Student Blogs & Vlogs | College Study Abroad Programs, IFSA-Butler

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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