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Goodnight, Oxford

Time November 29th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Good morning! GOOD MORNING! Look alive! You don’t know how lucky you are. You, who has two more years to sit in the Magdalene deer park with a steaming mug of coffee and idly reflect on whether you should eat dinner from the silver platters of Hall or the damp wooden slabs of the Turf; you who has two more years to wonder if you should take your work to the ostentatious green dome of the Radcliffe Camera or the cozy leather armchairs in the Foreign Languages Library beside the Ashmolean. You. You! I wouldn’t kill for those years, it’s not in my style, but I’d give a lot for them; I’d give up television, perhaps, or soda. I actually don’t drink soda, so that’s not too much of a sacrifice, but I would give it up, damn you, I’d give it up forever in exchange for a little more time. I know it won’t work. That’s not the way the world works. Instead we walk until we start to jog, and jog until we start to run, cause we’re late! We’re late! For a very important date! But there’s only one important date—ask Lewis Carroll, he’ll tell you—and I got to say, brother man, I’m not sure you can ever be too late for that one. But you’re right, in a way. We are too late, too late to slow down, too late to stop the motion; come here, William, faster! Come on, faster! Wait, what? Oh, I… my God, you had it right. You had it right all along! Slow down! Slow do… ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

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Splat! and before we know it we’ve gone past the point of no return and we’ve fallen out of the rabbit hole. If there’s one thing I don’t understand, it’s why everyone is so eager to be born. Hang out a little bit; you’ll look younger in fifty years. We weren’t born to run; otherwise, running wouldn’t make us tired. Which reminds me of a joke: why couldn’t the bicycle stand up? Because it was two tired! Ha! Now that’s what I’m talking about. Contra Mundum, Ryder? No way, the mundum had your back all along. It’s big ol’ Time that’s got your number, baby; he’s the one you should be worried about. Because when he catches up to you, there won’t be any revisits. What? What did you say? What do you expect? Brrring! Brrring! They’re calling for you. Wee woop, wee woop, wee woop. Pneumatic hissssss. Welcome back! How was the journey? And you think they’re going to follow orders when you say, “put me back, I like space?” Unlikely. Once you’re here, you’re here for good. So you better enjoy your time out there while you have the chance. I tried. I tried so hard. But I’m no golden bird, no dark tower, so the light’s gonna hit me in three days no matter what I do. I have three days in which to take my final pictures and condense my best memories, three days to crystallize my thoughts and emotions and feelings through words and images so that they don’t slip through the cracks of time like leaves down a gutter. It’s a daunting task. I won’t be able to do it. There are some things that will be lost, and it’s for the lost things I despair. Good thing I realized time was linear in one day instead of wasting the week looking for evidence that it’s not. That’s some consolation. And it’s not over yet. That’s another. WAKE UP! I set your alarm early because there’s so much to do. Even now my body is looking more like a shade. Why did I insist on getting nine and a quarter hours of sleep each night? Surely I could have gotten by on eight, and used the extra hour to walk around, to look at stuff, to touch things, to record another track of JWA’s Oxford Sessions. Did I say goodbye to the deer? Yes, that was yesterday, but I should like to do it again. Will there be time tomorrow? I’m not sure. I have to pack, and buy another bottle of Ben Riach, because I can’t get that at home, and I still haven’t been to the top of St. Mary the Virgin, which I’m pretty keen to do; I’ve heard the view is beautiful up there, even better than it is from the Sheldonian, and even though it’s more expensive I think it might be worth the price. I’ll have to compare it to the view I got from the Tower of the Five Orders—oh man, remember that? I thought that spiral staircase would never stop. I’d like to go back there, but I can’t, because it’s illegal, and I can’t go punting again, because they pulled the boats up for the winter, but that’s alright, because it will leave me time to do other things, like eat one more meal at Georgina’s or Pie Minister or Ben’s Cookies, that would be nice, an entire meal of cookies, one of every flavor, I’d eat one of every flavor that I haven’t yet tried. I want to try every flavor. I want to get it all in. I want to… ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

