday and Friday, from 12.30 to 4.30) in the afternoon. I used to have lunch while taking yet another power walk to class.

Afternoon

2:36 pm // Most of the times, I made it to the station and I went home right after my class with the 2:36 train. But if the class ran late, or if I had to stay to talk with a professor, or if I had to go get a book, I stayed there and studied at the library all afternoon.

3:30-ish pm // Study time! I used to go over all the notes I’ve taken during the day, then the assigned readings and sometimes, when I was feeling super productive, I even started preparing my notes for the next days.

5:15 pm // Tea time, except I don’t like tea, so it’s coffee or juice or a yoghurt for me. Usually, at this time both my sister and my mother were home so we had a snack all together and relax a bit.

5:30 pm // Some more study time. I usually tried to read some new material and papers for my dissertation or do some of the data analysis. But a lot of times it was just me wasting time on the computer.

Night

7:00 pm // Relax and/or workout.

8:00-ish pm // Dinner time.

9:00 pm // Time to catch up on social media and binge-watch tv-shows.

12:00 am // Finally bed time!

A day in the life of a Musical Theatre student

gHello loves! My name is Lauren Norton and I blog over at Glitter & Grandeur. I am a lifestyle blogger & actress spreading sparkle to inspire others in living a happy, positive life – with some theatre tips and tricks thrown in for good measure. 🙂

A day in my life is a little different than most college students, so bear with me. I am in my final semester for my Masters of Music degree in Musical Theatre. This means I take 9 graduate credit hours a semester (most of them involving performing so I don’t have a ton of written homework or tests – instead I perform in class for a grade) – in other words less classes but more work. I also work three jobs, in addition to blogging, but two of them are only on weekends so I won’t mention them here. Anyway, here is a typical day in my life!

6:30am // My first alarm goes off. I hit snooze… even though I shouldn’t. I should get up and workout but, let’s be real, that never happens.

7:00am // I actually wake up. Then, I proceed to lay in bed for 5-10 minutes while I contemplate what to wear and check social media on my phone. I’m not a morning person. I rush to get ready, make a massive cup of coffee, and run out the door.

8:00am-11:00am // Work at the on-campus library. Gotta pay the bills!

11:00am-1:00pm // Class time! On Mondays & Wednesdays, I have Ballet from 12-12:50. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I have On-Camera Acting from 11-12:15.

1:00pm-2:30pm // Depending on the day, this time is used to grab a quick lunch and practice my music. I will have a 30 minute voice lesson or vocal coaching each day during this time as well. Lots of singing! These are my favorite classes.

2:30pm-3:00pm // During this time, I do little tasks or grab coffee. Tasks could include: catching up on blog social media, copying music, meeting with professors, or chatting with friends.

3:00pm-4:00pm // On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have Musical Theatre Dance class. It is a ton of fun! We learn choreography for various Broadway shows. Other days of the week, this time is used for writing/editing my thesis or applying for future jobs.

4:00pm-6:00pm // My school day is over! I use this time to crank out some focused productivity whether it be writing a blog post, working on my thesis, doing homework, practicing my music, etc. I do this either at my desk in my apartment or in the on-campus library. I prefer the library because I tend to nap if I go home.

6:00pm // Cook and eat dinner! I usually watch Netflix while I do this.

7:00pm // If I am in a show, I usually go to rehearsals from 7:00-10:30pm. If I’m not in a show, I use this time to catch up on blog promotion through social media or relax until bedtime.

10:30pm // It is time to get ready for bed! This doesn’t always happen, but it is my ideal scenario.

10:45pm // Crawl into bed and read a book or watch Netflix until I fall asleep — which usually occurs around midnight.

And that is my day! It gets pretty hectic at times but I love what I do.

A day in the life of a Mechanical Engineering and Physics student

bHey there, everyone! I’m Blondie from Blonde Roast by the Coast – a lifestyle blog for the coffee, cleaning, cooking, and cat-obsessed.

I’m not actually a college student anymore, but Sarah was nice enough to include me on this post. I just graduated from college in May with a Mechanical Engineering Degree and Physics Minor. Although my college career was focussed mostly on my schoolwork, I also held executive positions in my social sorority and the academic engineering fraternity on my campus. Now, without further ado, a day in the life of Blondie!

6:30am // My first alarm goes off. That’s a funny joke. I turn it off.

6:40am-7:50am // My alarms go off every 10 minutes until my roommate (and best friend) Steph bangs on my door and tells me it’s time to get up.

7:50am-8:00am // Start brewing coffee, brush teeth, get dressed, throw hair up, grab a granola bar and my coffee, and power-walk to class on the opposite side of campus (I went to a REALLY small school)

8:00am-9:15am // Class. My 8am classes were usually upper-level math or physics classes so they were pretty hard for so early in the morning.

9:30am-10:45am // Actually get ready for my day – grab a shower, hair, make-up, the whole nine. Then Steph and I would usually head to Dunkin Donuts for a coffee and some food. Once we got back we would get our planners out and get organized for the day.

11:00am-12:15pm // Another class – usually upper level engineering, so still difficult, but more hands-on and interesting.

12:30pm-1:00pm // Academic club meetings – such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society of Women Engineers, Math Association of America, and things like that.

1:00pm-2:00pm // Senior Physics Class. My school was so small that it was just me and one other student, George in this class. So it was actually really fun to just hang out with George and Dr. Clarke for lab.

2:00pm-6:00pm // Senior Engineering Lab/Senior Project. I won’t bore you with what these classes actually consisted of, but they were exhausting.

6:00pm-7:00pm // Dinner – the food in the caf was horrendous, so I would usually run to the Bar and Grill on campus to have a quick dinner and “assess the damage” (see how much homework I had for the night).

7:00pm-8:30pm // Meetings – Monday was for the Executive council for the Engineering Fraternity, Tuesday was for Executive Council for the Sorority, and Thursday was for Chapter Meeting of the Engineering Fraternity.

8:30pm-2:00am // Homework. SO. MUCH. HOMEWORK. My friend Cathy and I would usually head to a cute lounge in her dorm, listen to Maroon 5 or Ed Sheeren and do homework.

2:00am // Cathy made a promise to herself to call it quits around 2am most nights. So that’s when I would head back to my apartment. My roommates usually left it a mess so I would usually clean up and set up my homework at the kitchen island.

2:15am-4:00am // Keep working. I was taking more classes than the rest of my classmates because I wanted that Physics Minor so badly. I would usually stay up until 4. If I had a lab report and test the next day I would be up all night. But that only happened a couple of times.

