Monthly Archives: February 2015

22/02/15 – Salagadoolamagicaboolabibidibobidiboo: Magic Spells and Transformations

Wow. So all of that introspective, you-will-see-yourself-in-a-new-way-and-learn-so-much-about-yourself-while-abroad stuff that they talk about? Apparently it’s the real deal.

On Friday night, my friend and I decided that we felt kind of cooped up in Oxford and we needed to get out, so we planned a trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the home of the one and only Willy Shakes. It was pretty amazing, not just for the location but also for the time to stare out the window of the train and think, listen to music, and chat about… well, everything from summer camp to our greatest fears.

It was a good thing that my friend knew how to handle the trains and buses here, because I was pretty lost (seems to be a theme). We walked about 30 minutes to the train station, got on a train, got off the train, ran to catch a bus, got off the bus, and got on another train that finally took us to Stratford-Upon-Avon, where our first stop (after passing through a great little market in the square) was Magic Alley.

Magic Alley (http://www.seekthemagic.org) is a magic shop/café/museum that offers a sort of puzzle-solving exploration of their collection of “magical artifacts” from Doctor Who to Harry Potter to Sherlock Holmes (British, much?). Following the story of young Will (time traveller later to become William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright in history), you wander up and down narrow staircases and through dark rooms filled with old books, potions, Weeping Angels, and more, solving clues until you are left with the final puzzle of rearranging words to come up with the secret spell. While apparently most people struggle with this final step and have to ask for help, my friend and I (after spending a good 30 minutes thinking about it way too hard) finally solved it, and made our way downstairs to receive our Diplomas of Wizardry and celebratory butterbeer:

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We got to walk by Will’s house:

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As well as his grave at the beautiful Holy Trinity Cathedral:

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Just by the cathedral was an amazing park (filled with really really cute dogs!!):

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(realizing that 90% of the pictures I put up involve either gravestones or parks… you know what? That’s okay. They are gorgeous.)

We had a fantastic dinner at a Mediterranean place, starting with a hummus platter, followed by vegetable moussaka with delicious chips (fries), and ending in one of my all-time favorite desserts, baklava with ice cream, honey drizzled on top. It was heaven. And I forgot to take a picture. I am so sorry. (But also not sorry because then I would just start drooling over the picture and be forever craving baklava and ice cream.)

It was during dinner that we started talking about– well, lots of things, but among them stories. Stories that we created, stories we cared about, stories we were fascinated by. I was reminded of something I had discussed with my tutor earlier in the term. After reading Hemingway and Sylvia Plath, both amazing artists who struggled with depression and ended their own lives, my tutor brought up the problem of how writers often seem to trap themselves in their own narratives, to construct a fiction surrounding their life, define themselves in particular ways, and become as stuck in that self-invented world as much as their characters are forever stuck in their world within the pages of the novel.

I realized that I definitely have a tendency to do this, and I think it is not only a writer’s thing but really quite a common thing. We look to specific experiences and character traits to define ourselves. We pick and choose (consciously or unconsciously) what events we remember as turning points, while other moments– equally impactful– fade from memory. And those we identify as important almost never remain the same over time– we adapt the memory of them to fit our narrative, to create recognizable patterns and meaning.

Oh dear, look at me getting all Englishy and theoretical… What I mean to say is, I realized that sometimes I define myself based strongly on particular life events, often things that I warp, and while I have improved my self-esteem and mentality towards self-care drastically over the last 7 or so years, I still have some ways to go. I am terrified of hurting other people, and I am very quick to blame myself for others’ pain, regardless of how responsible I am. I struggle to lighten up sometimes, and particularly when I’m around new people, I can take things too seriously. I realized I’ve given too much power to some of the negative parts of my narrative, trapping myself in certain patterns and character traits that demand to remain constant. I see them as written in stone, inflexible and inalterable.

I don’t think that composing a narrative for oneself is necessarily bad– in fact, I think it’s kind of an important part of being. But that’s the key– I’m the composer of my narrative. When I’ve developed a really good character, I don’t feel like I dictate their story– they write themselves. Just like them, I’m not trapped in any set narrative, but rather one which I am constantly writing and rewriting. And after all, isn’t the most important part of a story character growth?

I’d like to end this entry on one of my favorite moments of the night. We were talking about stuff on our bucket list, and my friend expressed the desire to experience something no one else had ever experienced. I’ve been thinking about the subjectivity of experience a lot recently (woohoo phenomenology!), and so I responded “Aren’t you necessarily doing that already?”

