Thursday, December 16, 2010


Did Oxford really happen? These last few days, it's almost felt like a dream. I have nothing here that anchors me to the faraway, cold-and-misty world of the UK, nothing except my photographs and souvenirs and memories. Already it's been far too easy to slip back into old routines and old pastimes. But yet, one can't experience such an experience-packed three months as I did without emerging with some reflections. "Real" life continues (if this is indeed real), and I have nothing more to report on the abroad experience, so I'd like to wrap up this blog with a few thoughts about what I got out of Oxford.

Did the experience live up to my expectations?

Yes, more than. I admit, the decision to go abroad was a somewhat complicated one, so I tried to go in with few or no expectations. It was so unlike anything I'd ever done before, and so the stepping-out-of-my-comfort-zone part of the quarter made for many experiences that knocked me over with their novelty and beauty. I learned and discovered so much (as I'll discuss later in this post), and that in itself was what I had hoped would happen. Looking back, it was really what I needed at the time. I had fallen into something of a funk at Stanford and needed to get away, needed to change my routine, needed a fresh dose of perspective. These past six months - not just Oxford, but the summer that preceded my quarter abroad - have accomplished all of those things. I doubt I've ever experienced so many new things within a comparable timeframe, and I'm hoping that my sense of optimism, bravery, and proper proportion stays with me even as I return to the Stanford grind.

Are there things I regret, areas where living abroad fell short? Anything I would change?

My biggest regret is something that I can't change: I wish I could have understood the British accents better. I wish communication hadn't been so frustrating at times. Yet this is an issue I face in my everyday life, even when I'm not in the UK, so it's hard to single it out here. If anything, I guess it keeps reinforcing the importance of resilience and a good sense of humor. Anyway, it's not like I didn't expect this obstacle, and it really wasn't any more overwhelming than I had anticipated.

A few other small regrets: I wish I'd been able to see horses more often (and hadn't abandoned my own horse for three months), I wish I hadn't missed out on those weeks in my friends' lives. The whole overseas experience, though, was more than worth it. And, as I'm finding out now that I'm home, horses and true friends are always there, even if you slip offstage for a little while. No big deal - and a bonus is that we now have more to talk about with each other!

As for England itself: totally amazing, despite the weather and sometimes questionable food. I already miss its aura of discovery.

What are the biggest things I learned?

In a word, independence. The world opened up to me, and I found myself suddenly experiencing it, rather than only reading about it (though I did do a lot of reading!). Every event, every concept in the history of the world has arisen in a specific place, time, and context, and I felt like this truth kept hitting me head-on as I traveled England and other parts of Europe. I placed myself out of my familiar context and liberated myself to go and discover different things. History and art and culture, among other aspects of the human condition, became more real to me - and, what's more, I became more real to myself. I learned that I can be and do more things than I might have expected. I am more flexible and more capable than I could have imagined, and I am up to the challenge in a range of unfamiliar situations.

I learned to have an open mind. The sheer size of the world kept impressing me, as well as the number of people in it. If one option or situation doesn't work out, there's always another. Likewise, there are always ideas and beliefs and possibilities out there that I haven't considered. Life should be a continuous learning experience. This vastness of knowledge, possibility, and experience can be intimidating (and sometimes was for me!), but at the same time people are less dissimilar than we sometimes think - which is in itself reassuring.

When there was something that I wanted to see or experience, I learned how to go for it. My time abroad was so short, what else was there to do? From the start, I realized I might never have those opportunities again, and I feel like I succeeded in making the most of the time I had. I wanted to see Stonehenge; I made it work; I saw Stonehenge. How empowering. Now, what would happen if I applied the same mindset not only to my travels, but to my "normal" life as well? Not in a selfish way, of course, but grasping the reality that the only time we have to realize our goals and dreams is now.

In that vein, I also learned about my own personal characteristics. I understood my own abilities better, and learned to come to better terms with (while still not stagnating in) my own limitations. Situations that work for other people might not work for me, and I learned how to be more okay with that, seeking the friends and opportunities that set me (and others) up for success. I learned about the types of people I best like and communicate with, while discovering that this set might not be as limited as I might once have thought. All in all, I learned how to be a better friend to myself, something that I think helps us to be better friends to other people. I learned to better appreciate and utilize my daily "alone time" with myself. In testing myself in a range of different situations, and trying on different possibilities to see how they fit, I came to a more cohesive and more contented idea of my own identity.

What are my fondest memories?

