Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Trust Your Fellow Man

I'm writing this post at 4:50am, and you know what that means: another night of furious tutorial-writing has come and gone, and the caffeinated Diet Coke I guzzled a few hours ago to get me through the last push still has too much of a hold on me to let me go to bed. It's hard to believe I only have 4 papers left to write in my time at Oxford, ever. I feel like I've been doing nothing but writing (and thinking about writing) for the past six months. As much as I stress about it, I was remarking with a couple other kids in the program as we walked back from an amazing dinner at Atomic Burger (a burger place that makes the most outrageous themed burgers and holds to an unrepentantly Sci-Fi theme - I would have taken pictures, but I inhaled my food too rapidly for it to be documented on film) that I'm really going to miss the tutorial process.

But anyway, that's not quite on the topic I had in mind. I wanted to write about something that I've been thinking about since my trip to Ireland last weekend (which was pretty awesome, by the way: a more complete report and tons and tons of photos can be found over on my horsey blog, accessible here). It's the idea of community, and of trust in others.

(A photo that didn't make the other writeup: Ha'Penny Bridge all lit up on my one and only night in Dublin - sigh... I would have loved to have seen more of it!)
That is, that there are far more extremely good-hearted people out in the world than I want to give credit for. As a child, I was totally haunted by the idea of being kidnapped, and so took the "never talk to strangers" motto deeply to heart, even though the one time I broke that cardinal childhood rule (when I got lost at Fenway Park as a four year old and asked the first random stranger I could find for help) it was probably, paradoxically, the smartest thing I could have done to keep from getting abducted because it meant that I got put in official care that much faster. As I grew older, my mistrust of strangers got greater and greater, and I remember being absolutely paranoid on my first trip to Europe by myself: I would make sure all my activities terminated before dark so I could hole up in my room and not have to deal with encountering possible murderers in darkened Austrian and Belgian alleyways. There was one night I remember where I was trying to find a public phone in Bruges to call home from, and it was about 9:30 in December and I found myself in a dark street with a group of men; I absolutely panicked and didn't walk but ran back to my hotel, all thoughts of phone calls forgotten, all because of mere proximity to a group of uncertain-looking strangers. While I obviously survived the trip (I am here writing this account, after all), it certainly took a bit of joie de vivre out of the experience.

(Dublin looking very emo the afternoon I arrived)

Though I've tried to get better about it, I'm still just not a very trusting person with people I don't know. It's partially my shyness and partially my independence, but it still puts my stomach in knots to even talk to the bus driver (I much prefer the bland anonymity of the train, with its automatic tellers and ticket scanners). And yet, when I do force myself to take a step out of my well-entrenched comfort zone, my experience is almost always better for it.

(Traveling alone = an inherent amount of StrangerDanger that has to be overcome! But it's soo worth it)

On Friday night in Ratoath, the little town I was spending the weekend in, I arrived exhausted after a long and stressful day of travel. I still faced a 40 minute walk with my 15 kilo backpack along a twisty, shoulderless road. Now, I was definitely prepared to do this (I did it coming back, after all!), but when a man offered to give me a ride fairly sketchily and out of the blue, I decided I was tired enough to swallow my pride (and my fear) and take it. Not only was my trip ten times shorter and easier as a result (and I wasn't raped and killed), but I also thoroughly enjoyed the conversation I had along the way.

It reminded me of last summer in Greece, where I had to make the biggest leap of faith I've ever had to make in a stranger in my entire life. I successfully overcame my extremely vivid visions of being abducted into the Thessalian mountains and brutally murdered, and accepted the offer of a moped ride with a humorously corpulent man up the side of a mountain to go visit the monasteries I'd come to see. The ride that resulted has ended up being one of my favorite travel memories of all time, speeding up and down barrier-less roads that traversed the face of a cliff with unbelievable (if at times death-defying) views of the plain far far below, all while dodging goats and sheepdogs along the way. And it never would have happened without a little (or in my case, a HUGE) vote of trust in my fellow man.

(I still can't believe the only picture I took was of the ONE section of road that had a safety barrier on it)

(The awesome Meteora cliffs that I got to moped up)

(My driver and our sweet ride)

I was just generally overwhelmed with the good karma passed my way on this trip. Besides the man who gave me a lift, another gentleman helped me set up my tent when the wind was making it a total pain, everyone I spoke to was friendly and kind, and people I ran into on Saturday morning remembered me and wished me well as I left on Sunday afternoon. It was a reminder that, if I can make myself do it, the larger community of the world is a generally good and exciting place to be (if still explored intelligently, without making wildly rash decisions that land you riding around in a stranger's panel van at 3 in the morning...).