4:15am // Hopefully, I’m in bed emotionally preparing for the next day and dreading the moment when I hear Steph bang on my door.

So there you have it! The day in the life of an engineering student.

Honestly, I can’t say that I miss it. The working world suits me a lot better, but there are days that I miss having a break between classes to grab food with Steph or listening to Maroon 5 with Cathy as we panicked about our grades. Looking back now, I think it was all worth it, but at the time it sure didn’t feel that way!

If you’re interested in reading more about coffee, cleaning, cooking, and cats, please check me out over at my site, instagram, pinterest, facebook, or twitter!

A day in the life of a Religious Studies and Political Science student

aHi everyone! I’m Alyssa, a second-year college student and lifestyle blogger at The Wise Willow! I am a Religious Studies and Political Science double major, and I’m excited to tell you about a day in my college life!

Mornings

Monday/Friday: On Mondays and Fridays my first class (African Politics) starts at 10am, so I have some time to wake up, send emails, and get caught up on other tasks that got pushed back the day before. I’m not really a morning person, but I do like to have time to wake up before my classes. My alarm usually goes off at 7:30am, but I definitely press snooze a few times before getting out of bed. I like to wake up by making some coffee and my breakfast in my dorm room, and getting on my computer to check emails and social media! For breakfast I usually have oatmeal, a few peanut butter and banana rice cakes, or a vegan protein smoothie!

Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday: I work at my campus Office of Admission in the morning on these days of the week, so I wake up around 7am (I get out of bed at about 7:15 once I stop pressing snooze!). I make coffee and eat breakfast before walking to work for my 2.5 hour shift. I love working there, and it’s a great way to start my day!

Afternoons

Monday-Wednesday, Friday: Lunch at 11:15am, and study time to catch up on assignments and projects. I have class (Statistics) from 1-1:50pm, and I have another class from 2:30-3:50pm (either Religion or Education, depending on the day). Once I’m done with these classes, I like to go back to my dorm room and drop off my extra class stuff and pick up materials for my evening classes and activities (and to make more coffee!).

Evenings

The evenings are when most of my activities (besides classes and work) start! On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays I have an Italian class (4:30 to 5:30 on Monday and 5:30 to 6:30 on Tuesday/Thursday). I love this class! It is a self-directed course for two credits, and I eventually am hoping to study in Italy for my Masters!

I have dinner in the dining hall at 6:30, and then walk to the library to start working on homework and projects for the evening. Sometimes there will be events that I will go to at 8 or 9pm depending on the time of semester.

Throughout this evening time I will write blog posts and watch YouTube videos as study breaks, and I usually end up leaving the library by midnight or 12:30am. I get back to my dorm room, shower, and go to bed!

Next semester I am also taking 18 credits (4 four credit classes and the 2 credit Italian class), so my daily schedule will be quite similar! It can be a busy schedule at times, but I have loved all of my endeavors! I hope that this gave you a glimpse into my college experience, and I wrote a post about my daily college life last year if you are interested in seeing how it has changed over the course of a year! 

How is/was your typical day as a college student? Is/was it similar to ours?

Sarah
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10 unique and actually useful gift ideas for students studying abroad

As I told you in my previous post, I celebrate my birthday last week. I’ve had a great time and cool and useful gifts. This, and the fact that the holiday season is almost here, inspired me to write a gift guide, a list of gift ideas for students studying abroad.

unique and actually useful gift ideas for students studying abroad

(This post may contain affiliate links)

Is your friend moving away to study in a foreign country for a while? Do you want to give them something special, thoughtful, and useful? I made this list of gift ideas for students studying abroad from first-hand experience. I can assure you that if you pick one gift from here, you cannot go wrong.

Backpack

If your friend doesn’t have one already, you can’t go wrong with a backpack. Especially one that can be used for school, but also as a cabin luggage.

white water walk in niagara falls

During my first year of college, for my birthday, I bought myself a North Face Borealis Backpack and I’ve been using it for everything since then. It’s perfect for college, as it has a lot of different pockets: for your phone, for your keys, for your wallet, lip balm, lunch box, medicines, there’s even space for pens, and it has a laptop sleeve. I also use this backpack every summer during my road trips. It’s the perfect size to bring it on a plane as a cabin luggage, and it’s quite comfortable to carry it around even when it’s heavy. It’s waterproof, it has those super great waist straps and, for extra security, you can add a lock to the zips.

Adapter

As we’re living in the digital era and we always carry around lots of electronics, those need to be charged. A lot of other essential items, like a hair dryer or an electric toothbrush, need to be plugged in. Unluckily, different countries have different plugs.

Trust me, you can never have too many adapters. I have 4 and I’m always looking for a way to make room for more devices. So, go ahead and buy your friend an adapter, either a universal or a country specific one.

External battery

Since we’re talking about electronics, another essential thing to have is a portable battery. This is essential for those awesome days when there are so many views to take pictures of. Or for those long days of travel when listening to music drains the phone battery. Your friend will be thinking of you every time they get a low battery warning and another half day away from a socket.

Journal

Even if we’re in the digital era and your friend is planning on sharing the whole adventure on social media, or perhaps a blog (make them read why they should start a blog while living and studying abroad), a proper journal is an awesome thing to have. It could be used to take notes of all the things one shouldn’t miss, to make little bucket lists of places to visit and restaurants to dine at, or to write down personal thoughts and emotions that don’t belong on social media.

moleskine

My first travel journal was on a plain Moleskine notebook, I loved that I could write and draw. But I quickly converted to the Squared Moleskine Notebook. I can still draw on that, but it’s so much easier to write on a squared (or ruled) notebook while you’re on the road, trust me.

DIY travel guide

This is a more personal gift. It will be even better if you’re a crafty person and you can bring one handmade with love. What you should do is: research your friend’s destination and create a custom itinerary or a list of all the attractions you would love to visit. Tell your friend to go to all those places and send you a postcard from there.

Scarf

If you’re into fashion and you’d like to buy a piece of clothing for your friend, a scarf is the perfect gift. A shirt might be cool too, but you need to know the size and sometimes people have a different taste. A scarf is a bit less personal, but it’s so useful. Especially if someone is moving to a cold place. But even in a warm place, it can be used as a shawl during a cool night or when the AC is killing you.

Cream

This might sounds funny. But I actually put on my shopping list to buy at least 3 packs of my favorite hand cream. I know there will be creams where I’m going, but it took me years to find one that is perfect for my skin. I know I’ll have to make some trials and errors before finding another perfect match. So buy your friend’s favorite cream.

