Tonight, Tonight

August 4, 2007

Tonight was our farewell convocation and banquet. Awards were presented, toasts made, talents displayed, and general warm-fuzziness was had. It was very bittersweet. I don’t think I felt very sad until today, at least I didn’t really think about leaving and the end of the program.

I feel very, very sad. Sadder than I really know why, actually. I just don’t like the finality of it all- the sense that “This is it, old chaps”. Oh, I am not at ease with this parting at all. I can’t wait to get home to my bed and hug my mom and see my house. But I cannot imagine not returning here, to Univ and to Oxford- to England. That is the real sadness I think: that what is truly wonderful cannot be repeated, at least not in the same manner that it was.


Last Day in Oxford

August 3, 2007

So, I got out of my first exam this morning an hour and a half early and decided to run and try to sell some of my books back at Blackwell’s, the awesome 150-year-old bookstore on Broad Street. They only took back two of my books, for only 5L! I gave the rest to Oxfam on my way back to Univ. Then I stepped into the covered market to get a milkshake at Moomoo’s, this great smoothie place with over 200 combinations. I bought a banana-Dime bar-peanut butter milkshake and walked back to school to study for my second final.

The weather was perfect- surely one of the best days since we have been here. As I was walking I passed an elderly couple walking very slowly in the opposite direction, down the sidewalk towards St. Mary’s Cathedral.  They stopped and turned their faces up to see the very top of the huge steeple, and tilted their heads all the way back. They had huge smiles on their faces and you could tell they thought the whole sight was just beautiful. And then the old man reached for his wife’s hand, and she took it without looking and they stood there looking at the beautiful and ancient church against the bright blue sky.

Spending and Studying

August 2, 2007

It’s Thursday, which means I only have one and a half days left here in Oxford. Tomorrow will be spent doing…well, a lot of stuff. We have our two final exams, each three hours long. We also have our convocation and “going-down” banquet, which I gather is a sort of mini graduation from the program. There is an hour for lunch in there somewhere, too. Unfortunately it looks like I will be using that hour to sell back my books at Blackwell’s. They only buy books back before 1pm.

I am really going to miss this place. Life seems to move more slowly here. And there are endless amounts of things to see in Oxford. You could shop all day if you wanted to- and I have never seen so many great sales in one place. You can read, sleep, or picnic on Christ Church Meadow on every sunny day. Or you can tour any of Oxford University’s 32 colleges, or one of the old churches around here. You an go punting on the river, rent a bike and ride a few miles into the English countryside, or climb to the top of the mot at Oxford Castle. And a short bus ride will take you to any number of great places: London, Blenheim Palace, Windsor Castle, the Cotswolds, Klemscot Manor.

I don’t know. I feel very unprepared for the busy semester ahead. On one hand I feel very motivated. I had a great chat with Prof. Bonnie Wheeler (affectionately known as “Bon-bon”) and she gave me some good insight into grad school and what kinds of classes I should be taking. She also reminded me that these four years of college (now just two!) are one of the only times in my life that I will be able to focus entirely on me. I should be expanding my mind, figuring out who I am and what I want, and all of that rather gown-up sounding stuff. Good point, though.

On the other hand, I will be working in the mornings before class for the first time and I will be the ARA for an all first-year hall. Among other things. And, let’s face it, I like to sit around and do nothing.

I have to study King Arthur and the 18th century for tomorrow, so I’m going to go get started. I finally finished all my souvenir and gift shopping and am hoping to escape without spending any more money at all. That would be so amazing! Budget-wise this whole trip (with it’s little side-trips) has been a great learning experience. I created a really cool Excel document to keep track of my spending. Before I even left I budgeted out how much I would spend on food, the Paris trip, the France, Belgium trip, and other stuff.

One of the things I am most proud of is my Paris budget. Christina and I did a lot of research and made a lot of phone calls to figure out how to get good deals on everything. We got a great, cheap hostel and did a lot of research to find good deals on the Eurostar. We finally settled on buying a package deal from an STATravel agent. We agreed to set a $500 budget for the whole weekend, including spending money- and my total for the weekend was $499.80. CRAZY!