Getting off the bus and seeing Oxford for the first time. Feeling like I was whirling around and around and still not taking it all in. Ditto for Paris, especially the moment when I turned around on a street and - wham - saw the Eiffel Tower looming right there.

Ditto (again) for the first time I saw Stonehenge, Canterbury, the cliffs of Dover, and other such places. Realizing that the photographs could never, never do them justice.

The first time I played polo, out on a huge grassy field surrounded by hills and fall colors, feeling the level strides of the horse under me, even while steaming in the pouring rain.

Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, Bath, the Soane Museum. Ah, architecture.

Visiting Cambridge on a sun-dappled day, snapping pictures and hardly believing that England could be so colorful and gorgeous.

Touring through London's royal parks and people-watching. Becoming an expert on the workings of the London underground. Also, becoming a museum junkie.

Visiting Notting Hill and other quirky London streets.


Attending formal hall at Corpus with some friends, buying wine as we walked in, then sitting around the lamplit table talking about books and complaining about British food.

Afternoon tea. Every day. With milk and scones. Especially fruit scones. Yum.

That sweet moment each week when my tutorial paper was actually done.

Impromptu conversations in the kitchen at the Stanford house, in which I realized just how fascinating and smart my peers are.

Getting lost in the Stanford house. Or climbing too many stairs, or walking so much that I was sore the next day.

Arriving at the library before anyone else on a Saturday morning, breathing in the wood-and-old-books smell and feeling relieved that no passersby were around to make the ancient floorboards creak.

Walking through the fog (or rain, or snow, or just plain cold) at Oxford, shivering but also hardly daring to believe that I was lucky enough to spend so much time in this place.

There are really too many to list.

What's next?

I come back from Oxford with a renewed sense of possibility, which I hope I do not lose as I return to Stanford. In being suffused with British-isms for so long, so many American-isms now seem a bit foreign or strange, and I feel like I'm looking at things more objectively, with more of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. I hope this objectivity stays with me as well, and reminds me (once again) that the world is much larger than this tiny little cube in which I subsist.

Now I'd like to travel more, of course, but I also better appreciate the value of home and of settling into an environment that suits me well. In the end, what I hope Oxford has given me is the worldview and the courage to go out and keep experimenting with all those possibilities, places, and forms of knowledge, so that I can truly justify that I am leading a life that suits me, but also allows me to add as much value to the surrounding world as possible.

It's hard to sum up three months in so few words, but fortunately the journey does continue. And so I wrap up this blog - here's to what life holds down the road!

Sunday, December 12, 2010


It feels so good to smell like horse again. And to shovel chipful after chipful of salsa into my face. And to bask in the sun, under the huge blue sky, breathing in the smell of dust and dried grass. In other words, I'm thrilled to be home, in a place that's possibly as different from England as any place can be. Part of me will always be here, in the Southwest.

I still plan on writing out a few final reflections on the quarter at Oxford, but for now I'm content to sit and bask in the satisfaction of a long, exciting journey completed. The feeling of arriving in the adobe-style Albuquerque sunport on Friday night, after more than 18 hours of traveling, wrapped up my travels abroad in a very satisfying way, tired and jet-lagged as I felt. It was also something of a relief - I'm not the sort who likes to travel long distances alone, particularly through huge international airports (say, Heathrow) blaring with announcements that I can't understand, activity that seems about to sweep me away. But I have come full-circle, and survived, though I return feeling like a slightly different person than I was three months ago. Ah, a good dose of perspective, taken with a fresh whiff of roasted green chile. What could be better?

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Today is my last day in the UK, and I'm packing and hoping that this all somehow fits into my suitcases and is still under the weight limit... How did the quarter fly by so fast? I'm dismayed, but also so excited to be home!

But before that, a final update on my travels in Europe beckons. Early on Tuesday morning, three friends and I headed to Berlin for thirty-six whirlwind, snow-filled hours of walking, sightseeing, shivering, and shopping. It was amazing how much we were able to pack into one trip, although a lot of that came at the expense of sleep. (At least, as my sister said, being sleep-deprived might help me catch some shuteye on the long flight home tomorrow!) Because both sides of my family hail from Germany way back, I was especially interested in experiencing what this unfamiliar country had to offer.

I found a Berlin that was magically covered in snow, brimming with Christmas markets on seemingly every block, where vendors sold everything from Christmas trinkets to fine artwork and clothes to amazing German meats, breads, and sweets. I realized that much of the homecooked food I grew up enjoying (besides green chile) is at least vaguely German: hearty stews, sausages, mixed vegetables, cobblers and candied sweets. We visited at least four or five Christmas markets over the two days, and I admittedly ate my way through most of them, from trying the different foods on sale to taking the many free samples. With the lights, snow, and cozy little huts, they cut a perfect Christmas picture.