Kindle

For the book lover a Kindle is the perfect gift. Even if they are all for printed books and don’t like e-readers, when you have to fit everything in a 23kg luggage, a Kindle seems like an amazing idea and your friend will be very happy to have one. Along with the Kindle, give them a long list of good books to read. Also, make sure they Join Amazon Kindle Unlimited, they can get unlimited reading and unlimited listening to a lot of books for less than 10$ a month.

Gift card

Gift cards are a student best friend. Just be sure to check that the shop will be available at your friend’s destination and that they’ll accept gift cards bought in another country.

Food

Food is a great gift, maybe the best of all. But be sure to check if it’s allowed in the destination country.

Do you have a friend who is moving abroad for a semester? What do you think about these gifts? Do you have any other suggestion?

Sarah
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5 alternative ways to celebrate your birthday if big parties are not your thing

As of today, my birthday week begins! The exclamation mark is there just to fake a lot of excitement. I do not like birthdays, I don’t dislike them either. I like to receive gifts, but I’m not a party person and I never do anything big or crazy on my actual birthday. Yet, I manage to make every single birthday just a little special.

5 alternative ways to celebrate your birthday if big parties are not your thing

All around the world there are different birthday traditions. For example, here in Italy we do the pulls on the earlobe: the birthday person’s ears are pulled as many times as how old he/she is turning. We also put candles on top of a cake based on how old the person is turning.

Usually, those things are done during a party. But if you’re not a fan of big birthday parties, there are some alternative things you can do to properly celebrate your birthday.

Eat dinner with your family

No matter what else I might have planned, I always have dinner with my family for my birthday. My sister’s birthday is just 4 days before mine, so we usually have a big dinner with my parents, my grandparents, aunts, and uncle to celebrate both our birthdays. Sometimes I would even invite a couple of close friends.

This year I’m having 3 dinners. 2 already happened. Last Thursday I got to cross off my bucket list having dinner at Nobu (my sister has pictures of this). During the weekend I finally went back to one of my favorite restaurant and treated my parents to dinner (I have pictures on my IG). Then, next Saturday, I’ll have dinner with the rest of the family.

Dinners are definitely the best way to hang out with people you don’t get to see that often because of everyone’s busy schedule. Chatting and catching up over a good meal is such a good and casual way to celebrate a birthday.

Go to a concert

This might be the best thing to do on your birthday (if you’re into live music as much as I am). Unluckily, you don’t always get a band you like to play in a city near you, so this might be an issue. But you can always celebrate a bit earlier or later.

The only time I got lucky enough was when Sum41 played in Milan just the night before my 18th birthday. So I got tickets for me, my sister and two other friends and we went there. Then, we spent the rest of the night eating cake at my house.

In 2013, I’ve decided to celebrate my birthday 10 days later and go to Warped tour in Bern. The wait was very worth it. I wish I’ll be able to celebrate my birthday at concerts more often in the future.

Fly away

If you have the time (and the money) you can plan a couple of days away, either alone, with a significant other or with friends. You can also include something special during the trip, like a zip-line adventure, a day at the spa, or a special dinner in an unusual restaurant.

One of my favorite birthday trips was the one I made to Eindhoven a couple of years ago. It wasn’t on my actual birthday, but my sister and I decided to celebrate it a little earlier since there was a concert there. I got to see my favorite band live and this might be why I loved this little weekend trip so much.

A cheaper alternative could be a road trip not too far away. Or even just a visit to a museum or an attraction in your hometown.

Have lots of cake at home

Buy a cake (or 5), invite someone over (or not) and spend the day chatting (or watching tv) and eating just cake (or you can do ice cream, if that’s your thing).

If you have already planned something for your birthday, you can always include this activity after that.

Make someone else’s day amazing

If you really despite birthdays and you do not want to celebrate or make it special for you, you could make it special for someone else. Donate to charity or invest your time volunteering for a day or a week. You might enjoy that and even keep doing it for the whole year.

What do you usually do on your birthday? Are you a fan of big parties or do you usually plan something different? Is there any specific birthday tradition where you live?

Sarah
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Study abroad in Italy? A complete guide to the Italian school system

When I started this blog I’ve never imagined myself writing a post about the Italian school system. I thought I would just write about my experience in a Canadian college and my life as an international student. But the other day I got my first email from a reader, yay!

This email, from a girl who was interested in studying abroad in Italy for a semester, made me realize that, since I still have exactly 63 days before I start my classes in Canada, I could share a bit more about Italy. Hopefully, some of you will be inspired to come study here. Because yes, I would definitely recommend coming here as an international student. Either in high school or university.

Study abroad in Italy: a complete guide to the Italian school system

Italy has both public and private schools. Compared to other countries, the quality of the public education here is quite high.

Scuola dell’infanzia / scuola materna

This is kindergarten. It lasts 3 years. It is not mandatory. But I’ve never met anyone who didn’t start kindergarten when they were 3 years old.

Scuola primaria / scuola elementare

This is primary school. It lasts five years. There’s usually one primary school in every town (even small towns, like the one I live in). If you go to public school, you go to the closest one to your house. Usually, children stay in school from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm.

Common subjects include Italian grammar, mathematics, science, geography, history, English, and religion (which is optional in public schools). Back in the days, at the end of the 5 years, you had to pass an exam to go on to secondary education. The year after I left primary school, the government decided the exam at the end of it was unnecessary and kids nowadays don’t have to go through it anymore.

Scuola media

This is middle school and it lasts 3 years. Again, if you go to public school you usually go to the nearest one to your house. Back in the days, most public schools offered the option to have a 8 am to 4 pm school day or a 8 am to 1 or 2 pm school day. My school offered just a full-time curriculum. I used to leave the house at 7 in the morning and I wasn’t back until 5 pm.

The most common subjects are: Italian grammar and literature, math and algebra, science, geography, history, English grammar and (not so much) literature, and physical education. In my school we also had Spanish, IT, and there was also a pre-Latin elective course (which I took since I knew I was going to a liceo – keep reading to find out what it is).

After these 3 years, you get your licenza media, but just after taking yet another written + oral exam, which covers all the subjects studied during the last year.

Scuola superiore / liceo

Explaining Italian high school is not easy. First of all, we have 5 years of high school. Yes, you’ve heard right: 5 very long years!