It was also a serious reminder of how lucky I am, and how I need to pay this good karma forward. I was also reminded of this fact very painfully today by the news that a farm I've been to before (and where I got Ringo from) lost six horses last night in a horrific barn fire. One of the working students led the effort to heroically save five other horses, at the expense of burns to her hands and feet, but was unable to save her own horse in the blaze. I can't imagine a more painful and moving example of selflessness. I could only hope that I could act a fraction as bravely in a similar situation. It's a very sobering reminder to be thankful, enjoy my blessings while I have them, and continue on the road to becoming the best person I can be.

(It makes my unhappy thoughts towards Ryanair seem even more petty... though that does not mean that I'll be flying them again any time soon if I can help it!)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Racing to the Finish

It's totally incomprehensible to believe, but in just three weeks my time at Oxford will be at a close. Where did the time go?? I've just got six papers left to write (after today, five!) and a whole lot of saying goodbye to do. I wouldn't call Oxford my ideal aesthetic--I'm not much a city person, even though my urban-dwelling tutor last quarter laughed out loud to even hear me describe Oxford as such! If I spend more time walking on pavement than grass or gravel, then it's too settled for me. Despite that, I've definitely come to think of it as home. I was up by the Ashmolean studying last night and decided to be adventurous and try a new place for dinner. As I wandered the meandering, stone-flagged streets flanked by their quintessential English houses under a fine blue sky, I couldn't help but feel very fond of the place.

That being said, I'm also bursting with excitement over my travel plans over the next few weeks. I didn't get to do much traveling at all last term, so I really made an effort to pack in some travel time this quarter. Three major horse shows, six countries (including 4 that will be all new for me), and a half marathon will all be crammed into the next four and a half weeks. Here's the itinerary (minus Ireland, which I'll be heading to this weekend separately from the rest):

(A: Oxford; B: Salzhausen, Germany (Luhumuhlen CCI****); C: Helsinki, Finland; D: Talinn, Estonia; F: Helsinki; G: Vyborg, Russia (via Lappeenranta, Finland); H: Lappeenranta, Finland; I: Helsinki; J: Tromsø, Norway (Midnight Sun Marathon))

So excited!! And the best part is that I'll get to see my parents!! Ma is coming for my 22nd birthday in Oxford (get ready to pop some champagne!) and then I'll be meeting Pa in Germany for our madcap tour of northern Europe. Too. Much. Fun. Now to just finish up this work in the meantime!!

Monday, May 23, 2011


I woke up this morning, bleary-eyed after not being able to get to bed until 4am for no particular reason (damn you cycling insomnia), and had that weird feeling that I sometimes get that I had to listen to a particular song right that second. The song in question was "Your Long Journey," A Robert Plant/Alison Krauss classic that had been a favorite of last fall. I had to go back digging through an older playlist to find it, and on the way, I stumbled across a song that I hadn't thought about, except in passing, in a very long time: "Farmhouse," by Phish.

Now, I'm not much of a Phish fan. I'm not super hippyish, as anyone who has heard me describe my time living in "Synergy," the naked vegetarian pagan coop that I lived in Sophomore year, can attest to. But for some reason, I got totally addicted to this song in the few weeks leading up to my high school graduation from Middlesex. I couldn't describe why; it seemed to embody a sort of vision of living that I wanted, that was different from the stuffy prep-school world that I had, by that time, grown to hate. It seemed to speak of the promise of adventure that I was desperately looking forward to on my upcoming year off. That all sounds like pretty cheesy things to take away from a Phish song, but hey, I was 17 and fed up with Concord, and it struck a chord.

It was weird to listen to the song (which I really haven't paid much attention to since that summer) again this morning, and realize that that part of my life is now a solid four years in the past. Where did the time go? Middlesex seemed to take an eternity; the past four years have gone before I've even really been able to acknowledge their passing. My facebook is currently plastered with updates and photos of my high school classmates graduating from college. Already? I can still remember so many things from high school like they were yesterday, as reminded by my trip to Edinburgh a few weeks ago where I insisted on recreating a specific photograph from the 4th of July 2006 that's now since been lost on the lawn at Abbotsford.