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See? My fall is just as long as yours. But you! Yours hasn’t come yet. That’s why I’m jealous. It’s petty, I know. You have all the hearts, stars, and clovers, don’t you, because you don’t need to despair just yet. You’re still deep in the dream. Bleh. It’s hard to be upset with you, because you’re so cute when you sleep. Enjoy the dreams. Enjoy them by waking up. WAKE UP! Wait, sorry, that doesn’t make much sense. No, sorry again (those are British manners), it does. Lucid dream. And learn to do it now, because there’s no use finding the fountain of youth when you’re one hundred and ten. Learn how to do it now, because one day you’ll wake up for real, and when that happens nothing can help you, nothing can help you, NOTHING, not unless you can make like T.S. Eliot and try to hold still in the flux. You know, stop time. But even he failed, and although I’m sure you’re smart, you’re probably not on the same level as T.S. Eliot—who was? Yeats maybe—but you’re not Yeats, either, probably not, at least; I mean, you might be, I’m not saying that you’re definitely not, but you’re most likely not, so what hope do you really have? Even if you are, what hope do you really have? Oh. I’ll offer you hope. Realize that you’re running, you fiery chariot, and slow your ass down. Goodnight, Oxford. Well, not goodnight. I’m waking up. Waking up for good. So goodbye. Oh! But to dream once again in a city of dreams!

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Simple Pleasures

Time November 22nd, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I’ve often found that my best days are the ones that are filled with simple pleasures, and today was no exception. I started my morning with a trip to the gym, got in a good chest workout, and then made myself a protein shake. It’s not a trip to the gym unless I take down at least a liter and a half of water, so by the time I was actually ready to start my day I was well hydrated and feeling good. This was simple pleasure number one.

On the way out of the gym I saw my friend Derek and his girlfriend Kaylee, who had just come back from looking at the deer in the Magdalene deer park. They invited me to join them for lunch in the Covered Market. I love the Covered Market. There is a cake store there where they make the cakes right in the window, and a butcher where they skin the animals right in the window as well. The whole place exudes a distinct sense of British freshness. I agreed, of course, and Derek’s roommate Spencer came with us as well. Thus, I got to spend some time with several of my best friends. This was simple pleasure number two.

We had only been walking for a little bit when Spencer decided that today was the day he was going to pull the trigger on a poster he had seen at Blackwell’s Art and Poster shop, a Mario Testino original photograph that featured a scantily clad woman staring lustily past the camera. God, she was beautiful. If I ever find that girl, I’m going to ask her to marry me. But the woman’s beauty had nothing to do with simple pleasure number three, which was my own decision to pull the trigger on a poster by Edmund Welf entitled “Sii Furbo.” The hand drawn poster features a red fox in the snow, and I love foxes, so it had captured my attention from the moment I laid eyes on it. I gave Spencer money to buy the poster for me and ran across the street to relieve myself of the liter and a half of water I had consumed in the gym, which was simple pleasure number four.

Our next stop was the Covered Market, and to my great pleasure we were able to find a table at Georgina’s. It was, of course, simple pleasure number five. Georgina’s is a restaurant for those in the know, meaning that many people are surprised when I tell them it exists; it is the only store on the second floor of the Covered Market, and is only accessible by a small, inconspicuous door that leads to a brightly painted set of stairs. Other than Pie Minister, Ben’s Cookies, The Cake Shop, the milkshake store, Brown’s Café, the barber shop, the watch store, Hot Chocology, and the weird little stand out front that sells Brazilian donuts, Georgina’s is my favorite place in the market. I got a coffee, and although it was terrible it was simple pleasure number six, because ever since I went to Italy I love coffee, and although I love it I try to drink it as sparingly as possible because of the negative health risks associated with caffeine.

I then put the finishing touches on a three thousand word essay about James Joyce’s Dubliners, which was simple pleasure number seven, because I never want to spend any more time than I have to writing essays. Finishing at a reasonable hour allowed me to join my friend Jack down at Mansfield College for a little game of poker, which was my eighth simple pleasure of the day, because through a combination of conservative play and luck I managed to end the evening up two pounds; this led to simple pleasure number nine, which was the fruit bag I bought from McDonald’s in exchange for one of my two pounds. I walked back to St. Catherine’s, up a pound and having spent a simple day enjoying the both the sights of Oxford and the company of my friends, and fell into clean sheets.

That, my friends, makes an even ten.

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My Genuine British Homestay

Time November 16th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

This weekend I decided to go to Josh’s house. The last time I saw Josh someone ended up naked on a rugby pitch, but I decided that the risk was worth the reward. Josh is funny, and decidedly British, and he’s one of my best friends. We worked together for the past two summers at a children’s summer camp, and coincidentally he ended up next to me at Oxford-Brookes. The opportunity to see a real British household was too good to pass up.