Second, even if you go to public school, you don’t just go to the closest one to your house. In addition, Italian high schools are not tailored to a student’s interest. So, at 14 years old, you have to make a choice. You need to decide if you want to go to a liceo or to a technical/vocational school. That’s not all. There are so many different types of technical/vocational schools and there are four main types of liceo, based on how many hours of specific subjects you get: liceo classico (classics school), liceo linguistico (language school), liceo scientifico (scientific school), and liceo artistico (art school). These schools have a fixed curriculum and everyone in the same year attend the same classes. There are no electives or extracurricular activities. If you’re an Italian high school student, especially if you go to a liceo, chances are you don’t have time for anything else besides studying.

Third, during these amazing (it’s sarcastic) 5 years you get the same 25/30 classmates. The teachers are the ones who move from class to class, while the students sit in their assigned desk in the same room for the whole school year (sometimes for 3 years in a row).

Finally, there are classes from Monday to Saturday. They start at about 8 am and they can go on until 2 pm. There’s no lunch at school, but there is a somewhat long break when you can have a snack late in the morning.

book

I’ve attended a liceo that was a mix of liceo classico and liceo scientifico. In my liceo I’ve studied not only Latin and ancient Greek from year 1, but I’ve also studied chemistry + biology + natural sciences (which I liked very much) and physics (which I did not like at all) from the beginning (while in traditional liceo classico you get these scientific subjects just in the last 3 years). Others subjects were: Italian language and literature, mathematics, history, geography (for the first 2 years), civics (just on year 2), English language and literature, P.E., philosophy and history of art (both just for 3 years).

To get your secondary school diploma, you have to sit through a very exhausting exam at the end of the five years.

Università

If you got through 5 years of high school, whichever high school, you’re eligible to get into any university. Here again, you do not just get into the university you like and then chose your major, and eventually a minor. You have to decide what you want to study before you apply and, then, most of the times, you have to take a test and get a good score on it to get into it.

Every university, and even every course in the same university, can have a somewhat different calendar. I always started the school year the first day of October and I had classes until the Christmas break. Then, during January and February, I had just exams. The second semester started in March and then exams were in June and July. August is the only month you get off. But there are exams in September too, so if you’re behind or if you want to have a head start on the next year, you spend it on books anyways.

Both at the end of your BA (3 years) and at the end of your MA (2 years), you are required to write a dissertation.

Study abroad in Italy

If you’re coming to Italy to study in high school, I’m not sure you can get the true Italian high school experience. Still, it will be an awesome adventure and this is not meant to discourage you. The exchange students we had in our high school didn’t get assigned to a single classroom, but they attended different subjects in different classes with different classmates. They also had extra hours of Italian language. So, if you’re coming to Italy to study in high school, you won’t be on your own.

If you’re coming to Italy as an international student in university, that’s a completely different story. Italian universities, compared to Italian high schools, are huge. Most of your classes will be lectures and you can share a classroom with like 300 people, or even more. Group projects are not that common. You won’t get grades throughout the semester, but your grade for a class will be the one you get in the final exam. Especially during the first few years, professors do not make an effort to get to know you. Most of the times, you don’t get reminders when you have to pay your fees or when you have to register for classes. You are completely on your own.

Fun facts:

  • Our high schools don’t have sport teams. Some universities have teams (mine did), but none really pays attention to them. There’s no such thing as school spirit.
  • We don’t have lockers in high school, but we leave our books under our assigned desk.
  • Up until university, we get almost three full months of summer holidays (June, July, and August).
  • Standardized tests are pure evil, neither the teachers/professor nor the students like them. The only standardized test I’ve ever taken in my life as an Italian student is the one I took to get into university.

Did you noticed many differences between schools in your country and schools in Italy? Have you ever studied in Italy? Or do you think you would enjoy school here?

Sarah
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My bucket list + how to make your dreams happen

I love lists, every kind of list. Bucket lists have a special place in my heart. I just love sitting down at my desk, brainstorm a little, write down all the things I need/want to do and then, as time goes by, crossing them off.

For a few years I’ve had my ultimate bucket list glued on the second page of my planner. Seeing it every morning before going through my to-do list gives a shot of extra motivation. Now that I’m about to move abroad, I’ve also added a pre-departure bucket list and a Toronto bucket list.

Be sure to scroll to the end of this post and grab my free make your dreams happen workbook.

My bucket list + how to make your dreams come true

I enjoy reading other people’s bucket list, so I’ve decided to share mine as well. In addition, this will make more more accountable and it also just gave me a lot of ideas for future posts.

Personal

  • Become fluent in 2 foreign languages (1/2)
    I’m currently working on my Spanish. I’m planning to take some French classes in the future. I’d also love to learn a language that doesn’t use the latin alphabet. I’ve studied ancient Greek in high school, so maybe I’ll get into modern Greek? I’d also love to really  learn sign language, not just the ASL alphabet.
  • Read 30 books in a year
    This is one of my goals for 2017.
  • Read 50 books in a year
  • Volunteer
    I wanted to volunteer for the longest time and, after I graduate, I finally found not only the time but also a project I really like and I enjoy being a part of.
  • Volunteer in a care center or an orphanage abroad
    I’d love to do this in Africa, specifically Ethiopia, Kenya or Tanzania. Considering I’m moving to North America, I’ll probably go volunteer somewhere in South America over a summer (maybe after I graduate from college there?)
  • Go on a vacation by myself
    During the summer of 2013 I went to Vancouver. I wasn’t completely and utterly on my own, since I went there to attend an English as second language school. But I travelled there by myself, taking a flight with a layover for the first time ever (which was in Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports). I also went on frequent solo day trips when I was in Vancouver.
  • Go on another vacation by myself
  • Take a photo every day for 1 year
  • Have tech-free days once a week for 1 year
  • Adopt a dog
  • Move to a different country (in progress! Moving to Toronto on December 26th)
  • Get tattoo(s)
  • Get back into drawing
  • Graduate on time
    Completed on July 14th, 2016.
  • Reach my goal weight
  • Take more and better photos
  • Buy a house
  • Be a foster/adoptive parent