Unfortunately, I didn't have the best high school experience, and the predominant memories I have are of the bitter endings. I wish it were different, as there were definite high points as well, but it isn't. I'd like to say that I've moved on, and for the most part I have; I don't 'care' anymore in the sense that I've come to terms with what happened and know that my life isn't any the worse for wear as a result of my time at Middlesex. Indeed, it's far better in many ways than I ever could have imagined as a chubby little 14 year old moving into Kravis for my first day of Freshman year all the way back in 2003. But I definitely still do 'care' in the sense that there are some people I've never forgiven, and some memories that still, when dredged up, manage to make me pretty sad. I had one of those moments a few days ago, where a friend did something (inadvertently) that reminded me very bitterly of the very worst of those bad memories. I was surprised at how fresh the wounds still felt, even after four years of distance.

But "Farmhouse" doesn't bring up bad memories. It reminds me of the hopes I had, not all of which have come to fruition in the intervening years, but which have led me to becoming a better and stronger person (I hope) today than I was four years ago. I've been thinking a lot about where I am now versus then over these past few months, partially because I find myself, in Oxford, in as close to a prep school environment as I think I could get without traveling back in time. I realized yesterday as I made my new header for this blog that it might seem incongruous that I would call my time here a time a discovery of the joys of being 'off the track of a perfectly rectangular world.' I mean, how much more rectangular can you get than Oxford?

I think about it this way. I knew from the start that my abroad experience would be a different one than most. I'd already spent the previously three and half years working very assiduously at 'going off the track,' and it was very true that I hadn't regretted it for a second: I'd kayaked around an uninhabited island in Alaska, gone to college on the opposite side of the country from all my friends and relatives, visited 41 states, traveled to 10 foreign countries with only my own thoughts as company, visited three new continents, taken time off to pursue non-academic dreams, lived on my own, and in general developed an unrepentantly independent lifestyle that I've grown to desperately love. I didn't particularly want the normal abroad experience, which would be a group-based version of what I'd already experienced on my own. Instead, I chose Oxford because I knew it would be a confrontation of my old life and my new one. I wanted to prove the validity of the quote that titles this blog: that I, in fact, have not regretted my persistent attempts at straying from the neat and ordered path that Middlesex laid out for me. More crucially, though, I wanted to find the 'off the track' life within this rectangular world that I missed the first go around. There are still three weeks left of term; only time will tell, but I'm feeling pretty good about what I've discovered so far.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Oxford, Hipstamatic-Style

So I downloaded Hipstamatic for my iPhone yesterday and am officially obsessed: I'm already a total addict when it comes to taking pictures of uuurrveryting I can with my iPhone (especially since I can't use it to do much else these days... silly international calling zones!), and I'm really digging how much sharper and more contrasty the images come out with Hipstamatic... even if the program does naturally swing to the 'über emo kid' extreme at times. I was supposed to do a ton of reading today but forgot that the main Bod, where I was forced to send my books because I'd already reached the reserve limits in my normal reading rooms in the Camera, is closed on Sundays. D'oh!

Instead, I took a nice walk around University Park, my favorite 'natural' place in Oxford, and then hit up the Social Science Library to see if there were any general WWII books there that I could use to at least get some work done even if I couldn't reach my real sources. So, here's quiet Sunday afternoon in Oxford, brought to you by Hipstamatic. Enjoy!

(Starting off at the Radcliffe Camera, with All Souls looking on broodingly (and almost certainly NOT approving of the haphazard manner by which that bike got chained up))

(Ridiculously stereotypical Oxford scene, complete with croquet)

(Why can't US post boxes look this quaint?)

(It wouldn't be a day in England without at least one little rain shower!)

(The view from the University Park bridge)

(Rustic stile on the way out of University Park)

(My best Robert Adams impression on the way to Edgeway Rd)

(Tsk tsk, bad stewardship! Keep those gates closed!)

(This building is labeled as a sports ground, but it looks a little shabby by Oxford standards... reminds me more of a New England barn than the land of the Oxford gentry)

(Stalking ponies on Edgeway road! This section is always the highlight of all my runs - there's a field that must have a half-dozen fat, sassy, and adorable ponies out grazing)

(It was getting stormy again as I headed back into University Park)

(But then, of course, got blazingly sunny again as I reached the river - this guy was a JV-league punter at best, and spent most of the time I was there spinning around in a circle)

(super dapply bike on the way to the Social Science library)

(The entrance to the Social Science Library... not the most 'classic' building in Oxford!)

(the SSL in action)

(Stopping for groceries on the way back to the Stanford House)

(What a beautiful day to be out on the river!)