Josh’s dad met us at the Cheltenham bus station, and from there it was a short drive to the house. It was a beautiful home—yellow, with a gate and a border collie—and the first thing Josh and I did was cook a proper English fry-up. I was in charge of the mushrooms, which were as golden as the sunrise, and Josh took the eggs, beans, and bacon. The toaster was in charge of the toast. When all was done, the eggs, beans, and bacon were inedible. Josh and I looked at some sheep out the window and pretended to be satisfied with mushrooms on toast.

On Sunday we went to his brother’s cross-country race in Bristol. Ben had recently won nationals for his age group, and this weekend he was competing for a 1000 pound prize. The large purse also attracted the UK’s top talent; at 20 years old, Ben was one of the youngest and most inexperienced runners there. Nevertheless, he put up a good showing, and although he didn’t win we were all proud of him and went out for ice cream afterwards. Actually, he just got on a train back to London and we went back to the house. There was no ice cream.

That evening, Josh’s mother prepared a traditional Sunday roast. It was unlike anything I had tasted before: think Thanksgiving feast, but every Sunday, and better. There was an entire roast chicken, expertly cooked and cut from the bone, as well as a vegetable medley—peas, carrots, and cauliflower—and both fried and roasted potatoes. We also had Yorkshire pudding, little flaky golden cakes that tasted like Pillsbury croissants. Josh covered his whole meal with runny stuffing, a mix of stuffing and gravy, and I followed suit. Although meals at Oxford are convenient—three courses served to us in a Harry Potter-like hall by suited waiters and waitresses—I’ll take Josh’s mum’s cooking any day.

After dinner, we “spoofed” to see who would clean up the dishes. “Spoof” is a game in which every participant gets three coins, and clandestinely puts one, two, three, or none of them under his or her hand on the table. Then everyone gets a chance to guess how many coins there are. If someone gets the number correct, he/she is out. This continues until only one person is left, and he/she is the loser. I, of course, was the loser, and had to do the dishes. We spoofed again to see who would make tea and cake, and I narrowly avoided losing again by beating Josh in the final round. This arrangement suited me, because I didn’t want to make tea, but also everyone else, because it was apparent that I had no idea how to make tea.

In the morning, Josh and I ate some Weetabix before getting back on the bus for Oxford. The bus was right on time, and I got two seats to myself. It was a comfortable ride, a fitting end to a comfortable weekend.

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The Pub Experience

Time November 7th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Last night I went to a pub I found recommended online called “The Turf Tavern.” The Google map said I walked by it every day, which was odd, because I had never seen it before. But the online reviews were current, so I knew it existed. With my beer money jangling cheerfully in my pocket, I made my way down to the far end of New College, where the pub was supposed to be located. Sure enough, I saw something I had never seen before: there was a small alley between New College and the building beside it, just big enough for one person to walk through comfortably. I went through the alley, which opened into a raised beer garden. Raucous Brits were putting back golden pints and steak and ale pie, their cheeks ruddy from the cold. Taking off my scarf, I made my way towards the hobbit hole of a bar towards the back of the garden. This wasn’t too hard: I wasn’t drunk yet, so the metal kegs that littered the path were fairly easy to avoid.

I had to duck as I entered the cozy and quintessential little pub, my head almost brushing the exposed wooden beams. I’m not tall, either: 5’7 on a good day. But the bar was low enough, and showcased a wide variety of regional specials. To avoid sounding like a snob, I won’t tell you that I brew my own beer, or that I run Duke’s underground Beer of the Week club; I’ll also leave out the fact that the best beer I had last year was Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, a tar black, creamy, well-roasted beer with a great flavor that hits after the swallow and the worst beer I had was a Robust Porter by the Smuttynose Brewing Company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that tasted like cold, dark coffee. Instead, I’ll just tell you that I know a thing or two about beers. So when the bartender told me that she had just opened a keg of beer with hints of both chocolate and vanilla, I was naturally skeptical.

“Impossible,” I said, and she raised her eyebrows, and I realized that there were about seven people behind me so I handed her three pounds and she gave me the beer. I walked through another series of small alleyways out back, where there was another beer garden, so I could examine my prize.

It was dark, that much was obvious, and smelled of caramel. A small rub between the fingers revealed a low viscosity; disappointing, as I like my dark beers to be a little bit thicker, but not unredeemable. Another sniff- caramel on the nose, but wait, there’s the vanilla this time, faint but present. Perhaps…? No, it was too much. No one has ever successfully pulled off the chocolate/vanilla combination.