#mind blown #subjective experience #personal epiphanies #I am the author of my own narrative #writing is rewriting #yay for spontaneous adventures

P.S.- Sunset over the city on our way back to the train station:

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15/02/15 – Life Is To Be Lived

Last week was incredibly busy in terms of work– I had my regular 3000 word English essay due on Tuesday, and then a paper on Heidegger due Thursday. Luckily my friend, a visiting student from Davidson who also studies philosophy, was able to talk me through some of Heidegger, so I was able to construct a coherent essay and have a really fantastic discussion with my tutor. And now I’m on to my next essay…

I definitely intend to take time to reflect on the tutorial system, but this week I need a break from thinking about academics, so I am going to tell you about the fun activities I’ve managed to fit in between the papers and reading and research.

As I briefly mentioned, I have started taking circus lessons! I searched everywhere and asked everyone about an Oxford circus student group, but had no luck finding anything. So I looked up circus in Oxford, and found the Oxford Circus Academy, only a 20 minute bus ride away from Catz. Two Mondays ago I went to my first corde lisse (aerial rope) lesson, and it was amazing! It felt so great to be back in the air. And yes, I had rope burns and blisters and incredibly sore arms the next day, but it was so worth it. Tomorrow will be my third class. 🙂 And it also means I get to meet actual people who live in Oxford! It’s a really fun group, and last class I got someone to take a couple pictures of me:

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(Toe climb! My favorite 😀 )

 

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(Walking in the air…)

 

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(Gazelle! From the ground because I was too tired to do it up high XP )

In addition to going to Circus, I started going to a Figure Drawing class! Well, they call it Life Drawing here. It’s at Christ Church, the same place I have my Philosophy tutorial, which is a complete maze to me– I can’t find anything without a full-time student’s help! I can see how Rowling based Hogwarts partially of its campus. 😉 Like circus, it feels wonderful to draw again. I’ve missed noticing the shadows and lights and not-spaces that people’s bodies make, playing around with colors and styles, and having my hands covered in charcoal. Plus it seems the halfway break for snack is a universal aspect of Figure Drawing, and of course the British snack features tea and biscuits. 🙂

After my tutorial on Thursday, I went to Blackwell’s (my favorite bookstore) to get some reading done. Okay, yes, this is an academic activity, but I had to mention it because Blackwell’s has the best cafe, and it is my favorite place to work, and being particularly exhausted I treated myself to a little something extra that afternoon:

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Mmmm… white and dark chocolate cheesecake and a white chocolate mocha… And it worked! I was so motivated I read 140 pages of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in one sitting!

Some of my American friends have also been feeling the stress, so we decided to rent a puppy. Yes, we found a website called Borrow a Puppy, and we set up weekly walking sessions with an adorable two-year-old Golden Retriever named Wilby. It is as amazing as it sounds. Check out this cutie:

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(video- click on the link to download)

On Friday afternoon as a much-needed decompression session at the end of the week, we walked over to University Park and played with Wilby. It had rained all morning, but the sun came out for our walk, and we enjoyed the beauty of the park almost as much as the adorable dog.

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Finally, this evening I went to a meeting of the International Student section of WomCam, or Women’s Campaign, a University-wide feminist group. We met up at G & D’s (basically the best ice cream ever):

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I was surprised and thrilled when our introductions included name and preferred gender pronouns– asking for pronouns is something that I am familiar with in many queer spaces, and it always makes me feel a little safer. I identify as the same gender I was assigned at birth, so when people call me “she” it feels right. But I know many people whose identities don’t match the assumptions people make about them, and it’s nice to know their identities will be respected. Our conversation covered quite a few topics– experiences with sexism or other forms of prejudice, our thoughts on the word “feminism” and whether or not we felt comfortable identifying ourselves with it, and even the feminist implications of characters in Harry Potter. It was a lovely time, and I look forward to meeting again next week!

Wow, having written all of that, I realize I’m actually doing more than I thought! Sometimes it feels like I spend most of my time in my room or in the library studying, but I have actually begun to integrate myself into life outside of school here, at the University and beyond.

08/02/15 – FOOD

So. It’s been almost a month since I got to England, and it is about time I write about what I’ve been eating.