Right now the coffers are getting kind of low, so I need to be careful. But fortunately (and I recommend this), I kept some U.S. money and didn’t exchange it. That way I know that I will have money for the trip home whether or not my bank account is empty (not that I am expecting that…). And if I don’t spend it I can just redeposit it. The plus side is that whatever is in my bank account stays there once I leave Oxford…I don’t have to make any more withdrawals. Which is nice since it gives the illusion of not spending any money. It would be great if I could amend my budget with a plus sign once I get home!

One other thing- did you know that you can’t exchange coins?? It makes me so angry, especially since there are no one or two pound bills or one or two Euro bills- only coins. Right now I have about 8 Euros in coins that I can’t exchange anywhere. So, word of advice: before you leave for the States convert as many of your coins into bills as you possibly can. Or spend them! Just don’t let them sit around making you feel all bitter.

Christina recently pointed out some strange things that she has learned about me from being around me so much this summer. “Oh goody!”, I thought. “I love being odd!”

So I guess I am particularly fond of graveyards, clean pillowcases, fresh cherries, squirrels, mushrooms for breakfast, clean feet, lint-free clothing (and hence, lint rollers), and exploring! Oh, and sheep.

The clean feet thing became really apparent in Paris, where our feet got really dirty from walking around the subway and streets all day. I started carrying around anti-bacterial wipes and constantly asking Christina “Do my feet look dirty to you?” Haha, she was so annoyed. It was a losing battle, though. I think the last straw was when I asked her what she thought about me washing my feet in this bidet-like thing in our bathroom that looked more like a low sink and was maybe broken. I didn’t though, don’t worry. But I was tempted to.

Every morning here at Univ they serve a “full English breakfast”, which consists of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, mushrooms, cooked tomatoes, baked beans, cereal, yogurt, coffee, and orange juice. The mushrooms seemed like the best source of protein in that bunch so I have them every morning and they are delicious.

Also, there are graveyards (more specifically, graves) everywhere here! There will be one or two gravestones stuck in a corner of a garden, or next to a random sidewalk. Of course, there are also graveyards next to every church and more besides. Cool! It is so interesting to read the inscriptions, especially with the old ones. In the oldest graveyards there are lots and lots of children, I suppose because the life expectancy was so low and medical knowledge was lacking. Most of the gravestones I’ve seen list the name, dates of birth and death, age of the person when they died, closest relatives- sometimes even how they died. Fantastic!

OK, those are just some thoughts for now. I just got back from tea at The Rose, a great little tea place right down High Street. Classic Cream Tea is two just-made hot scones with fresh clotted cream and strawberry jam and a pot of tea. I had Earl Grey…mmmm. The pots of tea have the leaves right in them, so the bright yellow tea cups come with little strainers to pour your tea through. It’s fun. There is no way you can have a bad afternoon once you’ve had Cream Tea.

Blenheim Battle Prom

July 29, 2007

I just returned from the Annual Blenheim Battle Prom. Battle Proms (short for “promenades”) are a tradition in England, and they happen at various famous sites throughout the year. SMU-in-Oxford goes to this particular prom every year. It is basically a huge patriotic concert and fireworks show with lots of cannons going off and flag-waving. Your basic July 4th celebration at any major park in the U.S. minus the dirtiness and the national holiday.

Overall, it was pretty great. As I said in a much earlier post, Blenheim Palace is one of my favorite places in the world. We visited it within the first week of arriving here and I was literally speechless- it is a beautiful, beautiful place. The property is seven acres, and the prom took place on what was essentially a very large field surrounded by forest and within view of the palace itself. Another giant field nearby was designated for parking. A huge stage with speakers were set up, and to the left there was a large area roped off with probably two dozens cannons set up, ready to fire. Between the parking lot and the prom area were just a few booths. One sold hamburgers, another ale, another Free Trade and handmade goods, and yet another sold prom supplies: rugs (blankets), lanterns, hats, lawn chairs, England and UK flags, and glow-in-the-dark lightsabers and such for the kids.

