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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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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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