(possible tragic multi-punt collision waiting to happen)

I'm off to get a little more work done, and then maybe hit the pool before it closes tonight. I'm getting excited for the coming few weeks!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tutorials on the Brain

Well, as I said in my last post, the main reason behind my extreme dearth of blogging of late has been the incredible workload I've been dealing with this term. I've been somewhat annoyed with myself because I've allowed myself to fall into old habits of getting very one-track mind about schoolwork and nothing else (ie - not stopping to enjoy the sunshine, the company of my friends, or life outside the library), but it's hard to do otherwise when faced with this much! I'm a slow reader, and the amount required for two tutorials a week has had me scrambling from flag fall. I admit I'm getting a bit of an ulcer thinking about the next two weeks, where I will be traveling both weekends, but I'm SO EXCITED about the actual travel that I'm trying to not let it get me too down. But those are topics for a later post...

Anyway, so what am I even studying this quarter? I realize, after giving almost blow by blow accounts of my papers last quarter, I haven't even fully articulated my subjects for Hilary Term. I decided to continue in my art history trend (for fairly obvious reasons), just moving back a few decades from my Trinity tutorial to the Post-Impressionist era. I have a new tutor who really pushes me to chew on the readings she gives, analyze the quotes, and come up with some real analysis. She's considerably tougher on a lot of the ideas I come up with than my previous art history tutor was, but mercifully enjoys my writing style much more. In fact, she likes it quite a bit, and has commented each week that it's clear that I've put a good deal of work into my structuring and drafting. Thank you, Trinity Term! I'm still getting the same not-quite-what-I'd-like grades, but I've come to terms with letting it go. I'm getting better critiques than I've gotten on papers at Stanford for years (where the standard of late has been "well done" - good for plumping an ego but not for actually getting better!) and feel like I'm actually thinking about the topics more deeply and clearly than I ever have back home. Since this is the period where I hope to focus my Honors Thesis two years from now (granted that my grades from Oxford don't ruin my already borderline GPA and keep me from being able to apply!!), I'm feeling really good about the course as a whole. At the very least, I'll have a substantial bibliography to start working with when it comes time to start writing back at Stanny!

For my second tutorial, I decided on a whim last term to continue on with the study of World War II that I'd started in Professor Tyack's class. I've always loved WWII (my favorite movie, after all, is Patton) but had never really studied it outside a brief gloss in my junior year US History class. What I learned over Trinity fascinated me, and I desperately wanted to learn more. Though the reading for this class is out of control (on average six or seven full books--or at least, as close to full as I can bear--a week), it's a great change from the art-art-art track I've been on of late, which I've found seriously refreshing.

The style of the tutorial is also different, in that we haven't directly discussed my paper once yet this term. My tutor will have my paper in front of her, but will merely use it as a jumping off point for further questioning and discussion. It's like a quiz and an interview all at once, and I've had to learn to come to class with my notes in the front of my mind. Fortunately, I find it far easier to show off my knowledge in that format than in essays (must be from the years of competing at the national/international level of Know-Down, a sort of Pony Club-sponsored horse quiz bowl competition... and you think I'm joking), and I've ended up enjoying our tutorials quite a bit. It's much more fun to find yourself in an engaging conversation than trudging through an essay, line by line, picking apart the vast multitude of things that are wrong with it (though I know that the latter is necessary for improving).

Another girl in the program asked me a few days ago how long it took me to write an essay. It caused me a bit of pause, because I'd never actually considered it before. Quite a long time! And such a massive change from at Stanford where, I'm not happy to admit, most papers are conceptualized, researched, outlined, and written all in the few hours leading up to the due date. That has mostly to do with the fact that very few Stanford essays require (or even encourage) outside research, but also with the fact that, until coming to Oxford, I did NOT take the planning or revising stages of my essays seriously at all. I would make outlines, sure, but they were always just big lists of quotes or cut and pasted class notes pulled under various headlines with no elaboration whatsoever. Every transition, introduction, conclusion, and original idea was thought up on the fly and handed in without revision. I even handed in papers with spelling and grammatical errors! The idea now makes me ashamed, and seriously makes me wonder why I ever thought I was somehow entitled to excellent grades.

The paper writing process now goes something like this:

1. Reading

My art history tutorial has been merciful this year in that the readings have been fairly light and I can usually get them done in one day (unlike last term, where I would fret for hours and hours over a single, long-winded article). The history tutorial, as I've already mentioned, is a killer, but I'm getting better about doing "Grad school absorption" and being able to pull out the historiography, argument, and pertinent facts from a book without having to read it all. I'm still a slow reader out of hand, but I'm getting better.