Adventures

  • Go kayaking
  • Skydive
  • Visit a chocolate factory
    During my first year of middle school, we visited a chocolate factory in Lugano, Switzerland as our annual school trip. Also, last year, when I was in Köln, Germany, I visited the chocolate museum.
  • Go whale watching
    In August 2015, when I was on a road trip across Ontario and Québec, I went on the zodiac adventure in Tadoussac.
  • Go camping
  • Go on a Safari
  • Go zip lining
    Completed in August 2015 in Montréal. Definitely want to try this again, this time in the middle of a forest.
  • Swim with the dolphins
  • Ride in a helicopter
  • See the northern lights
  • Travel first class
  • Stay in an overwater bungalow
  • Wear a fancy dress
  • Walk behind a waterfall
    In August 2015 I did the journey behind the falls in Niagara Falls.
  • Decorate a whole room by myself
  • Ride a jet ski
    Completed August 2015. I was sunbathing in Bluffers Park Beach, ON and a guy invited me to ride his jet ski with him. Next time I want to be the one driving it.
  • Take a road trip
    I don’t remember the first time I actually went on a road trip. When I was little, I drove around Italy and Europe with my family for summer holidays. The first time I went on a road trip where I was the one doing the driving and the planning and everything was my California road trip in August 2014.
  • Visit a movie set
    When I was in Vancouver in 2013, I was walking through UBC and they were setting up a movie/tv show set (maybe Supernatural? Unluckily I did not ask). During my California road trip (summer 2014), I visited the Warner Bros studios in Burbank. In March (2016) I visited the Making of Harry Potter, just outside of London.
  • Ride a horse (possibly an Icelandic horse during a horseback riding tour on a black sand beach)

Travel

  • See the statue of Liberty
    Completed April 2012.
  • Walk on the great wall of China
  • Soak in the Blue Lagoon
  • See the pyramids
  • Set foot on all 7 continents (2/7; so far, I’ve been just to Europe and North America)
  • Visit Niagara Falls
    Completed August 2014.
  • Go to Disney World
  • See the Grand Canyon (half completed. I flew over it and got the chance to see it from the plane, but I really need to go there and do all the hiking tours)
  • Visit every Canadian province + territory (3/13; so far, I’ve been to British Columbia, Québec, and Ontario)

Blog

  • Start a blog
    Completed September 2016.
  • Make friends with other bloggers
  • Participate in a Twitter chat
  • Create a media kit for the blog
  • Write a sponsored post
  • Blog consistently for a year
  • Write a self-help ebook.

Pre-departure bucket list

  • Visit the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
    Complete November 19.
  • See Da Vinci’s Last Supper
  • Visit Brera art gallery
  • Have dinner at Nobu
    Completed November 10
  • Learn 5 new English words every day.
  • Declutter: throw away/donate things I don’t need anymore or can’t bring with me abroad

Toronto bucket list

  • Do the CN tower edge walk
  • Visit the Aga Khan museum
  • Bike through the Toronto Island Park
  • Compile a list of restaurants I want to try
  • Do not eat poutine more than once a month
  • See the cherry blossoms in High Park
  • Attend a sporting event (probably hockey)
  • Attend all my classes, unless I’m really sick or there’s an event I really can’t miss
  • Study hard and get the highest GPA as possible
  • Join a club
  • Be friendly and get involved

That’s all for me. Now it’s your turn: sign up below and make your dreams happen! I will email you a free workbook, which includes some tips and tricks on how to convert your dreams into plans and come useful printables.




Do you have a bucket list? How many items have you crossed off? Do you have any suggestions for me? Something I should add to my list? In particular, I’m so looking forward to expant my Toronto bucket list!

Sarah
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My first month blogging: lessons learned + future goals

I made it, I’ve been blogging consistently for a month. Well, even more if we consider my previous blog on wordpress.com. Sometimes I tend to lack in consistency, even if I like what I’m doing. So this is kind of a milestone for me.

I’ll make sure to include that I’m a blogger now on all my social media descriptions! I’ve been looking forward to this moment.

My first month blogging: what I did, what I should have done, what I will do

I had blogs in the past. I had one on Myspace. I had a MSN blog where the background was black and the text was hot pink (yes, I was that emo during my middle school scene phase). I had different blogs on Tumblr. I currently have a Tumblr where I mostly share pictures of my favorite bands, sad lyrics and cool landscapes.

But at some point I wanted to do more than just randomly write about my life. I always have a lot to say about everything. I also love to connect and help others (hey, I’m a psychology student and a soon to be child and youth care student, being helpful is my thing).

During the summer I kept a blog on WordPress.com for a while. I knew from the beginning I was going to switch to self-host sooner or later. I just wanted to try it out first. I wanted to be sure I would enjoy it and I would write regularly. So far I’ve been good at it. I repeat: I’ve been blogging (seriously) for a whole month.

What I did

While I was still writing my WordPress.com blog, I started doing research – a lot of research. I read all the post that there are out there about hosting services, plug-ins, editorial calendars, SEO and such. The more I read, the more I felt like I was so not ready.

So, I bought hosting and my domain name. I chose to go with bluehost, because it was the most convenient option. After getting those things, I gave myself a week or so to write a couple of posts and basically build the whole blog.

I created a logo. I chose a theme and played around with css a lot. I tried to create some sort of consistency in my graphics.

After a while, I created a Twitter account for my blog (that I still have to figure out how to actually use). I also upgraded my Pinterest and I got myself a business account (which is free).

What I should have done

I like to jump right into things and I now realize that one week to launch a website was too little for me. Sure, I’ve done all the reading before and I had a couple of posts ready. But this is my first (as I like to call it) grown-up blog. I familiarized a bit with everything on WordPress.com, but this was something different, especially the plug-ins part (still trying to find the perfect ones).

Over this month, I customized a little bit of my theme every single day. It was time-consuming and I was never happy with the result. I should have had a more clear overview and I should have launched my blog with the theme finalized.

In addition, I should have picked a color palette sooner. I am not completely happy with the one I’m using right now. My idea was to use mainly neutral colors (which I still love) and I also liked the idea of having an accent of red (because in my mind it represented Canada). But, actually, I’m not too fond of the red I picked anymore, so I already have a new color palette. I will start using that in January when I’ll change my logo. That will allow me to get used to it and see if I will still like it in a week or a month.

The last thing I wish I did differently is joining Pinterest group boards and Facebook groups before launching my blog. This way I would have had the time to get familiarized with everything and figure out how those things work without stressing too much.

What I will do

There two main things I want to focus on on the next month:

Start posting more frequently

Except for the first week of blogging, I published a new post every Monday. Now that we’re getting to the end of the year, my schedule is getting busier and busier, but I would love to post more frequently. I have so many ideas for future posts and I want to write them down! I won’t be able to do this every week, but I will try to have something new out every Monday and every Friday.

Engage more with the blogging community

I am not shy and I don’t label myself as an introvert. Sometimes it’s just hard to be the one who starts the conversation, especially online. I’ve joined a few Facebook groups and I saw how amazing the blogging community can be. So, in the next months, I want to get more involved. In particular, as I will be starting college overseas, I’d love to chat with other people attending college and hopefully learn something from them.