Sadly, this beer didn’t either. It was good, certainly, but below expectation. Although the scent held promise, the taste didn’t live up to the hype: the chocolatey head quickly gave way to a cold, limp, watery tang. I felt like crying. I didn’t, of course, because you’re not supposed to do that when you’re sitting by yourself in public, but I felt like it. And then, as if to apologize for its mediocrity, the beer told me to look up. Not literally, I don’t think, but the message was as clear as if it had been. I was pretty sure I wasn’t drunk after only a few sips, but there is no other explanation for it other than divine intervention, and that’s just ridiculous.

“Look up,” said the beer, and I did. Above me was a poster, with a picture of… Bill Clinton? I read the caption: “according to local legend, this is where a young Rhodes scholar by the name of Bill Clinton had supposedly ‘not inhaled.'” And that’s where I was sitting. Right there where Bill Clinton had his first puff. I felt… powerful. I felt like ordering another beer.

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Drinks with the Master

Time October 24th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Part of the Oxford experience is visiting the old haunts of Tolkein and Lewis; drinking warm beer in cold pubs that smell of wet leather and wood, and taking long walks through damp gardens full of bees and butterflies. Another part is doing work. That’s it. There are no fancy adjectives I can tack onto that, and certainly no butterflies. There’s just me, the books that I’ve scoured every one of Oxford’s accessible libraries to find, and that never-ending white page with the blinking cursor.

I say all of this not to entertain, but to remind myself of the hard parts so I’ll think twice lest I want to repeat the experience for graduate school. I know from experience that the long hours spent staring at a computer screen have a nasty habit of fading out of memory, while all night parties and busty British woman seem to do the opposite. Oxford is hard, difficult work, and… ah, who am I kidding? I love it here. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

The trick, I think, is figuring out how to balance the two 3,000 word essays I have each week with fun. I’ll take time to do the essays, to write about Yeats and the occult and the gyres and the significance of the metal bird in the poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” but then I’ll go out and enjoy the country and the culture. If I lived to read, living would be called reading. It’s not. It’s called living.

Tonight I went to an invite-only event called “Drinks with the Master,” a sort of welcome ceremony for visiting students and incoming Freshmen. They had forgotten to make me one so I drew my own: “Kenneth Gould” it said under an artfully redesigned St. Catherine’s logo. Under that I wrote my major, “English.” It occurred to me after that people might think I was English, which I’m not, instead of thinking that I study English, which I do. However, I thought it was silly to ask for another nametag to replace the one that I had gotten as a replacement for another so I stopped overanalyzing the situation and just went inside.

At the door, a smartly dressed gentleman offered me a choice of white wine, red wine, or apple juice. I asked him which wine was better, to which he responded that he didn’t know, to which I responded why not, to which he responded that just because he had a British accent he was not an expert in the luxuries of high society. That was news to me. I took a white. Then a smartly dressed woman thrust a silver platter under my nose.

“Beef and ale or chicken and tarragon pie?” she asked, referring to the two varieties of mini puff pastry on the tray. I was going to ask her which was better, but then just took a beef and ale. I barely had time to look at it before the master showed up at the front of the room and commanded my undivided attention. This was the man in robes I had seen shouting Latin in the dining hall. Surely he had something interesting to say.

“Hello all,” he said. “Thank you for coming. As I was saying yesterday, this year’s Freshman class seems like the best in a long time. Thank you for coming. Goodnight.” Then he left, and his aides took my wine glass and ushered me outside. They seemed to consider taking my puff pastry as well, but in the end they let me keep it. I ate it thoughtfully. It is one thing to advocate that one take full advantage of life, but sometimes life has other plans.

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Rugby

Time October 18th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Last night, Monday night, I got drunk and screamed at people I didn’t know. Unless you’re at a rugby match, this generally isn’t acceptable. Conveniently, I was at a rugby match. I’ve never felt so British in my entire life. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

On Friday morning I hopped on a bus headed to the north of England, a place called The Lake District, for an event that my study abroad program called “Adventure Weekend.” The seven hours I spent on a bus were worth it: I saw the high peaks and red mossy bluffs of Wordsworth’s youth, climbed through the trickling streams that brought water to the fluffy sheep down in the valley; I lodged in an old manor house beside the Derwent, the same lake referenced in Lyrical Ballads, and tried to brave black mold and not get eaten by ghosts. I succeeded on both fronts, and even got to go climbing, an activity I haven’t participated in since I joined a local climbing gym in the fifth grade. My Bar-Mitzvah party was “extreme-sports” themed, and this weekend was all that and more. Nothing says “local” like eating a Cumberland sausage in Cumberland.