In between market-browsing, the four of us toured some of the historic parts of the city, including the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag. We also visited the recently completed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a sweeping field full of cement blocks of various heights, arranged in straight rows over undulating hills. This is a monument that must be physically experienced, and walking through it left me choked up. Our escapades on the first day also included Checkpoint Charlie, the former security gate through which officials passed from West to East Germany, and the western portion of the Berlin Wall itself. On the second day, we came face-to-face with the wall in a different way, as we visited the East Wall Gallery on the outskirts of central Berlin. This preserved sweep of the wall, which is now covered with modern murals and memorials advocating peace and understanding, was a testament to how such a hated symbol can turn into a sign of hope, at the same time as it warns us against similar atrocities in the future.

And, really, I felt like much of Berlin was like that. Parts of the city still felt grim and graffiti-covered, and I kept having chilling visualizations of what it must have felt like in the WWII and Cold War days. But it's also a city that's succeeding in rebuilding itself, and many of the stretches of modern street felt brisk and charming. Much of the architecture that remains from the 18th and 19th centuries (or has been restored) is quite impressive, from towers to cathdrals to museums and universities. The Pergamon Museum in particular was stunning, with real Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Islamic building ruins reconstructed inside huge halls and chambers. After a quarter of thinking about architecture in more technical terms, I was in awe.

With the cold weather, snow, and ice, I was happy to get back to England (which feels warm by comparison!), but also wished I could have stayed in Germany longer. That's for the next trip, I suppose...

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Farewell to London

Last day in London. Sad. Even though I'm not a big-city person, the place has really grown on me. It was a beautiful frozen morning, too - very cold but magical in its frigid stillness. My last memories of the city (for now) will be of wandering Hyde Park watching people walking hand-in-hand as their dogs gamboled on the pale grass, a horse or two passing by, the birds pecking disconsolately on the frozen ponds. And so another season has passed.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Day in Westminster

Two days, three royally-linked destinations, three changing of the guard ceremonies. WIN.

The first was the horse guards at Whitehall, near St. James's Park in London, which made me realize, more poignantly than ever, how desperately horse-deprived I feel. I arrived early (after a gorgeous walk by the frozen, sun-dappled lake), in prime time to see the mounted guards ride in, all in red capes on black horses, and line up. The horses were only ten or so feet away, and I could smell them, smell their hoof polish and see the gleam in their eyes as they tossed their heads and fidgeted with their bits and tried to pester each other. Asking ten horses to line up square and stand patiently for several minutes isn't easy! I can't say how much I miss having these magnificent animals in my daily life. Especially since these were nice horses, with wonderful faces full of curiosity and character.

My next stop was Buckingham Palace, which I've seen before, but on a day when the changing of the guard was cancelled because of rain. Today's weather was the opposite of that day in September - clear, crisp, and brilliantly sunny for London. You really learn to appreciate the blue sky when you've been oppressed by gray clouds and mist! The crowd around the palace was a little nuts, and trust me, my view of the guards wasn't always this clear - I was being crushed in on all sides most of the time, and it's lucky my camera has a nice zoom function or I wouldn't have been able to get some of my shots!

In the afternoon, I finally checked two much-anticipated museums off my list: the Victoria and Albert and the Tate Britain! The latter had an exhibit on Leland Stanford and Eadward Muybridge's famous horse motion-picture photos on loan from the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford - which had me excited, except they spelled it Standford. Oh dear.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Windsor Castle

To continue my stalking of the English royal family... Windsor Castle!

This is one of the locations I've long wanted to see in the UK, but with being busy and having already seen enough castles and grand buildings and palaces I wasn't sure I would make it out. But after doing an architecture final presentation on modern and revamped castles, I knew I had to go. Windsor did not disappoint me, even in the cold foggy weather that greeted me off the train station in the morning. I was among the first visitors admitted to the castle when the gates opened, and spent around two and a half hours exploring its walls and touring the state rooms. Windsor Castle has been a royal residence for over 900 years, and still serves as one of the homes for Queen Elizabeth II. It started as a medieval castle, and despite being greatly expanded in the 19th century (called "inspired propaganda" by some, when George IV used it to advocate a national idea of quintessential Englishness) it still has several rooms that were originally designed and furnished by earlier monarchs like Charles I and Henry VIII. Those two are buried in its chapel, along with Jane (Henry's favorite wife and one he actually didn't behead) and George VI. The state rooms were stunning, in a very Gothically-inspired way, with many jewels, paintings, and war armor/swords/guns on display - a bit too militarily gung-ho for me, but what else would you expect from a stone fortress? I find myself a bigger fan of the classical ornamentation of Buckingham palace. Windsor, however, was more historically fascinating than even Buckingham.