One thing I want to do to get more involved in the blogging community is participating in a Twitter chat (do you recommend any?). Another thing I’d love to try is to write at least a couple of guest posts (one is already almost taken care of, I’ll just have to figure out the others).

In addition

I wrote down a couple of goals I’d like to reach by the end of the year:

  • Update my start here page and create a resource page;
  • Create more content upgrades;
  • Reach 3000 page views by the end of the year (finger crossed);
  • Maybe set up a facebook page for the blog.

What did you do when you first started blogging? Is there something you should have done differently? Do you have any tips for a newbie like me?

Sarah
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Ace the IELTS academic: get a good score in just 10 days

In July, just 2 days after my graduation, I had to sit through yet another English exam. This time I had to take the IELTS, specifically the academic module. If you’re planning to study abroad, chances are you’ll have to take an exam to get your language skills assessed too.

All the school I had selected to apply to required the same scores: 6 overall, at least 5.5 in each skill band. In the Common European Frame of Reference that would be a B2. I literally had just 10 days tote prepare, but in the end I got what I consider to be a decent score.

I’m sharing what I’ve learned during those intense 10 days so you can be as successful as possible with a limited time frame and without spending any money. Yes, I did not spend any money on books or classes and you don’t need them either.

Ace the IELTS academic in just 10 days

A quick note on my results

I was hoping for at least an 8 overall, because years ago I took the CAE exam and I got an A. But I got a 7.5 overall and my strongest skill was reading (I got the highest grade on the scale!). I thought my weakest skill was writing, followed by speaking and listening. But I got the same exact score (7) on these three skills, which is still a mystery to me.

If you really want to get the highest grade possible, I wouldn’t recommend getting ready in just 10 days. The exam itself is not too hard, but you need to get a bit familiar with the format. Also, if your proficiency level doesn’t already match the grade you need you’ll have to practice a bit more and take your time. But if you’re in a hurry and you need to make the best you can in a short time, I hope my tips will be useful.

The basics

If you’re reading this post, I assume you’re about to take the IELTS, so you know what it is, but maybe you don’t know what it means. IELTS is an acronym that stands for International English Language Testing System. The IELTS exam will give a measure of your English proficiency. There are several reasons people take this exam. Mostly it is because they want to go study abroad or they want to migrate to some English-speaking Country. But I know people who had to take the IELTS just to apply to a Master’s degree here in Italy, even if that is taught in Italian (for some reasons some of these Italian courses even require an overall score higher than the one required by Canadian schools, go figure).

There are two different test formats: the Academic or the General Training. The first is mostly for people who plan to attend school abroad, while the latter is for people who are about to move abroad. There a 4 different parts in this exams. Every part assesses a different language skill: listening, reading, writing and speaking (I was particularly delighted when I found out there wasn’t the use of english part). Listening and speaking are the same for Academic and General Training, while reading and writing are different. I took the Academic module so I will talk about that one.

The test scores are calculated based on a band system, which ranges from 0 to 9. Usually you have to get at least a 6.0 overall (which correspond to a B2 level) and you’re classified as a competent user of the English language. However, there are some institutions that require higher scores (I was talking with a girl before getting into the exam room and she was doing the exam for the third time because she needed a 7.5 overall and she couldn’t go past 7.0).

What to do

What inspired me to write this post was that I managed to get nice grades in every part even if I spent literally just 10 days practicing, so I thought I could share what I’ve done. Because I took a very last minute decision, I had to spend hours and hours practicing every single day, no matter what else I had to do. After a couple of days I already wanted to give up because I was too stressed out and I was feeling like I couldn’t make it. Don’t let those thoughts stop you. I made it and you can make it too!

The first thing you need to do is a reality check. You need to figure out what’s your English proficiency level and you need to check if it matches the band score you need. The university I wanted to apply to required just a 6.0 overall and a minimum of 5.5 in each band. My level of english was supposedly higher than that and so that’s why I was able to get a somewhat good score with just a 10 days preparation.

Since you don’t have time to read everything you can find about every task, what I suggest to start with is to try and do a complete practice under exam conditions (you can find a complete exam practice on The Road to IELTS website). By doing this, not only you will get familiarized with the test format and the contents, but you will also understand where you’ll have to work more and what you’re already pretty good at.

The next step is to go over one skill a day. I didn’t buy any specific book, neither I’ve attended any course, I just relied on online material (one of the most useful blog I’ve stumbled upon is ieltsliz.com). Youtube is full of free lessons. I suggest you watch some videos about listening and then practice a bit every type of question, the next day you can do the same with reading and so on. My weakest skill was writing, so at the end of each and every day I practiced describing a graph or writing an essay too. Unluckily I didn’t have anyone who could grade my work, but what I’ve found very useful was to compare my written productions to some models you can find online.

At the end, you should do some more practice under exam conditions, using a timer and the answer sheets (this is particularly important for the writing part because you need to write at least 150 words for task 1 and 250 for task 2, but you don’t really have time to keep counting your words during the exam, so you can just estimate the amount of words you’ve written).

In addition to this, you should also:

  • review some grammar;
  • write down a list of linkers for the writing task;
  • read and watch the news to get more ideas for the writing task;
  • make vocabulary lists about different topics for the speaking part;
  • use vocabulary builder websites (I recommend memrise) to learn a whole lot of synonyms;
  • watch English, Australian and even American tv shows to get used to the different accents.

BUT because I’m that awesome, I’ve just made your life easier. I’ve gathered all my notes in one place and I’m giving it to you for free. So, instead of having to do all these things, you’ll just have to click here and you’ll get my awesome collection of IELTS vocabulary and answer templates.

Listening

The first part you’ll do on the day of the exam is usually the listening. This is a bit tricky, especially because you hear the audio just once. But don’t panic just yet! Before the audio is played, you have enough time to go over the questions for the section. Read through them and underline keywords. Then, listen carefully to the conversation and quickly write down your answers on your booklet (you get 10 minutes at the end to transfer your answers to the answer sheet). If you don’t catch something, don’t worry, go on or you’ll miss even more answers.

Reading

In my opinion, this is the easiest part of the whole exam, along with speaking. Personally, I didn’t have any problem with the time, but I talked to some people after the exam and most of them conveyed one hour isn’t enough to read it all and find the correct answers.

If you’re not a fast reader, you could use the following method: you read just the first line of every paragraph of your text, maybe underline some words you think might be important; then go over the questions, read them and underline keywords; once you’ve done that you get an idea of where you can find your answer, so go back and read the correct paragraph.