Although I didn’t know it when I got on the bus, Adventure Weekend wasn’t just for the IFSA-Butler Oxford students: it was for IFSA-Butler students from all over England. This was why several of my friends from Duke were also there. It was great catching up with them, sharing the natural beauty of the Lake District with them, and drinking with them on Saturday night. I actually didn’t partake in the drinking, as I caught the “freshers flu” the previous week, but the party atmosphere was contagious. We danced and sang and laughed when a girl nearby fell flat on her face (after making sure she was alright, of course). Later in the night, the same clumsy girl asked me for a lighter.

“Doyouavea lighter,” she said.

“Smoking will literally kill you,” I replied. She wasn’t pleased with my answer.

“Whatd’youjustsaytme?”

“I said I don’t have a lighter,” I said. “Sorry.”

On the bus ride home the next day, after we figured out the spirit animal of everyone on the bus but before I tried to begin working on a 15 page paper about the occult influences in W B Yeats’s The Tower, my friend Josh casually mentioned that he was going to a rugby game on Monday. Josh was a rugby player and Physics major from Baltimore. Sometimes, because of his fascination with the subject, we called him Neutrino Boy.

“What did you just say?” I asked.

“I’m going to a rugby game,” he said.

“How do I get tickets?” Like punting, drinking at a pub, and sneaking into forbidden parts of the Bodleian library, no trip to Oxford was complete without seeing a rugby match.

“You can have my extra,” he said. I was ecstatic. All that night, even as I broke into the Christ Church meadows to watch the fog rise over the grass, all I could think about was rugby. The next night couldn’t come fast enough. Then it did. I sipped a glass of whisky, put on two coats, and met Josh in an underground pub that smelled of age, oil, and damp wood. Together, we conquered beers and talked about physics, and then made our way to the rugby pitch.

“What is it like?” I asked Josh as we walked. He pulled me back onto the sidewalk.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Just non-stop action. You know the point, right? You have to move the ball from one end of the field to the other.”

“Like football!” I yelled, and he pulled me back onto the sidewalk again.

“Yeah, and each position has a number. That’s what the numbers on the back of the jerseys mean.”

“Like billiards!”

“Exactly. Touchdowns are called trys, and each one is worth 5 points. The equivalent of a field goal is worth 3, and a conversion is worth 2.”

“Like hockey!”

“No. Not at all like hockey. Get back on the sidewalk, you’re going to get hit by a car.”

When we arrived at the pitch, the game had already started. To my great pleasure, the Oxford Blues were ahead of the London Wasps three to nil. I yelled in giddy excitement as a caveman in a blue jersey destroyed the scoring hopes of a smaller, agile player in white, and sighed in sadness as the ball somehow ended up in the hands of another player in white. He too was taken to the ground, but again another white player mysteriously got the ball and the Wasps continued to move their way up field. Then the whistle blew.

“Oh look, a throw-in,” said Josh. I watched with a detective’s curiosity as a white player threw the ball in from out of bounds and multiple players from both sides were launched into the air.

“Like cheerleading,” I whispered, and it was.

In the end, the home team heroes beat the adversarial visitors 30 to nil, a score I was happy to chant as the losers trudged their way off the field. I peed in a bush and reflected on the experience. In a way, I decided, rugby is like football, billiards, and cheerleading, but rugby is also like art: I can look at it, stare at it for hours, scratch my head and scream and stomp my feet, not understand a single thing that’s going on, but love it all the same. It was beautiful.

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The Top of Magdalen Tower

Time October 12th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I have been struck, of late, by a curious desire to move my legs. I believe the act is called walking. It’s something that’s alien to me, but the British seem very fond of it; that and cycling, and drinking tea, which are activities in which I have yet partake.

Oxford is great place to go walking. Behind the he ivy walls that keep out tourists are gardens, and meadows, and fields that stretch off into cool dark forests. Yesterday my legs brought me to Magdalen College, pronounced “Maudlin”; it’s home to Magdalen Tower, the highest point in Oxford at 144 feet. I was surprised to find that, beyond its boxy courtyards and across a small stone bridge, it’s also home to the water meadow. This is where my legs led me.