Feeling a bit suffused with English royals, I spent the afternoon wandering around the city and grounds, including the great park and long walk - which, true to its name, is indeed a very, very, very long pathway stretching out across the grassy plain towards a distant hill capped with a huge statue of George IV. Probably at least four miles roundtrip. My feet were aching. It was well worth it, though, for once I finally reached the end the view was absolutely unbelievable, English landscape stretching out all around and Windsor looming in the distance. (I'm sure it was romantically planned this way: arrive at the grand monument after a long pilgrimmage and have your breath taken away by the castellar silhouette on the horizon. Ideals of Englishness, indeed.)

All of this left me thinking of how strange it would feel to be born into the royal line, to live this sort of artificial existence in the public eye, virtually being a national symbol...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Oxford, How Can I Leave Thee?

Today - dare I say it? - is my last full day in Oxford. Although I'm not leaving to go back to the U.S. until next Friday, I have several trips and sightseeing days planned for the next week, and there's no real reason for me to stay in the Stanford House now that the quarter is over. I spent the day wandering the city at a slower pace than I have in recent weeks, finishing my Christmas shopping, and visiting one final set of buildings with my architecture class. Later in the day, there was a mulled wine and mince pies event for all the program students, administrators, and professors - very classy, very British. Finally, I turned in some final paperwork and even started to pack a bit (but - wasn't it only yesterday that I arrived with my suitcases, fresh out of Paris?). Among other matters of housekeeping, that paperwork involved writing a thank-you letter to the Bings, the benefactors of Stanford's overseas program, for which I was almost at a loss. How to express the full extent of my experience, my sense of wonder at discovering and visiting new places, and my gratitude for the opportunity that I've had over the last ten weeks? I am truly fortunate to have had this time in England, during which my only responsibilities have been to see, learn, and experience as much as I can.

And now I'm getting a bit sad to leave, even though another part of me is writhing in excitement to be home and back at Stanford. To reminisce a bit before my upcoming week of travel, here are some of the things I will miss about Oxford:

- The smell of the library, and the look of old leather-bound book spines against the shelves

- Formal halls, and how well the students dress

- Eccentric professor types on bicycles, tousle-haired and dodging towering double-decker buses

- The tutorial system, allowing me to learn and interact as I do best: one-on-one

- Gothic architecture, spires, and towers, each one striving to outshine the others

- Street musicians, performers, and vendors, bringing the city to life and always making my head turn

- Unprecedented shops and quaint pubs, winding back streets and quiet nooks

- The covered market and how I always seem to stumble on something new every time I go

- The way I indeed stumble on something new every day, some subtle and beautiful detail in plants or people or architecture that I never noticed before

- Birds and wildlife beside the river, paths and benches and plants, boats going past, and always some people-watching besides

- The way each individual college is like its own world, secluded in quadrangles unbeknownst to the tourists on the streets

- The ancient sense of the place, as if I'm breathing in the intellectual energy of all the people who have thought, invented, read, written, taught, learned, or just passed through here

As close as my heart is to Stanford, Oxford certainly is special, even incomparable.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

An Oxford Term, Completed!

Eight weeks, five hefty novels, thirteen Shakespearean and Renaissance-era plays, ten full- and double-length papers, and about four thousand pages of reading later - finally, after the most study-intensive academic quarter in my life, I am done!

And so my time in Oxford comes to an end. I have mixed feelings about this, and I'll do a series of reflection posts later, but for the meantime (if you'll pardon me) I'd like to indulge in a bit of self-congratulation before I go off to relax and unwind. One of my anxieties before coming abroad was that I would find Oxford's notoriously rigorous academics overwhelming, especially at the same time as I got accustomed to a different country and place, met new people, dealt with communication and interpreters, and traveled and experienced new things. But, as of attending my last tutorial on Middlemarch today, I did it!

Goodbye for now, library!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


My wish has come true. This morning I woke up to a beautiful, pristine layer of snow over the ground outside. About time! It's been absolutely freezing in Oxford this past week, and what better way to embrace the arrival of winter than snow? Only a half-inch, granted, but that's more than we often get in New Mexico! (Not to mention California...)