I personally find all these methods they suggest very time-consuming. Even during the exam I read the whole passage, I underlined names, dates, things I thought I could be questioned on and then I read the questions and, because I already read the whole text, I knew the answers to some of them even without going over the text again. If I was not sure about something, I just had to go back to the paragraph, but, because I read it all, I always knew where to find the correct answer.

The last tip I have for reading is to write you answer directly on the answer sheet, not in your booklet (you don’t get extra time to transfer your answers like in the listening part). You must use a pencil to write on the answer sheet, so if you want to change something, you could just use an eraser.

Writing

This was the hardest part for me, so I don’t really have many tips to survive the writing. First of all, always remember to leave a line in between paragraphs and you’ve already done ¼ of the work (apparently they really give you extra points if you do this). Especially in your essay, be sure to have 3 main parts: introduction, body, conclusion. Use a lot of different words to say the same things over and over again in the introduction and in the conclusion, use a lot of synonyms in the body paragraphs and don’t forget to fill them up with linkers. If your text sounds a bit redundant, that’s perfect.

One thing I found really useful was to read through all the essay models I could find online, so you can get not only some ideas you could reuse, but also an idea on how to structure your work.

Speaking

Back in the days, when I took my CAE exams I got the lowest grade in the speaking part. All my other skills were marked as exceptional (even the use of English), but my speaking skills were between good and borderline. I was so mad at myself when I walked out of the exam room because I knew I could do so much more than that, but anxiety got the best of me. I think speaking is still my lowest skill (along with writing). Not only I have a strong accent, but also because you have to say things quickly and you don’t have time to go over and correct mistakes. I tend to make many syntactical mistakes.

Even if I am not able to avoid mistakes while speaking, I don’t have any problems making conversations and I have a good ability to use periphrasis when I don’t remember a specific word. So this time I was determined to have a good conversation with the examiner and I have to say I succeeded, I was able to reply to all the questions and in the second part of the speaking, I was able to speak for two whole minutes.

When you sit down at the table, remember to just talk and tell lies. For example, if they ask you what’s the latest sport competition you have attended, don’t say you don’t like sports and you never watch them, make something up. Tell them you don’t like sports (so if you’re saying something very incorrect about that sport, that’s your excuse), but also tell them your best friend is a soccer/hockey/lacrosse/whatever fan and she drags you with her to see the games and then talk about the food they usually eat at the stadium. They’re not interested in knowing you or what you do with your life, they just want you to talk so they can give you a grade.

Get my free collection of IELTS vocabulary and answer templates



Final tips and reminders

Arrive early. None likes to wait for more than an hour in a corridor, but you have to register before getting into the exam room and you won’t be allowed to take the test if you arrive too late.

Remember your ID! You won’t be allowed in if you don’t bring the ID you used when you booked the test. The day I took the exam there was this guy who just got robbed on the train and he wasn’t allowed to take the test because he didn’t have his document.

Don’t bring a watch. You can’t bring one in the exam room.

Bring extra pencils and an eraser. You must write with pencil on your listening and reading answer sheet, you can also write your essay in pencil (and that’s what I’ve done because it’s so much easier to correct mistakes). I suggest you use a mechanical pencil and then also bring a couple of extra regular pencils just in case.

Bring water. But remove the label. And don’t drink unless you really need it because you really don’t want to take a bathroom break.

Dress warm. I knew there was ac where I took the exam, so I wore a sweater and I got cold halfway through the exam anyway.

Good luck with your exam and let me know how it goes and if my tips were useful!

Sarah
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Amsterdam in 4 days: a trip recap

Last week I spent some days in Amsterdam. I did not know a lot about the city before I went there. I have a (long) list of places I want to visit in North Europe, but mostly they’re Icelandic or Norwegian towns. So, as most of my improvised trips, I went there without any particular expectation.

The main reason I decided to go to Amsterdam was because of music. I love to go to live shows and there were two bands I really like who were playing there. Even if the concerts didn’t go as expected (they didn’t happen), I was set to make the best of my time in the city. I am always happy and excited to go explore a new place, especially when I know nothing about it.

Amsterdam in 4 days: what I saw and what I did

Before departure

As I said, I didn’t know a lot about Amsterdam. I usually do a bit of research before leaving, but this time I was crazy busy the week before. My sister (thank you Erika for some of the pictures you took) was my travel companion and she was busier than me, so we arrived there without any real plan (my favorite kind of trips).

A friend of mine suggested the free walking tour of the city. I had booked that, so I was sure our guide would explain all the things we would do research on (and she did!).

The only other thing I did before leaving was booking tickets for the Van Gogh museum. I really wanted to go visit it, but I didn’t want to spend too much time queuing. I definitely recommend purchasing your tickets before, especially if you’re in Amsterdam for just a couple of days. You pick the day and the time, you can’t change them later, but I think the time it’s just approximate: we arrived like an hour early and they let us in anyway. You print your tickets at home or you keep them on your phone and then you get in as soon as you arrive at the museum (it’s really a dream!).

A quick note: where to stay + how to get around

In Europe we have a couple of low costs air companies. I don’t mind flying for an hour or two in a small plane seat without any “free” drink or food, so I fly low-cost whenever I can. This way I can spend my money on other things at my destination. My round-trip from Milan to Amsterdam was about 80 euros (and that’s kind of expensive considered one time I flew to Eindhoven for like half of that).

From the Schipol Airport, we took a train to Amsterdam Centraal. I immediately noticed train tickets there are not cheap. But the trains are so comfortable and clean so you can’t really complain. I mean, second class there is so much better than first class on an Italian train.

Our hotel was near the central station, we literally had to just cross the bridge and we were there. We were a street away from the Damrak (a nice street with a lot of shops and restaurants) and less than a ten minutes walk from Dam (the main square). If I have to go back, I would stay in the same area because we were within walking distance to all the major landmarks and attractions.

We visited the city mainly by walking. In my opinion walking is the best way to explore a new place, get a bit lost once in a while and discover little places you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The center of Amsterdam is not as big as I thought so I definitely recommend bringing some good walking shoes and just walk everywhere. If you’re brave enough, you can also rent a bicycle and try to blend in with the locals.

From what I could see, public transports are good even to get around the city center. We took a tram to go to the Van Gogh museum, but that was all.

One afternoon we decided to go to the countryside. We booked a guided tour so they had their own bus. There are also several public buses that go into the countryside.

To go to Utrecht, we took the train again.

Trip recap – our itinerary

Day 1:

We landed just in time for lunch, so we quickly eat at the airport. We traveled to the city center by train. After a quick stop to take pictures of the massive bicycle parking in front of the station (that’s so cool), we walked to our hotel.