The water meadow is a large meadow. It’s surrounded by a great loop of gravel path, perhaps a mile or two around, and a stream, which circles the outside of the path. Deer play in the meadow (I counted around 60 of them), and I heard that when a new fellow of Magdalen College is inducted he gets to shoot one and eat it for dinner. I want to be a fellow of Magdalen College. Not to shoot a deer, of course, but because it’s so beautiful. Alright, fine. I kind of want to shoot a deer.

At strategic points around the meadow are small benches. Some of these benches are dedicated to long departed souls; others are not. Because the dead creep me out, I picked a stone bench without name or bearing and sat down. I took out my notebook and tried to write some poetry, but I couldn’t bear to stare down at its plain white pages when Oxford’s natural beauty frolicked all around me. There were deer, and squirrels eating fallen chestnuts, and the quiet sound of the bubbling stream as it whisked fallen leaves out to sea. The grass, yellowed with fear from the sense of impending winter, was crunchy underfoot; the sky was grey and the wind was cold and there was the smell of snow in the air, but the experience was perfect, the stuff poems are written about, if I could only bring myself to write one. I couldn’t. I couldn’t look away. And as I stared at this beauty, I had an interesting thought. From my vantage point, I could see anyone coming around the meadow in two directions. No one came. I was the only one there.

Where is everyone? I thought. I found them all later that day, in the library, staring at books and computer screens. They were like zombies, those solemn, quiet geniuses, like men of stone. They did not react to the squeak of my sneakers on the hardwood floor. There was not much to see in the library, so I left and got a haircut.

The man who cut my hair was from Poland, and he spent roughly equal amounts of time cutting my hair and staring at me in the mirror. I stared at the hair on the cape and pretended not to notice.

“You have very nice hair,” he said, running his fingers through it under the guise of testing its length.

“Thank you,” I said, and he smiled and continued to cut it.

“Very, very nice hair,” he said after a while, licking his lips.

“I appreciate that,” I said, more than a little scared for my life.

“My friends and I have a saying,” he said. “Nice boys go to heaven, but the bad boys have more fun.”

“Great,” I said, getting up from the chair and leaving a wad of cash in my place. Coins scattered on the floor. My cut was only half done. It looked very European. “Great saying.” I didn’t look back.

As I ran out, I had an image of the odd Polish man sliding a barber’s razor under my neck and letting my blood out onto the floor. That fateful haircut would have been my last. In heaven, when all my ghost buddies and I were shooting the breeze, what would I tell them about my last day on earth? Would I tell them that it had been fulfilling? Was it enough to appreciate the most beautiful place I had ever been? Was it enough to explore the dark nooks and passages of a lonely city, to go on a mission for the best cookie in town, or make foreign friends over the delights of a 16-year-old single malt Scotch whisky? Was it enough, or would I rather have spent my time in the library?

I think I know the answer, and it lies in the curious desire to move my legs.

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The Tower of the Five Orders

Time October 12th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I would tell you that Oxford means “door” in Latin, but it doesn’t, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell you that Oxford has a lot of doors, most of which were built to keep out prying eyes. When I visited two years ago, for instance, I got a beautiful tour of Oxford’s facades; the inner workings of the University were closed to tourists. Yesterday, however, I got a golden ticket in the form of a student ID card. I’ve since used it to see behind the large stone walls my own college, about ten other colleges, and the sacred Bodleian library. As a student, very little at this hallowed University is closed to me. It’s awesome. It’s amazing. And then… oh wait. What’s this? A door without a card swipe? You mean to tell me I can’t get in there? That’s just… that’s just elitist!

It was a small metal door in the Bodleian library, an unassuming door, but nonetheless a door I wasn’t allowed behind. I had heard tales of dark passages and darker societies at Oxford, all mentioned in a whisper and with a sideways glance. My thought was that perhaps one of these societies took up residence behind the door. If that were the case, I wouldn’t want to miss seeing it. So when the librarian turned her head, I ducked in.

I found myself on a stone spiral staircase. To my right, the stairs disappeared down into the dark. To my left, they continued upwards towards light. I made a left, clutching tightly to the rusted handrail that ran along the wall. I was dizzy. Stained glass windows the size of dinner plates dotted the walls at odd intervals, and looking through them I could see the entire city of Oxford. I was dizzier. Still, I kept climbing. Up and up, up, up, and up! Then the stairs stopped, and I found myself in front of a wooden door.  It had a keyhole, so I bent down to look through it and took a blast of cold air to the eye. I backed away quickly, but had seen enough: I was at the top of the Tower of the Five Orders, one of the tallest buildings in Oxford.