2. Culling Notes

(This was by far the lightest stack of notes I've had for a paper yet - also, please overlook the wrinkled sheets!)

After an early week of intensive reading, I usually have between 10 and 40 pages of typed notes from my various sources for each paper - these are just quotes or summaries, with only the smallest amount of my input included. So, I print everything out and go through it by hand, selecting out what fits best with the question in mind and adding a first round of ideas to each.

3. Combining the Notes - Making an Outline

From there, it's a fairly mechanical process of transferring the things I liked from the raw notes into a rough outline. At this stage, I have to decide the general form of the essay so I can drop the quotes/thoughts/etc into the right zones. If I'm thinking super clearly, I can try to order them within the blocks to reflect the shape of my argument, but I don't worry about that too much as the next step sorts that out.

4. Expanding the Outline

This is the step that was most foreign to me before coming to Oxford. I've done all of steps 1-3 before, though certainly not on every paper I write at Stanford. Normally at the end of the third step I just begin to write, coming up with further elaborations and fixing the order of my argument as I go. After getting my structure destroyed several weeks in a row when I first got to Oxford, I decided I needed a new way. Now every rough outline gets printed out, and then I spend between two and three hours expanding it by hand. I try to focus on the order of the quotes/facts within each larger segment, and usually will write out the introductions, conclusions, and major transitions in full at this point. Since I can have a tendency to get too verbose, forcing myself to write by hand is a good way to make sure I don't get too crazy in those important structural moments.

5. Writing!

Depending on how complete I end up making the outline, the actual writing ends up going very quickly. I like this style because it means that by the time I start typing (at which point I'm usually exhausted or running up against a deadline or both) I don't have quite as much heavy lifting to do mentally. I still have to flesh some things out and edit what I've outlined as I go alone, but for the most part the groundwork is already there. If I've written fairly completely in the outline, then the typing process serves the second advantage of being a good chance to revise.

6. Last Edit and Read Aloud

At last! By this point, I'm usually pretty sick of the paper and can barely stand to look at it any more. I print it out and read it aloud to myself one last time, going through and making any last minute changes that pop out at me. Then, at long last, it's time to submit. Phew!

The Final Product

(the finished result! Thirteen pages of glory, finally with someone else's handwriting on it =D)

Definitely nothing to scoff at, work-wise. Weeks like this past one, where I've had four to complete over a seven day period, have absolutely knocked the stuffing out of me. I'm very thankful for the experience, but also admit that I did a fair bit of mental celebration when I realized this morning that I was half way finished for the term! Just seven more papers (of 14 total) to write, and I'll be free =)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Edinburgh Bing Trip

Ooh I've been such a naughty blogger this term! I've been simply buried with work for my classes of late, and so the prospect of sitting down and writing even more hasn't been at the top of my list of leisure activities. I've also been feeling seriously worn down, both physically and mentally, by a nagging foot injury that's been threatening to scotch my marathon preparations for a couple weeks now. But, armed with a good thirteen hours of sleep last night, I'm feeling a bit better this morning and have plenty to catch up on!

Last weekend was our quarterly Bing trip. If you remember last term's trip to Canterbury and Dover, it was... a bit miserable: cold, wet, exhausting, and involving some crazy bigoted tour guides and less-than-thrilling destinations. I mean, when the most exciting part of a trip is almost getting blown off the top of a tower by 40 mph sustained winds, it probably hasn't been a real barn burner of a weekend. So, even though I was quite excited when I learned that we were going to Edinburgh this time around, I still had some serious reservations.

But man, it turned out to be an awesome weekend! We arrived, after a painfully early flight/airport experience (though we had inexplicably nice leather seats and got a free hot breakfast... so few complaints), to blazing sunshine and warm temperatures. Already a big improvement over the winter Bing trip! We stopped first as Rosslyn Chapel, which is famous these days for being the site of the final scene of The DaVinci Code (which we watched as a prep earlier in the week... what a horrible movie!!). It was very beautiful and is jam-packed with Templar knights symbols and stuff, so many in fact that it was hard to believe that Dan Brown didn't actually build the thing himself a few decades ago.

(We weren't allowed to take photos inside, so this was all I got of Rosslyn Chapel)

After Rosslyn, we headed up to Edinburgh. I admit that I didn't have much of a conception of what Edinburgh looked like, and so I was very happily surprised to find that it was a stunningly beautiful city, with winding streets flanked by stone buildings all overlooked by the massive bulk of Edinburgh Castle up on top of the hill.