It was a very neat and tidy affair. Prom goers brought tables and chairs, portable gazebos and tents, and lanterns. The tables were covered in table clothes, and real wine glasses and cutlery we packed into real wicker picnic baskets. Of course, there was threat of rain, so everyone had umbrellas. When it did begin sprinkling, all the British picnickers calmly opened their umbrellas and continued sipping wine and eating their dinners. A funny contrast from the smelly, drunken, and rather un-classy crowds at your usual American patriotic public gathering. The tickets were expensive at 32L ($64), but our British PA, Jamie, insisted that the crowd was working class. “Not middle class at all!”, he exclaimed when I protested that a working class crowd at such an event in the U.S. would not normally bring decorative candles and table centerpieces to a picnic in a wet field.

It was so heart-warming to see this big crowd get so into the old and wonderful patriotic hymns that were performed by the full orchestra on stage. I absolutely love songs like “Jerusalem” and “Land of Hope and Glory”. Wonderful sound, too! They had the most amazing soprano performing, and all the Brits around us knew all the words to all the verses and sang along quite wholeheartedly. Lots of flag waving and swaying back and forth. It was so great! I love it when people are excited about their country and know the words.

Though there was food and ale at Blenheim, a lot of people brought their own liqueur. And by brought their own I mean the liqueur store down the street from Univ was out of plastic cups and cold beer by the time that we pulled out of Oxford. It was really quite ridiculous how much people brought with them. If there is one thing that has consistently bothered me during this trip it is the drinking. Without exaggeration, it is as if drinking is though of as an essential and integral part of the SMU-in-Oxford experience. Very annoying and low-minded, if you ask me. I felt like kind of a snob tonight because I wasn’t drinking and was getting very, very irritated with the silly behavior of my friends who were. Those who know me know that I have little patience as is, and that isn’t a good trait to have when surrounded by trying behavior.

Anyway, I just hate that judgmental, superior feeling that I get when I am in these situations. But I do feel somewhat justified. Man, I just wish that it wasn’t such an acceptable thing, to get drunk and act embarrassingly.

We left for Blenheim at 5pm, so before that I went on some fun little errands with Christina. We went to a few shops that we have been meaning to go to, including a wonderful, hidden little bookstore specializing in rare and antique theology books. Right up my alley! It was wonderful, but expensive. Being there reminded me that there is so much left in the world for me to read- a wonderful sort of realization.

Funny, in this short post I have mistyped probably a dozen words by spelling them the British way. Gah!

Why Monarchy is Good Thing, according to my Oxford tutor Leslie Mitchell, a Royalist and Tory and a historical genius.

1) Tradition and constancy. A monarchy represents something that has been around for 1,000 years. A republic can never have that, as any head-of-state it has will be relatively new. A monarchy is also imminent, meaning it has weathered storms and endured through even the biggest crises. For example, the threat of that “little man with a strange mustache” (Hitler) is actually very small compared to the historical weight and constancy of the English monarchy.

2) The monarchy doesn’t cost very much. Her Majesty the Queen is only the 50th richest person in the United Kingdom, and costs the taxpayer only 57p a year. The Prime Minister costs the taxpayer far more. Though the royal family’s wealth originally came from the fact that they owned and taxed all the land in England, now the “civil list” is voted on in Parliament every year. This list basically agrees that the nation will support the Queen, her husband Prince Philip, and (while she was alive) the Queen Mother. Prince Charles is supported by the proceeds of agricultural rents in the duchy of Cornwall (Wales), as per his position as the Prince of Wales. And, the monarchy actually brings in money because they are such a huge tourist attraction.

3) The Queen can never be corrupted, because she is too rich to be bribed or bullied. She has around 500 million pounds of personal wealth. So while a Prime Minister or elected official can be corrupt, at least the head-of-state can’t be.

4) The monarchy is the basis of the Commonwealth. There are 83 countries currently in the British Commonwealth, and the Queen is the head of the Commonwealth. Every four years, all 83 countries send representatives to a meeting to have an intellectual exchange. The Queen, of course, is a very experienced politician, having been in power for about 60 years. It is very useful to have a forum for international discussion, and so the Commonwealth is a positive thing.