After I had taken my fill of the view, I walked down the stairs past where I originally entered and continued down into the Tower’s depths. It ended in a locked oak door, and I could hear voices coming from the other side.

“A secret society,” I said.

“I just stepped in some gum,” said a voice from the other side. Needless to say, I had not found any secrets but merely a door leading outside. Turning back, I headed halfway up the Tower and went through the only door I had not yet tried. In front of me was a reception desk, and three librarians turned to look at me as I entered.

“Are you staff?” one of them asked.

“No,” I said.

“What were you doing back there?”

“I went through a door.”

“Well, don’t go through any more doors.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m just looking for the exit.” Hearing my American accent, the librarian softened.

“You can head that way with impunity,” she said, and I didn’t know which way she meant, and I didn’t know what impunity meant, but I ducked my head and pressed onwards.

It didn’t take long to find a dictionary in one of the world’s best libraries: impunity means “exemption from punishment or loss or escape from fines.” I suggest that if you come to Oxford and want impunity, you get yourself a student ID card. And don’t go through any metal doors. Or do, but be sneakier than I was. The view is unbeatable.

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Some Brief Thoughts on London

Time October 5th, 2011 in Uncategorized | No Comments by

Tomorrow is my last day in London before I head to Oxford. Everyone here has funny accents, but I guess that’s true of most places you go. My time has been very enjoyable: nice people, interesting sites, unseasonably warm weather. I set the tone for my week in London on the first day, when I got a lot accomplished: I bought a phone, saw some buildings, and drank a few pints. Here are some travel tips: to get a pay as you go phone ask for the cheapest phone with the cheapest plan (an Alcatel FM with Lebara top up service), and to get a pint just order one.

I suppose I should dedicate a paragraph to the beer of England because—as a drunk and jolly Brit told me—it is very important to British culture. After work, everyone heads to the pub, gets a beer, stares into it and wishes someone would come to talk to them, and then heads home when no one does. This is sad: I made a point of trying to talk to the locals staring into their beer, and had a few of my own. My first beer was a light ale, which wasn’t very good, and then I ordered a stout, which was dark and chocolaty with notes of coffee. Most beers here have a lot of body but very little flavor, which is a nice change from the beers my fraternity buys at home, which have no body and no flavor.

Yesterday I went into an umbrella store. The average umbrella cost around 200 pounds, or $320 dollars. With prices like that, I’m surprised that people have money left over for anything else. And yet, they do: I have seen more sports cars during my time here than I have ever seen anywhere, ever. You cannot walk down the street without seeing a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Mercedes or BMW. Needless to say, I have not yet purchased an umbrella.

I did, however, spend eight pounds to get into an exhibit on Post-Modernism at the VNA museum. The exhibit inspired me to write a book of postmodernist historical fiction. In the book, characters representing different cultures of the world travel around on all kinds of plucky adventures: I’ll throw gruff old Uncle Sam in there to represent America, and maybe Cromwell for Britain and Remus and Romulus for Rome, and the entire time Remus and Romulus will complain about the journey and refuse to help anyone out, instead insisting that they’re dead, which they are, but it will be symbolic because Rome has fallen. So yeah, I’m still not quite sure the aim of the post-modernist movement, but I did see a 2000-year-old urn on which someone had painted “Coca-Cola.” Although I have a suspicion that it was a waste of a perfectly good urn, just the urn was probably worth the eight pound entry fee. Maybe. It’s very easy to spend a lot in this country and only get a little. Examples of things in England that I deem too expensive:

 

1) The aforementioned umbrellas

2) Food

3) Beer

4) Staplers

 

I didn’t want a stapler, but it’s discomforting to know that if I needed one, it would have cost me a cool ten pounds. That’s equivalent to sixteen dollars for a stapler. That’s a lot for a stapler. Now, it should be noted that not everything in England costs a lot. Here is a list of things I got for free:

 

1) Entry to the Tate Modern and a view of the Rosetta Stone

2) Entry to the 2012 Olympic Site

3) A view of Buckingham Palace

 

I could probably get a free dog as well, because a lot of hobos seemed to have dogs, and if you don’t have money for a home you probably don’t have money for a dog, so I’m assuming that dogs around here are free. In fact, I’m sure I could have gotten a free dog. However, I thought it would be a hassle to take on the bus, so I didn’t get one. I’m sure that, if I want one, I can find one at Oxford. If he’s brown I’ll name him coffee, after England’s dark beer, and if he’s light I’ll name him Dish Water, after England’s light beer.