This week being the last week of classes, I've got several final papers hanging over my head, but I couldn't resist: I bundled up and set out for a lively walk around Christ Church meadow, camera in hand. This was my first encounter with snow since I got my cochlear implant this past summer, and the sounds of it were amazing: crisp crunching, squishing where it'd turned slushy on the road, the wind whipping past. Lively, chill, and refreshing. The banks by the river had taken a good dusting, tendrils of ice had begun to form, the snow clung to the trunks and branches of trees, and behind it all the spires of Oxford loomed, keeping watch. I felt inexpressibly happy. Add on the cup of hot chocolate I bought from a chocolate shop on the way back (best I've had in a long time), and it was a magical morning.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

An Apology

Dear British stranger, dear Oxford student: You speak, and what is it I see in your face? Not words, certainly. A shadow, fleeting and unfamiliar. Clipped vowels, an "o" seemingly changing to an "a," making me yearn to change my interpretation's dull light. I search your eyes, and there find the way things might be - intelligence, a penetrating gaze. But the world lurches beneath my feet, and I am uncertain, floundering, undone.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Christmas Spreads to Oxford

If there's one thing I've learned, it's that the Brits really get into Christmas. I mean, this is the country that produced A Christmas Carol, after all. London is aglow, as are other towns I've visited in recent weeks, such as Winchester and Canterbury. Signs have been up on restaurant and pub windows for ages, at least since I first arrived here in September, advertising that patrons should "book early for Christmas dinner." I guess that's a big thing here? Shop windows have had Christmas displays for several weeks, and last night the cheer spread to Oxford, as a range of Christmas lights and nighttime holiday markets opened for the weekend.

The smell of mince pies and mulled wine was in the air, and there was a stand selling hot chocolate brandy that I was tempted to try (but didn't, alas). There were kiddie Christmas trains and rides, and merchants were selling Christmas-themed goodies and trinkets. A machine even sat in the corner, puffing out fake snow. With the cold nipping in the air, I'm starting to get into the holiday spirit!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Soane Museum and Christ Church Regatta

Some days in Oxford feel like I'm overscheduling myself to the brink. Today was one of those.

This morning I was off to London for an architecture class field trip to the Soane Museum, the rather eccentric home of preeminent 19th century British architect John Soane. In describing this building, let me emphatically repeat myself: eccentric beyond belief. Photography wasn't allowed inside, so I only have this lone shot of the exterior, but in any case I don't think pictures could capture the quirky feel of the entire building. John Soane was a man who lived for architectural whimsy, it seems, and who was also captivated by the ideals of his own designs, especially in terms of the romantic and the sublime. His house (actually, three connected London townhouses) is a rabbit warren and mirror-gallery and exhibit-hall of antiques and unique architectural inventions. The ceilings vault and curve, there are unexpected nooks in the corners, walls give way to hidden painting displays, and the entire back portion is devoted to a gallery containing ancient stone fragments, contemporary paintings, and a chamber where Soane liked to imagine that a solitary monk lived. Light plays throughout the building in odd ways, shining through colored glass here before creating an intentional sense of gloom there, all striving toward a strangely dramatic and melancholy mood. The oddest part is that the house was this way when Soane lived there over 150 years ago, and has only been preserved for the museum! Probably the strangest house I've been to, by far.

After a whirlwind tour of the Soane Museum, during which I got to see some fun London streets and squares I hadn't encountered before, I headed right back to Oxford. The reason? This week is the annual Christ Church novice regatta, in which my Corpus Christi boat was participating. I say was because, unfortunately, we lost this afternoon after winning yesterday's second-round race by a whopping six lengths. No quarterfinals for us tomorrow. But no regrets: we rowed as well as we ever have, and I (for once) got to experience a competitive sport that doesn't involve horses. Rowing all-out for the duration of a race is hard! I go back to the saddle with a fresh appreciation for other sports, as well as a newfound sense of gratitude that my normal life doesn't involve horribly early mornings turning into an icicle out on a pitch-black river. Rowing is quintessentially Oxford, though, and I'm happy I embraced that.

Photo by Celine Zeng. I'm the one in the stroke seat. How strange that I'm leaving so soon, yet these Oxford people will continue to go about their lives...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A British Thanksgiving

I admit it. Today, Thanksgiving Day, has been one of my most homesick since I arrived in Oxford. It's the first Thanksgiving I've ever spent away from my family - and I'm thousands of miles away from home in a country that doesn't even celebrate the holiday, at that. Today has made me remember all of the small things I miss about New Mexico, and it's been easy to keep wishing that I were back there, if only for one day.