(Edinburgh Castle looking imposing)

We dropped off our bags at our very bland American-style hotel and then headed off on a walking tour of the city. Our tour guide was NOT a crazy bigot who decided that Stanford was a school for special needs children, and so it was automatically a big improvement over our tour of Canterbury Cathedral in February. The big take away from the tour was that Edinburgh is very hilly! We must have trekked up and down and across the Royal Mile about four times over two hours. Especially with my messed up foot, I was feeling it by the end of the tour.

I passed out in my hotel room when we got back and ended up oversleeping dinner - whoops! I did end up waking up and hustling downstairs, though I almost wish that I hadn't as the meal was by far the low point of the entire weekend. The food was barely edible and the room we were eating in was so echoey and loud that I couldn't hear a word of the conversation around me. I stayed through just long enough to not be rude, and then went straight up to bed and crashed out.

We started Saturday morning with a tour of Scottish Parliament, which I wasn't super excited for but ended up being incredibly impressed with. Edinburgh is just such a beautiful natural city; the parliament was full of big windows, and from each one there was a stunning view of Arthur's Seat washed in glorious spring sunshine. I had to keep reminding myself that this is hardly the normal weather for this area, otherwise I'd be seriously putting Scotland high on my 'dream farm location' list! It's hard to describe, but there's something so fresh and green about the countryside up there; it reminded me of the things I love most about Vermont. Oxford is definitely green as well, but without the startling intensity of the Scottish landscape.

After Parliament, Cole, Chelsea and I went to the Scottish Whisky Experience, which involved going on a ride through the whisky-making experience in an oversized whisky barrel, getting a scratch-n-sniff tour of the different whisky-producing regions of Scotland, and then having a tasting in an Alice in Wonderland-esque room with thousands of vintage bottles on display. Needless to say, given my like of whisky, it was AWESOME. I definitely splurged and brought some little 100 ml samples home!

(So much whisky!)

(Pondering my free sample)

Next up we had a Ghosts and Ghouls tour, which was supposed to highlight the seedier side of Edinburgh's past. I ended up being more afraid of our tour guide, who seemed wayyyy too into some of the descriptions of medieval torture, than anything else, but it was still seriously amusing. Afterwards we got dinner in a highly questionable pub and then went out to Biddy Mulligans, the awkwardly Irish themed pub in the touristy Grassmarket. I was still incredibly tired, and so turned in significantly earlier than most, but had a good time while I was out (even despite one 'situation' where a drunk old man grabbed me from behind, causing me to LEAP up and shout "JESUS CHRIST" loud enough for half the folks outside to hear... classic).

(Our tour guide down in the tunnels)

(A dubious point of pride)

(Edinburgh Castle looking equally beautiful at night on the way home on Saturday night)

Sunday morning dawned grey and misty for the first time over the weekend (again, I have to remind myself that this is what it's normally like because it was so gloriously wonderful otherwise!) as we headed off to the Modern Art Museum of Edinburgh. It was a cool museum, set on the grounds of a beautiful private home, and had a good collection. I got miserably separated from the group while enjoying the Jeff Koons special exhibit, and they ended up leaving without me while I played on the massive Landform sculpture outside - whoops! I had to book it back to make it onto the bus on time, but mercifully made it.

(Gettin all emo with the Jeff Koons exhibit)

(Playing on the Landform)

By this point, I was feeling pretty ready to head home. I'd had a wonderful trip, but had a paper hanging over my head and was looking forward to getting back to my own bed in Oxford. We had one more stop of the trip, Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford House, and I was NOT looking forward to it at all. We went on a two hour trip through UNBELIEVABLY GORGEOUS countryside - again, rugged and green like the best of Vermont - but when we arrived I was still grumbling.

Well, as soon as we rounded the corner that brought the house into view, I shut up quickly! Abbotsford was unbelievably beautiful, like a little castle set in an improbably lush river valley. We got a tour of the house with probably my favorite tour guide of any trip I've taken in Britain so far (who made sure to point out such highlights as the portrait of Sir Walter Scott's grandfather "Beardy" and the cabbage moldings of the dining room ceiling).

We had a lot of fun afterwards playing on the massive grounds. I've missed being out in more natural settings so much, and so it was a great end to the weekend.