 

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What (not) to do When You’re the Only One Left

Time September 14th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Charlotte is a ghost town. It’s been a ghost town since school started three weeks ago. My friends are all gone. Even my siblings are gone: My brother’s at UCF, one of my sisters is at the University of Arizona, another one is at Syracuse; my dog’s with my brother, so even he went to college. I’m the only one left. My term at Oxford doesn’t start until October, so I’m the only one left.

In the beginning I spent a lot of time writing, and going to the gym, and walking around my house just looking at stuff, but that got boring so I took a part time job in a steel warehouse. On my first day, I was paired with Cedric, because he was the guy who was most behind on his work. I asked him for a pair of work gloves, and he laughed at me, and then realized I was serious, and stopped laughing but gave me the work gloves.

“Any more requests, Professor?” he said. This is what he started calling me after I told him I went to Duke.

I’m a little thirsty, I thought, and I kind of have to pee, but I don’t know whether I actually have to pee or whether I’m just nervous about working here. Additionally, since it’s just my first day, could I possibly watch you first and learn how things are done then maybe tomorrow come back and you can watch me work, just to make sure I’m doing it correctly, and maybe could you also give me pointers on my form and advice on how to keep my fingers?

“No,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “Let’s go.” As we stepped into the 200,000 square foot warehouse, I immediately caught the scent of wood, rust, and acid that hinted at the steel’s origins. “That’s the receiving end,” screamed Cedric over the buzz of the saws. I kept waiting for the buzz to stop but it didn’t. It was a warehouse constant, and it sounded like a giant swarm of metallic bees. “And that’s the cutting end,” said Cedric, pointing to the source of the horrible noise. “In the middle, here, is where we put the steel until it’s ready to be cut.”

I looked left, and then right: piles of steel—all colors, shapes, and sizes—stretched out into the distance for what seemed like miles. Aisles between the piles served as alleys for the army of forklifts that flitted between the stacks. Cedric told me I that even a piece of steel the size of a bus steering wheel needed to be picked up by a forklift. I tried lifting one when Cedric wasn’t looking, and I’m short and Jewish and not exactly strong, but no human is lifting even a small piece with his or her bare hands.

“Let’s see, what else do you need to know?” I ducked as a chain whipped past my head and just managed to avoid the swinging metal. “Oh yeah, keep your head up. See that?” Cedric pointed above me to a set of two parallel tracks that spanned the length of the warehouse. There was a big machine attached to the tracks at right angles, and the chain that had almost taken of my head hung down from it. “That there is our friendly neighborhood industrial crane. We’ve got three of those in here, and each one can probably lift about 15 tons. We run them from the ground using these remotes. When we get an order we use the forklifts to bring the steel over to the saws, cut the steel, and then use the crane to put the cut steel onto the trucks. We’ve got trucks rolling through here daily, some dropping stuff off, some picking stuff up. Just don’t be an idiot and you won’t get yourself killed.”

I went into the office, and told them I was a student, and I was going to Oxford next month, which I was really looking forward to, so did they have something that required a little less heavy lifting and was less likely to get me killed, please? They put me in the credit department and gave me the title of Assistant to the Credit Manager, which I got confused and wrote on the bottom of all my professional correspondence as Assistant Credit Manager. This meant that, in the 15 minutes after my boss left but before I clocked out, I ran the entire credit department of a multi-million dollar corporation. For a part time job, that was pretty cool. My new position included other perks as well: I got my own office. It had a computer, and a phone, and it was my job to call companies and ask them to fax me credit references. Once they did, I had to fax the references and ask for their opinion on the companies. If the references had a good history with the company, my company might consider extending their line of credit.

After three days I was so bored that I spent the time between faxes coming up with clever things to tweet about. Most of it was dumb. “Today someone said, ‘are you Kenny Gould?’ I felt good about myself until I realized I was wearing my ‘ask me if I’m Kenny Gould’ sticker,” said one. “What belongs in a ballroom but not on a playground? The electric slide,” said another. By day five, I had quit and gone back to writing and going to the gym and walking around my house just looking at stuff.

I don’t think I’m cut out for an office job. Or a warehouse job. Or any job, for that matter. I think I’d like to be a professional student. In that scenario, I wouldn’t have to deal with ghost towns or saws or Excel-induced migraines; I wouldn’t have to worry about warehouses or credit or dividends, whatever they are. I could get used to just hanging out and learning about stuff.

Soon enough, Kenny. Your plane leaves in 14 days. Soon enough.

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