That said, the Stanford-in-Oxford program has many amazing students, and our house Thanksgiving dinner (even if not quite the same as home) ended up being a great success, as well as one I think I'll always remember. Each person brought one dish, no small feat given the cramped nature of the house (bad for so much cooking going on at once!) and its many nook-and-cranny kitchens. I spent most of the late afternoon and evening racing around the house baking cookies and whipping up mashed potatoes, probably making up for the calories with all the stairs I climbed. The air outside was very chill, one of the coldest days in Oxford so far, but the house soon came to feel like a furnace, boiling and swirling with food smells and activity. Finally, once the turkey finished around 8pm and we'd crammed all our hot bodies and steamy dishes into the downstairs kitchen, it all snapped into place.

I was impressed by how good the food ended up being, and toss in a bit of wine and some interesting conversation... ahhhh. It wasn't my usual Thanksgiving, but did achieve the contentment and comforting air that I've always associated with the holiday. Oxford has given me so much to be thankful for, indeed.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Case of the Black Swan

Random photo of the day: a black swan! These rare birds originate from Australia, but there were a number of them at Leeds Castle this weekend - apparently one of the former estate owners was an avid exotic bird collector, and her aviary still exists on the grounds. England has enough swans (which I'm a bit obsessed with, despite being chased by one near the Thames a few weeks back), but the black ones have a strange, singular charm. I found them beautiful.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Harry Potter Puts Me in the Thick of Things

I. Love. The. U. K. Today's reason: because I got to go see the new Harry Potter movie, captioned!

I won't take up space in this post talking about the film itself (which was pretty good if a bit scattered at times) - what really pumps me up is that this is the first time, ever, that I have been able to go to a film during its opening weekend. That bears repeating: the first time EVER. For someone who has so often felt frustrated and left out of pop culture because of lack of accessibility, this is huge. At home in the US, it takes seemingly forever for the captioned version of a film to hit the theaters, and then by that time most of the buzz has died out. There's still a big buzz about Harry Potter (so much so that, walking out of the theater, I bumped into a group of other Stanford students on their way in to see it), and, for once, I am part of that buzz. For once, I have seen a movie at the same time as everybody else, and even before. I don't know what makes the accessibility options so much better in the UK, but they are, hands down. YESSSSSSSS.

That said, seeing Harry Potter while studying abroad in England was especially fun, because I recognized some of the English-type scenery in the film - plus of course London. One of the London streets featured early on in the storyline, I'm pretty sure I saw just last weekend. And the actors' curiously British mannerisms? Yep, I recognize those too.

One of the many Harry Potter ads all over London - this one from a bus stop near Marble Arch. Hey there, Tower Bridge in the background! I know you!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Leeds Castle, Canterbury, and the White Cliffs of Dover

So the horizons of England keep opening up before me... Today's adventure: a trip all the way from Oxford to London and through the countryside of Kent, to the banks of the English Channel itself!

I got up at a rather unearthly hour to catch a bus to London for a day tour heading out from Victoria Station - making the trip alone this time because of irreconcilable issues with my friends' schedules, but so much the better. It ended up being a good day to go solo for a number of reasons, not least of all the opportunity for self-reflection and taking obscene numbers of pictures. My first stop was Leeds Castle, an absolutely resplendent medieval castle built on top of a small lake. The walls extend out over the water, and the view (both from inside the castle and outside) is so magical, it's like something out of a fairy tale. Plus I have personal reasons for liking this castle: besides supposedly being one of the most breathtaking in England, it was the topic of a final class project my little sister did a few years ago. She researched and constructed a scale model of it (which is still around our house somewhere - even if useless, things like that take so much work you never want to throw them away), so I felt a bit surreal seeing it in person.

After Leeds, I was on my way to Canterbury, which I'd mostly wanted to visit out of interest in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Though I haven't taken a class in Chaucer yet, I almost certainly will for my English major, and hopefully having seen the place itself will help! Canterbury was charming, a bustling little medieval town, very similar to Winchester and York. I visited the cathedral, which was the site for many pilgrimages back in medieval times, and then roamed around the city, seeing the walls/river/shops/ streets/etc., and trying to imagine what it would have felt like to live there centuries ago. To have that tiny place be your whole world. It's hard for us twenty-first century people to picture.