(Chillin on the Abbotsford lawn)

(Beeeauutiful grounds)

After that, it was a mad dash back to the airport, Oxford, and real life again (as much as living abroad in England could be labeled "Real Life!"). I've got more to write about over the next few days, but should probably get to work for the time being.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Most Epic of Weeks, Part III: CS Lewis, White Horses, and FIRE

Phew, (my recount of) last weekend's madness is finally at an end. I know I don't usually go as into detail on specific details on this blog (maybe I should?), but man, there were enough ridiculous elements to this past weekend that I want to remember for as long as possible that I thought they deserved immortalizing on teh interwebz. As people who know me well know all too well at times, it takes some major wheedling to get me to go out, let alone literally party the night away. I very often have a good time (except maybe when getting clocked in the face with plastic tumblers... thanks Bullingdons), so perhaps I should keep in mind how much I enjoyed myself this past weekend the next time my friends are trying to pry me out of my room.

Anyway, Clare and I slept until noonish on Sunday (this still being less than six hours of sleep, I didn't feel too bad about it), woke up, and headed over to the Eagle and Child on the north side of town. The Eagle and Child is famous for being the pub where CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien would hang out every evening, hashing out the finer points of religion and philosophy. Even the sign is pretty awesome. If you've ever read/watched The Lord of the Rings, have you noticed how, whenever they get to a moment in the plot that doesn't appear to have any possible solution (even in this fantasy universe) -- boom! -- a giant eagle swoops out of the sky and plucks the characters out of danger. Well, check out the sign:

(Oh look... a giant eagle carrying off a human...)

Coincidence? I think not. I visited The Kilns (CS Lewis' house) last term and saw the original sign from their era, and it was much the same. It's cool to think of JRR Tolkien getting inspired by things that are right around me.

Anyway, we shared a quick pint with CS himself (well, his picture, but close enough!) and then headed over to University Park to enjoy the sun for a little while. Besides Friday, which (of course, being the Royal Wedding and so the day that footage of England was being beamed to every single corner of the globe) was grey and gross, we've had unbelievable weather since coming back to Oxford, and despite it being weirdly windy and me almost losing my panama hat on SEVERAL occasions, it was pretty fabulous. I certainly felt spoiled, after an entire term where I didn't go outside without a coat on!

(Chillin wit the man himself)

Afterwards, we wandered back to the house for a quiet afternoon of online TV poaching before heading back out again to give Clare a taste of a true British classic: Bangers and Mash. I've already talked about my surprising love for the stuff they turn out at The Big Bang up in Jericho, and so that was where we headed. I'm not sure Clare was behind it as I was, but I ended up polishing off both our plates and had an immoderately good meal. When you're used to French cuisine, I suppose, sausages, potatoes, and peas doused in gravy must seem pretty low on the list of dream-cuisine, but for someone like me who's tastebuds have been starved by the British lifestyle they're PURE GOLD: some of the only food to be had that's actually worth the mega calories that lurk within.

(Weirdly sof-glo and maybe unappealing picture of my bangers and mash; I swear to God, they were delicious)

One of the better things about The Big Bang is that it's also directly across the street from arguably the best place to get cocktails in all of Oxford. It's also pretty pricey meaning that I'd only gone once before, so I looking forward to getting another look at the impressive 15-page drinks menu.

(Clare works her way through the epic menu)

Clare, being the daredevil that she is, immediately identified the drink that involved fire in its mixing process and ordered it. I went with something involving bourbon, soda water, and strawberry jam all mixed together and served in a jam jar, which appealed to everything I love about Red Neck America and miss so very much. Needless to say, we were both very pleased with our selections.

(Clare and the "Blazer")

(Me and the "Jam Jar Hand Shandy")

We headed back to the house after that with the very admirable intentions of doing work, but who were we kidding? We ended up watching Law and Order SVU and Real World all night. And, like the fact that Clare's very small but FIERCELY blazing cocktail cost £6, it was worth it.

The next day passed in a blur of fatigue from the weekend, a bleary-eyed 9:30 tutorial, and getting Clare packed up to go home. We had one last lunch at the White Horse (which I will always think of fondly because it was also the site of my very first lunch in Oxford with Mom this past January!), where Clare enjoyed a pint of White Horse, and then it was time for her to go and time for me to get seriously back to work. Booooo. Oh well; as they say, all goods things must come to an end.

(A White Horse at the White Horse: perfect)

Today I'm off to play some polo (!!) and get my paper going for its noon tomorrow due date. Until then, Auf Moon, bitches.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Most Epic of Weeks, Part II: Auf Moon!

