Sunday, January 9, 2011

First Week Down

I've made it through my first week in the UK! I've managed to not get hit by cars looking the wrong way when crossing the street (though lordy did I come close a few times early on!!), to sort of learn my way around the heart of Oxford, to figure out the general layout of the Stanford House (wayyy harder than it sounds), and to get my first glimpse of the ever-fascinating and oh so complicated little idiosyncratic bubble that is Oxford University. I won't even begin to claim that I've begun to understand any part of that last item on the list, but I've certainly seen enough to get incredibly excited about the weeks ahead.

(Big Ben!)

I've also met a whole slew of new people. I'll admit, as a fairly reclusive and socially awkward person naturally, this was probably the part of the trip that I've been dreading the most. I came into this program not knowing a single soul, which meant that there would be 45+ first impressions to make (or break) in this crucial first week of term. In general, I think I did ok, though the leftovers of some Egyptian food poisoning over the first few days definitely did not leave me at my sunniest during the first rounds of introductions. Everyone I've met so far is super nice and, as is usually the case with a Stanford student, is not only brilliant but also as thrilled as I am about the possibility of studying here at one of the planet's finest universities. I'm so impressed by my housemate's tutorial subjects, which range from jurisprudence to metaphysics to math, and can't wait to hear more about them as the term progresses.

(Ridiculously quintessential UK photo: red telephone box, Underground sign, two double decker buses, and Parliament with the Union Jack flying high above - awesome!)

Speaking of tutorials, I've had my first meeting with my tutor! We had our preliminary meeting on Friday. My first reaction: overwhelmed. Not the sort of stressed out "dear god I can't do this" overwhelmed that sometimes occurs, but more a sense of being completely blown away by the scope and scale of this place. I was given a tour of the department, from the papyrology lab (where they study ancient papyrus scrolls, of which Oxford has a world-leading collection -- soo randomly amazing) to the multi-story ancient history library where I'll be studying, and was pretty speechless-- after all, Stanford, which I consider (of course) to also be one of the finest universities on this planet, doesn't offer more than a scattering of classes on the ancient Middle East spread over a variety of departments (and none at all in ancient Middle Eastern art). This department represented a concentration of relatively obschure academic knowledge like nothing I'd ever been faced with before.

(Horse sighting!)

Amongst all this wonder and excitement, I did also get my first paper topic. As I'd been warned, it's frighteningly open-ended: "Who Were the Sumerians?" Gulp. I have a whole page of bibliographic sources to consult and digest by Tuesday night (gulp again!) to help me answer this question which I suppose should be comforting, but as my tutor even admitted that, as a first time scholar of ancient history most of my sources would probably be "very difficult," somehow I'm not feeling super confident. But it certainly will be an adventure! I've got to try to unwind my perfectionism a hair, and remember that this is my first paper in a brand new subject in a brand new format for a brand new professor; it's probably not going to be flawless the first time around. But if I dive into it whole-heartedly, I'll certainly have something to improve on going forward!

(Trafalgar Square)

In addition to these academic excitements, I also got to visit London with the group on Saturday (if it weren't obvious from the photos so far!), touring around Westminster Abbey and the Trafalgar Square region. I must admit that it still seems deliciously novel to get to go up to London for a day, growing up with the constant thought that London was a whole ocean and five (or, in California, eight) time zones away. Imagine my delight, then, when a trip to London requires no time changes or overnight flights at all, but simply an hour and change bus ride through immoderately agreeable countryside. How simply marvelous!

London itself was quite good though very cold and grey to start out with; I was pretty miserable until the sun came out in mid-afternoon, but then spent the remainder of my time in the city simply enchanted (for lack of a less corny word) by how lovely the place was when the sun actually chose to shine on it. Since we're so far north the sun can't get all the way down to sidewalk level at this time of year, making the streets glow and flicker with a beautifully transitory play between golden light and purple shadow. After spending the last five days in pretty much unrequited grey weather, it was almost sinfully delightful to feel the odd burst of sunlight on my cheek. What a strange place this is.

(Rare flashes of sunlight)

(The weirdly glowing twilit streets of winter London)

It was another glorious day today and I tried to make the most of it by spending four solid hours either jogging in Christchurch Meadow or walking around with my camera in University Park. Both were exceptionally lovely (though my legs and feet are currently disagreeing with me a bit on the distance I made them cover) and I had a good time testing out my new lens on the flocks of birds at the pond in University Park. Even if it's going to rain for the entire remainder of the quarter (and let's face it, chances are good), at least I'll have some photographic evidence of sun =)

(I got swarmed by a flock of geese when I was a small child and ever since have been somewhat afraid - this is my worst nightmare)

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