Canterbury is surprisingly close to the ocean, and after getting back on the bus a final time I ended up at Dover and the English Channel. The white cliffs are indeed white, and jump up so suddenly out of rolling English countryside that the effect is startling. It's as if the British Isles, without warning, have decided to throw themselves into the sea. Being from the American West, though, I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed by the scale of these cliffs, which I'd imagined as being massive. (Hello, Grand Canyon - hello, Rocky Mountains and Yosemite - you knock this British pretender out of the water!) In terms of scale, the West trumps all. Still, the cliffs of Dover were neat to look at, and I was unreasonably pleased to have set foot on the banks of the English Channel - and seen France way over there on the other side!

Now I'm nestled back at Oxford, dead tired, and heading off to bed...

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Horsey Post

I miss this. Who wouldn't?

But the good news is I made it out to play polo again today. The weather actually warmed up a bit, and I felt more confident with whacking balls than I have before - which, believe me, still doesn't mean I'm good! We got to play a bit, three-on-three, and the action of sweeping across an arena surrounded by other pounding horses and riders, eyes fixed on the small orange ball, did get quite thrilling. This was only my third time playing polo, or indeed getting on a horse, since arriving in the UK - something that I find a bit disappointing, but that doesn't seem all that unusual for student life here. I've found that sports and hobbies aren't as all-consuming in the UK as they are in America, even at the university (varsity) level. Athletic clubs and teams aren't nearly as well-organized, and I haven't found them that physically grueling, even rowing. Other Stanford students here have echoed similar sentiments. For Oxford students, "sport" isn't as central to life (you won't find anyone here cheering "Beat Cambridge!" like Stanford students do "Beat Cal!"). For one thing, there's too much schoolwork to worry about. And in general, these students seem to have different goals and a different work-life balance. I've enjoyed striking this new balance through travel, and with some upcoming day trips and time running short, I likely won't be able to make it out to play polo again. Still, I'm glad to have had the opportunity.

That said, in two weeks I will be done with schoolwork and the Oxford term - then in three weeks I'll be on my way home! Yikes, time to start cramming in some last-minute adventures!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lessons Learned About Writing

Because heaven knows I've been doing enough writing in Oxford, and because I'm one of those strange people who likes to reflect on the process of composition, here are a few:

- Write to rewrite. Yes, I knew this before. It's one of those maxims that everyone repeats about writing. But never have I realized it so intensely, truthfully, personally. The first draft doesn't matter. Don't write expecting every sentence to turn out perfectly. Shut down the inner censor and throw everything you've got at the page, allowing it to be hideous and wandering and nonsensical if it wants. It's all for the next draft. With enough time, out of all that rubble a pearl will emerge.

- Free writing and free association is a mysterious, wonderful thing. Again, something I knew before, but once I abandon myself to the first draft and allow the mushed-up-word-soup to come, I find myself stumbling across insights I never had before.

- If you have an idea, write it down. Straight away. Don't let it slip out of your fingers, don't rely on your mind or your memory or the muse to strike the inspiration again.

- The essay is about the discovery. Often, I cannot nail down a specific thesis until after I've finished writing something, or until I'm well into it, and this is honestly the way it should be. The word "essay" itself means attempt, something I've been reminding myself of a lot lately. I start out with an idea of what I want to say, a vague train of thoughts that loosely relate, and only through the probing and thinking and writing process can I lash them all together, drawing out a meaning that I never could have predicted.

- One essay can never say it all. Or book, either. So frustrating, the limitations of words and intelligible, coherent arguments. But also exhilarating: one can always return to it, over and over again.

- Be disciplined. Tight prose, always. But not so tight that it bursts under the strain.

- It's okay to let passion and fervent language leak into your academic work. Sometimes better, in fact.

- Read, read, read. And then read some more.

I suppose I did know all of this before I came to Oxford. But not so clearly. It's like returning to an old draft: the ideas are there to begin with, but only time and effort can bring them into sharper relief. Now, on to next week's tutorial paper!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hey There, Winter

Fall is over. The leaves are almost gone from the trees, plastered to the sidewalk in slick black layers. Wearing layers and scarves is a must; I've been going around with leggings on underneath my jeans. A cold fog has descended over Oxford these past two days, and many parts of the Stanford house are absolutely freezing. The sun is infrequent and weak, and since England is so far north it keeps setting earlier and earlier in the day. Afternoon starts to wane at around 2:30pm. More local people here say this isn't bona fide winter yet, that it'll get even colder and drearier, but I can see the change of season starting to show its face. And I know this much: I will never, never complain about California weather again! (Well, maybe when the February rain makes me feel like a drowned rat. I reserve that right.) Brrrrr. I miss that spectacular, blue and clear and seemingly infinite New Mexico sky, too. At least this is good sit-inside-and-read-a-book weather. When I'm not piling on the layers, that is.