The Brits seem to recognize three primary food groups: potatoes, sandwiches, and custard. To encounter a single meal without one of these three types of food is, to my knowledge, statistically impossible. During one of my first lunches at hall, I went through the line, requesting the vegetarian options, and when I walked out I realized I literally had a plate full of potatoes: curried potatoes, chips (aka fries), and hash browns. That was my lunch. Literally just potatoes.

Those who know me know that I really love potatoes. Like, I can eat a lot of potatoes. But apparently, the Brits love potatoes more than I had ever dreamed possible. Potatoes are offered every breakfast, either boiled or in the form of hashbrowns or both. They are offered every lunch, in the form of chips (fries), more hash browns (left over from breakfast), occasionally boiled or baked, and, without fail, as a significant portion of whatever the vegetarian main meal is. And every dinner involves potatoes, at least as a side (boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew).

Second in popularity to potatoes seem to be sandwiches. Walk into any grocery store, any corner market, any gift shop, and you are sure to find a selection of sandwiches– just regular white or wheat bread, sliced into triangles and neatly packaged, both vegetarian and carnivorous options abundant. While the price of these sandwiches seems to vary from about 1-5 pounds, the quality is more or less consistent. They’re actually quite tasty, and I’ve gotten used to being able to just pick one up as a break from lunch in the hall. In addition to the packaged sandwiches sold just about anywhere, there are a plethora of sandwich shops around town. On the walk from Catz to the Philosophy & Theology Library, I’m pretty sure I pass at least 10 different sandwich shops. One of the most popular is the Alternative Tuck Shop, just down the street from Catz, which sells well-priced sandwiches made to your specification, with a huge selection of ingredients and some killer baked goods to go on the side. I gotta say, the sandwich thing is growing on me. Veggie sandwiches here are pretty darn good.

Finally, there is the custard. I thought I knew what custard was, but apparently British custard is an entirely different thing from American custard. It is very liquidy, and served warm, and you just… put it on everything. Take literally any dessert, and they will drench it in custard. Got some dry cake? Pour on some custard. Spotted Dick? (which, yes, is an actual thing they served: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotted_dick) Cover it with custard! Apple crumble? Bring on the custard. Pretty much every night that I’ve had the three-course meal at hall, our dessert has involved custard.

Which brings me to the actual experience of eating. Catz has one of the most casual dining halls of the Oxford colleges. We don’t have to book our dinners far in advance, and there aren’t many strict rules concerning how to go about eating. When I first got to Whitman, I was very frustrated by the fact that the dining halls were only open for 1-2 hour intervals at a time– where was I supposed to go for midday or midnight snacks? What if I missed breakfast? I was honestly shocked by how limited my access to food was.

Catz hall hours make those back home seem incredibly luxurious. Breakfast, served every day except Sunday, opens at 8:15 and closes promptly at 8:45. I made it to breakfast a total of 2 times before my desire for sleep outweighed my desire for hot food in the morning (don’t worry, my roommate and I stopped by Tesco’s and grabbed some cereal and milk to stash in our room so we aren’t just skipping breakfast). Lunch, the only meal served every day of the week, lasts from 12:45-1:30, an entire 45 minutes (except for Sunday, when it ends at 1:20). There is not much else to say about lunch.

There is a little more wiggle room for dinner. On every weekday from 6-6:45 you can choose to go to Scaf, which is the appetizing name given to the casual self-service meal for those who have a busy evening and want to grab some food to eat quickly. Scaf is also the only dinner option on Saturdays. On weekdays at 7pm, the bells for hall ring across campus and anyone who wants to can go to the three-course sit down semi-formal meal. Unlike many other colleges, we don’t have to put on robes or dress formally to eat, but we do sit down at four long tables like in Harry Potter, with the High Table in front where the Master, dons (tutors), and grad students sit. As the members of the high table enter, everyone stands up for them, waiting until they have all been seated to sit back down. Then we get served a full three-course meal, which was a really strange experience for me. I mentioned that socioeconomic class seems to be somewhat more strongly marked here than I’m used to at home, and hierarchy of hall dinner is one of those instances in which class came into focus for me. Even without the formalities of many older colleges, the three-course hall meal is nothing like what I’m used to experiencing in the States.

There are actually other types of food, and I have been able to try a few places out in Oxford! But I will need to keep exploring before I can report more on those.

Hugs and love from England, and keep posted for me to add some food pictures to this post when I get the chance!