So after the Royal Wedding/epic JW encounters of Friday night, Clare and I had a 'go-get-um' Saturday morning that involved getting up early (well, at 9:30) and heading straight over to the library to do work. I may have managed to complete my first Art History paper on Friday morning, but still had a World War II paper looming on Monday night whose reading I had neither finished... nor started.

We managed to sneak Clare into the Social Science Library (even though she did almost get stuck in turnstile trying to walk in right after me - whoops! - good thing the librarians behind the circulation desk appeared to all be on the same quaaludes and took not the slightest notice), sat ourselves down in some comfy chairs, and got to work. I have to give myself some props: my Oxford training has started to pay off, and I was able to get through four books in four hours without a single get-up-and-fidget break (which are normally an absolute staple). There were still an unbelievable number of Oxford students who were studying when I got there and still studying when I left, without looking like as much as a pee break was in their near future, but I'll take improvement where I can get it.

Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves with a Pimms picnic out in the back garden at the Stanford House, made slightly less awesome by the fact that the real Pimms was totally sold out (I'm guessing, based on the BEAUTIFUL weather we've had, that we weren't the first people with this ingenious idea) and so we had to get the significantly less awesome premixed Pimms that comes in the cans. Oh well. It was still sunny and warm and wonderful!

We came back to the room after that and I became a shitty host by getting totally wrapped up in Rolex cross country live streaming (Rolex being the American version of Badminton, which was going on this past weekend). Clare was a good sport, god bless her, and obligingly watched along. Doing this blew my opportunity for a nap, which I had been banking on because the night ahead--between the Exeter Ball and May Morning, which is a starting at 3am Oxford partying tradition--was promising to be a truly epic one. At around 7 I got into my dress, said goodbye to Clare (because again, I'm a shitty host and couldn't manage to get her a ticket), and headed off with three other girls from Corpus to the Exeter Spring Ball.

(How Clare spent Exeter Ball - Nun Blanket in full force)

(The Stanford girls at Exeter)

And it was pretty epic. They had bumper cars, open catering and an open bar, a big dance floor out back, and lots of places to wander. Playing bumper cars with a bunch of college kids in tuxedos and ball gowns has got to go up there as one of the weirdest and best things I've ever done. We had a great time, dancing on stage with the band and avoiding the awkwardly overt flirting of drunk Oxonians (my personal favorite: a kid walks up to me, bow-tie already undone and looking pretty ragged, looks me up and down, and says, "You're pretty hot." Thanks, man.).

(Alex and Ashley work the bumper cars)

(eeeee so fun!)

(Bull-riding a tiger, nbd)

We did have a few getting separated and completely unable to find one another again "situations" (made worse by the fact that no one seemed to be able to get cell service), and I did have a small belligerent Amuhhrican moment when I got tripped by people stepping on the train of my gown like fifteen times in a 6-minute period and finally snapped and RAINED OBSCENITIES down on the next person who did it to me, who happened to be a (very handsome) guy I'd met through polo the term before. Whoops. Embarrassing American Redneck tendencies coming out at the worst possible moment!

(Erickson dance moves: out in force)

(The Exeter dance floor)

(Royal Wedding strikes again!)

(Dancing on stage)

Besides these few setbacks it was a great night, and 3am closing time rolled around in what seemed like the blink of an eye. We went back to the Stanford house, picked up Clare (who was up and waiting for us), and headed back out to Babylove, which was one of the few bars in Oxford doing all-night pre-May Morning celebrations. We had a great time rocking out to Grease remixes and a seemingly endless 90s playlist, and even got the DJ to play "We R Who We R" as the sun rose. In other words, it was a pretty awesome night.

(Gettin down to "We R Who We R")

(Babylove 5:30am craziness)

(And then it was morning??)

It was still no rest for the wicked, as we headed straight off from Babylove to Magdalen Bridge to listen to the May Morning madrigals. Every first of May at 6am, a choir climbs to the top of Magdalen Tower and sings the Hymnus Eucharisticus. There was free coffee and tea being handed out by people on the streets, it was a beautiful morning, and I felt so happy to get to be there.

(The singers on Magdalen Tower)

(Free coffee and tea FTW!)

Afterwards there was some Morris dancing, which is traditional British dancing involving waving handkerchiefs and clacking sticks together as far as I could tell. It was pretty amusing, but the fact that I'd been awake continuously for the past 21 hours (and dancing continuously for the past 10!) was finally catching up to me. We got back to the Stanford house and I fell asleep while still sitting up in bed checking my email one last time (classic).

(There was also this guy.)

Next up, the epic weekend continues with chillin with CS Lewis, British food at its best, and flaming cocktails!