5) Monarchy is one of the only uniting factors in the United Kingdom. Few things actually unite Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales, and the monarchy is one of them. Unity is a good thing.

One of the main objections to the monarchy is that it is the very pinnacle of a class system. If one is uncomfortable with the idea of a class system, especially a blatant class system with things such as titles and peerages, one is uncomfortable with the monarchy. Silly Americans, says Leslie Mitchell.

A phrase I used all day Saturday in Paris, when my three-day pass only worked after exactly four tries every single time. GAH! And yes, Mom, your French phrase book was great help.

I am writing from a internet cafe in SouthKensington, London and will be in France and Belgium for the next two days…more after that including the rest of the Paris trip!  

God’s Green Earth

July 13, 2007

Today we drove around Cotswold, and area of English country still pastoral, rolling farmland. The villages are small and very, very old. We stopped at an ancient church and graveyard, the home of William Morris (the founder of the arts and crafts movement), and, finally, White Horse Hill. The White Horse is a huge drawing of a white stallion made by digging the grass out of chalk hills in the Downs. It is only fully visible from the air. It is 3,000 years old. This country actually cares about history- every single historical thing is lovingly preserved. Oh, and the Downs are, in fact, very much up. I have never walked on an incline for so long in my life. Very steep, intensely beautiful.
White Horse Hill
I get frustrated when surrounded by so much beauty. There is a certain anger that comes with seeing great beauty, I think because you are looking at a piece of God and it is unreachable. You can stare at a painting, or sit in a landscape, or take photographs, or say to your neighbor “That is beautiful”, but what can you do but look at it? You cannot make it a part of you, or take it’s beauty for yourself. And do you become more beautiful for having experienced beauty? No, you can only think with your whole mind: that is beautiful. I think the purpose of my life is to be found here.

We drove by fields golden with sunlight, freshly rolled bales of hay throughout and blackbirds in the sun, eating the seeds left by the rolling of the hay. The field literally glows with the light of the sun. At White Horse Hill it was as if a giant took a spoon and scooped the earth right up and dumped the contents of his spoon right next to the hole. Have you ever seen rolling hills? They roll out from under your feet like a carpet of the brightest green you have ever seen. Have you seen flocks of lambs tucked into the spoon-holes of hills where men stood 3,000 years ago and said “God is here”? They eat the grass and sleep in the sun, unaware that the ground around them bleeds history.The roots of the trees here, that tangle the roadside ditches and wrap themselves around each other, drip with history. The brambles and bushes and hedges and thickets that just coat the landscape here cover stone walls and wells and lamp posts and gravestones and Roman roads. Every few feet there is a spot that is just frozen in time, preserved since ages and ages ago. In the next minute, the next few feet over, the world moves on.

There is such unparalleled, glorious, untouchable beauty and its is heart-breaking to look at it. Not just because it is beautiful but because it is old, sometimes ancient. It is quite literally part of Heaven on earth, and there is nothing you can do to be closer to it in your whole life. It is frustrating, not being able to accurately communicate the immensity of something through neither word nor picture. I just want to explain how amazing this place is, but I can’t because it is too beautiful to be expressed.

These things that I have seen have been here for as  long as men can remember and they will be there long after I pass on and the thought of them is too big for the mind. I wonder if I study history, if anyone studies history, because of the frustration of not being able to get any closer to those places and objects and stories of such beauty and glory and age. There is a danger of losing yourself in the great intensity of the past. Tempting, though, when it presents you with such captivating and bittersweet experiences.

Ahmed’s Kabob Stand

July 9, 2007

Ahmed is a Moroccan guy who parks his food truck right outside the Univ main gate every night around 8pm. There is usually another, younger guy with him- I think his son. He stays around until 3 or 4 in the morning. This seems a little silly, but everything here in Oxford closes around 7pm at the very, very latest unless it is a pub or club of some kind. Even the pubs close around 11pm.