Random photo of the day: fun lights at a frozen yogurt place in London this weekend, just to break up the gray clouds with a bit of color. Yay froyo exists in England! (Maybe not as good as in Cali, but still not bad.) And yes, I see the irony in writing about froyo right after complaining about the cold.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Finding my Bookish Roots

As an English major, one of the absolute best things about spending time in England is being able to experience the places and scenery that prominently feature in the literature I'm reading. For me, the impact of this has been huge.

I've been to the Globe Theatre and can imagine how Shakespeare must have looked on that stage. When I read Dickens or Thackeray, I recognize their descriptions of London, even across a distance of 150 years. St. Paul's, Fleet Street, Chancery Lane, various towers and bridges: yes, yes, I know that too! Their books suddenly stir with new life, vivid and relevant like never before. I've now been to a country gentleman's house - Mr. Darcy's Pemberley, perhaps, or Queen's Crawley or Thornfield - as well as seemingly hundreds of English churches; I've seen towns, taverns, inns. In Bath, I find myself whirling into the world of Jane Austen: I can see the balls, the pretentious society, the tedium of social appearances. When the mists descend on Oxford, I see how mysterious the English countryside can seem, and the Gothic no longer feels so ludicrous; it does seem that an ignis fatuus could flare at any point and lead me astray. Hillsides and ruins and vistas do strike me as romantic, or - as I think Burke put it - sublime. Even on walks through wooden paths and meadows, I can visualize myself as Jane Eyre; at any moment, Mr. Rochester could gallop up and go sprawling on that horse of his. Or perhaps this is just a nice Sunday stroll, and I am Dorothea Brooke, and tea (and hopefully not Mr. Casaubon) will await in the parlor upon my return.

All this, and more. The bottom line is that the British literature I read no longer seems to me as fantastical, as far away as it once did, but grounded in a specific place and time. My surroundings speak to me again and again through my books, through the strong and vigorous voices from long ago. I am seeing how books are the concrete manifestations of their age, and this only increases their magic and charm. Oh, England - an English major's dream!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Another Day in London

The more I see of London, the more I like it. So many faces to the city, so many things to see and discover. It's an amazingly diverse city, but with a strong sense of history, and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to spend so much time there. Every time I go back, I come away feeling like I've experienced something different. Here's a short chronicle of my very fun day yesterday:

The world-famous Portobello Road market in Notting Hill is every bit as amazing as you'd expect it to be! The area and streets themselves are colorful and eclectic, and there's so much cool stuff for sale, from antiques to clothes to food, as well as street musicians and an incredible amount of energy. Because it is famous, though, it's swarming and crowded, and the people-watching is at least as interesting as anything else.
I made sure to stop by and see The Travel Bookshop, featured in the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts film Notting Hill! Although the interior has been remodeled a bit since the days of the film, it still looks pretty much like you'd expect. How weird that it's a real place.

My morning in Notting Hill over, I headed over to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. Coming up out of the tube station into the grand, expansive square, with its central column and lions and fountains and fine surrounding buildings, all swarming with people and life, was an experience in itself. I found the entire place too massive to photograph.

One of the fountains with the National Gallery in the background. I spent about an hour and a half in the gallery, which has an impressive range of paintings and artists, including some names that are quickly coming to feel like old friends: Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, etc. I've enjoyed seeing these artists' range of work during my travels in Europe, as well as coming to a greater appreciation of their influence. The interior architecture was interesting too: very colorful and baroque, with marble columns and gilded ceilings. Probably one of the most baroque buildings I've entered so far, excluding Blenheim. After the National Gallery, I spent an hour or so in the National Portrait Gallery next door, which I almost liked better - the contemporary photography was excellent, and I enjoyed seeing old paintings of famous Britons during the Victorian era.

My next stop: the Natural History Museum, also remarkable for its architecture. I met up with a few friends and we roamed the halls of fossils and plant/animal displays together. (And how awesome is it that virtually all of London's museums are free?!)

Wandering London at night after all the museums had closed. The Brits like Christmas, I can already tell you that, and Picadilly Circus was alight with fun displays like stars, trees, and (as here) gift boxes. Several places have already laid out ice skating rinks and hot chocolate. Plus we walked past a "Winter Wonderland" event being set up in Hyde Park. I'm excited to see what London feels like once it's really December!