Later in the afternoon, we went out to explore without a real destination. We just walked around the center and it was a great first impact. We walked along the Damrak, we arrived at the Dam and saw the Royal Palace.

We ended up our day with a very traditional dinner at a Japanese restaurant.

Day 2:

Monday morning we walked to the Anne Frank house. I enjoyed the walk along the canals and in the little streets surrounded by brick buildings. I love the architecture of Amsterdam! And I also liked how quiet everything still was at 10 in the morning.

After that we walked some more (yes, we really did a lot of walking!) and we visited the flower market. I was expecting a lot of flowers, like a lot of colorful tulips, but we found just bulbs. Well, of course this is the right season for fresh flowers, Sarah! There are also some souvenirs shops there and I love to go in and just take a look around even if I don’t buy anything.

In the afternoon, we had our free walking tour of Amsterdam. It was the first time doing a free walking tour for me, but I think I will do this kind of tours more often. This free (but tips are always appreciated) walking tour was a really great way to see the city and hear from a local about food, traditions, culture, and fun facts. Our guide gave us the historical background, she explained how Amsterdam became a city and why it’s such a free and open-minded place.

We ended up our day with another very traditional dinner at a Chinese restaurant. In my defense, I was getting really cold and I was craving a big bowl of soup and I love Chinese soups.

Day 3:

With our tickets for the Van Gogh museum in our purse, we took a tram and we got down at the Rijksmuseum. But that’s the wrong museum, Sarah! Yes, but there’s the I amsterdam sign there and we wanted to take a selfie in front of it. Besides, it’s really close to the Van Gogh museum so we were fine.

I amsterdam sign

The weather wasn’t the best, but for once we got lucky. We took a few snaps at the sign and then, as soon as it started raining, we got inside the museum. I had a good time in there and I think it’s something you cannot miss in Amsterdam. Once we finished our visit and we got out, it stopped raining.

We finally had a real traditional lunch: chips with mayo and ketchup. We started eating them like the locals while walking around and doing some windows shopping. But we’re Italians and we need to sit down for our lunch, so we went back to our hotel and rested a bit to get ready for the afternoon.

The windmills of Zaanse Schans

At about 3 pm, we left Amsterdam headed to Zaanse Schans. It’s such a picturesque village, with its green-timbered houses and the windmills. With our tour we even visited a working windmill. We moved on to Volendam, a quiet but very chic fishing village. There were so many beautiful houses there and the view was great. We visited a cheese factory and tasted some cheese. To get to our last stop, the former island of Marken, we took a boat. Even if I was starting to get sick at this point, I really enjoyed the visit to the traditional clog maker.

Day 4:

This day was pretty eventless. I slept my fever off the whole morning. We traveled to Utrecht by train, and there I slept again until the next morning.

Day 5:

I finally felt a little better, so we took a quick walk around Utrecht. The center is cool, but small. There are canals, paved streets, some nice buildings, a lot of shops, and a gothic cathedral.

In the afternoon it was already time to flew back home to foggy and congested Milan.

View of Milan Malpensa

Overall, this was a very lovely trip and I would like to go back someday to visit a couple of things I didn’t see this time, maybe without a fever.

Have you ever been to Amsterdam? What have you liked the most? Did you get to visit the countryside? Or any other city in The Netherlands?

Sarah
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How to blog in English when it’s not your native language

I started studying English in elementary school when I was about 8 years old. That makes almost 10 years of formal education in English. Wow, that’s a lot! Yet, I feel like I started speaking English for real just about a couple of years ago.

English is a mandatory subject here in Italy. But I did not learn anything useful until I was in high school. And even then I could not speak properly and I could not understand a full conversation between two people.

Then something happened. During my fourth year of high school, I was introduced to the wonderful world of tv shows in their original language. I started slowly, watching series with Italian subtitles. Then I switched to English subtitles. Now, most of the times I just watch the show.

I also started studying the language independently and practicing it. I discovered a lot of things that they didn’t teach me in school, I started speaking without worrying too much and I’m at a point where I can understand basically everything I read (yes even hard scientific papers) and almost everything I hear (it actually depends on the accent of the person, which makes me feel so bad).

how to blog in english when it's not your native language

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Writing in a foreign language is the hardest for me. I had such a hard time during the IELTS exam because you can’t use any aids like a laptop or even a dictionary. When I write on paper, sometimes I stare at the word I just wrote and think “That looks wrong, let me try to move the letters around”. So, how am I writing a whole blog in English?

I don’t worry too much

When I was in middle school I went to Spain and even thought I was learning Spanish and I wasn’t half bad at it, I refused to speak there. Then I grew up and I realized I threw away a great opportunity. So now I don’t care too much anymore. I just talk, or write.

I just start writing a post and I don’t care if something gets underlined in red by the spell-checker. I just type away all my thoughts. When I feel like I’m done, I start editing. Sometimes editing takes a lot of time, I like to double check everything. But I can take all the time I need. My concepts are all there already and I don’t have to worry I’ll forget important points.

I have Grammarly installed

I have no idea how I survived before discovering this tool. I genuinely think Grammarly is the world’s best grammar checker and it’s also a great automated proofreader. It also includes a plagiarism checker, but I never used it before because I never needed it.

After you sign up, you can either copy and paste any text written in English into the online text editor or you could install the free browser extension. I thought I didn’t need yet another extension on my browser, but I was wrong. I got this post proofread by Grammarly. But now I also get all my emails proofread, the comments I leave on my other blogs, and even my Facebook status.

A lot of amazing features are free, but there’s also the option of going pro. I tried the upgrade because I suggested Grammarly to some of my friends and after they signed up I got some weeks for free and it was a life-changing experience.

I leave it for a day or two and the re-read it

If you don’t need to publish your post as soon as you finish writing it, leave it for a day or two. Then re-read it, you will probably find some minor mistakes you didn’t get the first time because you already knew the content of your post by heart.

I do not use Google translator

Sure, Google translator is good for a rough translation of a sentence in a language you really can’t understand. But if you need to find the right word, or if you want to double check a meaning, please avoid it. Sure, nowadays it’s a little better than it used to be. But, please, don’t just copy and paste the translation you’ll get from it.

When I want to check the meaning of a word, my go-to online translator is WordReference. It offers a lot of language combinations, you can hear the pronunciation of the most common words, and you can also conjugate a verb. For synonyms I use thesaurus.

Do you blog in your first or second language? Do you have any tips on writing in English when it’s not your native language?

Sarah
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