Ahmed is really nice and serves good food. He must have over 100 menu choices. He serves all kinds of burgers, hot sandwiches, chicken nuggets, chips (french fries), kabobs, hummus, falafel, and chili cheese fries. Ahmed'sHe cooks everything on the grill in his van, and even makes his own chickpea hummus, which, he says, is way better than that silly garbanzo bean hummus some people try to pass off as authentic. He may or may not be referring to the one or two other kabob trucks that park further up High Street, but I wouldn’t know since we are all loyal to Ahmed and would never dream of consuming a kabob from anywhere else.

Around 3 in the morning you can hear all the drunks lining up to buy late night meals. Rumor has it that Ahmed owns several restaurants around Oxford but likes running the kabob stand the best. It seems like he has a lot of fun. Earlier this summer he kept asking Jamie, our Oxfordian PA, when the SMU kids would be arriving.

He likes me because I have an Arabic name, and gives me free chips when I order falafel, which is what I always get. Very cool. Even the SMU professors here are fond of Ahmed and say things like “He’s our man”.

The Way This Works

July 9, 2007

As my mom will attest I spent a large part of the five weeks before arriving here bumming around in bed, in front of the TV, or in front of the computer watching endless episodes of high quality pirated television shows. My boredom made me irritable and, since I could not imagine that anything would ever be fun again, nervous about coming to Oxford. I should have saved myself the worry.

After spending a week here, I am really surprised at how well-run and well-established the program is. SMU-in-Oxford is twenty-something years old. The same professors have been running it the whole time, which means that they have all sorts of great “connegshuns”. Everything is thought of way ahead of time.

Monday through Thursday I wake up around 6:30 and get ready for the day. This includes packing a raincoat and umbrella even on the clearest of mornings. It had rained almost everyday here, though when it isn’t raining it is beautiful, crisp, and cool outside. What you wear is important because classes are indoors and there is no air conditioning anywhere in the college (and in the majority of stores and restaurants in Oxford). Layers are key.

Coffee is key, too, and it is served at both dinner and breakfast. There are many, many coffee shops in Oxford, with varying degrees of goodness. The coffee here is super strong- every drink is made with 2 shots of espresso no matter what. Oxford also has the oldest coffee shop in the world, Queen’s Lane Coffee. I went there yesterday for tea. I had “Cream Tea” which is basically the house tea with two intensely delicious and warm scones, butter, and jam. Oh man. Talk about melt in your mouth.

At 8:45, we all get up from breakfast in the Harry-Potter like dining hall (picture to come soon) and wander off in an attempt to find our classrooms. There are no straight hallways at Univ and all the separate “buildings” are connected by multiple doors and staircases. To get to my first class from the main quad I have to walk up no less than three flights of stairs and open six doors.

At 10, we all go to the common room for afternoon tea, an Oxford tradition. Everyone gathers around for thirty minutes or so and drinks more coffee or tea and eats lots of great “biscuits”. Avoid the “digestive biscuits”- I am not convinced they have any digestive value and they taste just like you’d expect something with such an appetizing name to taste. After tea we return to our first class. These classes are taught by SMU professors who came with us. They are super involved and committed.

Our Oxford tutorial is next. Mondays everyone in the class meets together in a 300 year old room and we can ask our tutor anything about England that we like. Everyone competes to think of the most intelligent question. Sometime I win. On Tuesdays, my small class meets. This is where a group of five students meets with the tutor to read their papers out loud and discuss the topic if the week. So we only have tutorial twice a week. But believe me, there is enough reading to last the whole week in between!

After tutorial time, lunch, again served in the Great Hall. Then we usually have the day to do with as we like. Some days we have something called “OxfordCORE”. This is one the day before we take a program trip. This past Friday we went to London, so on Thursday afternoon our professors each lectured about the sights we would be seeing. This is super valuable, and a very good idea. You never know what kind of tour guide you’ll get and most people don’t read all the plaques anyway. Plus our professors are geniuses and really know quite a lot.

Dinner is served on weekday nights, and afterwards once again we have the night to ourselves. For me this usually means checking email and reading, which I still am not on track with. Bedtime is usually around midnight. I am still constantly tired, but thankfully I usually don’t realize this until I am laying down. I take naps when I can…the walking, learning, and reading can really get to you!

The days are full and busy, but I wouldn’t want anything else- I have to see as much of this great place as I can!