Thursday, September 30, 2010


My latest Oxford discovery: punting down the Thames! This afternoon a group of us walked to the boathouse by Magdalen Bridge and rented three boats for an hour. For those of you who don't know, punting is the pastime of riding in a narrow, flat-bottomed boat propelled by a long pole that pushes against the river bottom. Very Venetian.

I found it absolutely beautiful, floating down the calm waters, gazing up the banks across green lawns and up through overhanging branches. Someone had been smart enough to bring some crackers and cheese, and we all leaned back and ate in the mild fall air. Ducks swam alongside our boat, darting to nibble up the cracker bits we tossed into the water - one curious female must have followed us for ten minutes! Canadian geese dotted the banks, too, and a small flock flew into the water and crowded our boat around one river bend. The sun even ventured out a few times, and almost everywhere we could look back and see some Oxford spire or rampart towering into the sky.

Now, all this sounds very idyllic, but punting is much harder than it looks. All five of us in my boat took a turn, and for my part I found it impossible to make my boat cruise on straight! The long rod felt unwieldy in my hands, and no matter how hard I tried I kept swinging the boat around in circles! The Oxonians (Oxford students) that passed us in other punts were certainly laughing at us. Still, it was very, very fun. Maybe I'll make it out on the water again before the weather turns too cold.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mapping My Coordinates

Today's my third day of orientation and of living in the Stanford House. It's been a nice time to meet people, get settled, and explore Oxford without the pressures of schoolwork, and the general air in the house is that of meeting an exciting adventure. The pressure cooker will turn on soon, of course (I saw my course syllabi today - yikes!), but thus far our days have been filled with staff talks, group activities, and general logistics. Yesterday a number of Oxford historian-professor types guided us around some of the colleges; the woman with my group had a wonderfully kind British air, not to mention a smooth cadenced accent that I found enthralling. The history of this place keeps blowing my mind. Last night was also our welcome dinner, on long lamplit tables in Corpus Christi's dining hall. We had sherry and wine (the wine was good; the sherry not so much, especially since the sugary variety reminded me of concentrated cough syrup), and I kept wondering how many generations of students had sat there before us, and what kinds of things they had discussed.

Other than the formal orientation activities, I've been wandering around Oxford, getting settled and figuring out details like where to buy books and groceries, as well as getting to know my fellow students in the Stanford House. Living in the house has been an adventure in itself. Imagine the most convoluted maze, labyrinth, rabbit warren, with in-between floors, corner-nook rooms and kitchens, and staircases that lead up and down and twist in coils, so that when asked "Where's your room?" all 48 residents can only shrug and point, "Over there somewhere" - imagine that, if you can, and you've visualized where I'll be living this quarter. The house itself is a series of interconnected living spaces that have been smashed together to accommodate as many students as possible. There seems to be little logic behind the architectural organization, but I find it refreshingly eccentric, besides worrying about what would happen to me if I got lost during a fire alarm.

My room is easier to access than some, up a flight of stairs (just one!) and facing the back garden near the fire escape. (Fire alarm problem solved!) Since the view is beautiful, and since it doesn't involve getting lost, I find it one of the best rooms in the house. Some other rooms have huge old (albeit blocked-up) Victorian fireplaces and spectacular glimpses of the Oxford streets, but I like sitting out on my set of steps, breathing in the damp cool air, and gazing down into the garden and the walls of the city beyond.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I am in Oxford! After so much planning and anticipation (trepidation?), it’s great to finally be here.
Now, where do I start? The entire city has a unique mix of energy and centuries-old tradition that I find very hard to describe. In any case, it’s at once invigorating and humbling, and I feel like I’m (maybe) absorbing some of the intellectual vibes that race throughout this place. Names such as Henry VIII, Albert Einstein, Robert Boyle, Alexander Fleming, T.E. Lawrence, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien keep being dropped into casual conversation about the history of Oxford, making me want to wander around with my jaw dropping in awe. Virtually every spot and every building is in some way historic. Seemingly everywhere I look, a stone spire shoots into the sky or a plaque marks the location of some monumental event or academic discovery. Some of the colleges, with their quiet stateliness, make me feel like I’ve stepped back in time, released to be and to learn anything. I keep realizing, with a small start, how blessed I am to be here.

Yet, even though history and tradition are clearly very important in Oxford (more about this later), I haven’t found this air overbearing. There’s a brisk energy on the streets, and conversation is engaging and intelligent. Many cute (and sometimes eccentric) shops flaunt interesting and colorful displays, and narrow winding roads give an adventurous air to the place. I’ve already discovered some of the more wonderful parts of living here – namely, the Covered Market and Ben’s Cookies, the quirky specialty shops, Christchurch Meadow and the gorgeous Thames (slash Isis) river. It’s clear that this city is not some dead monument, but a place that is still alive and relevant.

Here are some of my first views of the place where I’ll spend the next ten weeks of my life (it was sunny that day – not so anymore!).

All Souls College

The Bodelian Library

Magdalen Bridge

Corpus Christi garden

The High Street

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tale of Two Cities

Europe: week one. The Oxford term hasn't started yet, so I've kicked off my travels via a whirlwind foray through London and Paris. This is the first time I've had access to free wireless internet in a week, but part of me has enjoyed the disconnect. It's made me feel free, rambling, untethered to the routine obligations of life in the U.S. But then again, that could also be an effect of the sights I've seen. This week has been a compressed tale of two cities, both very different but very enjoyable.

Here's a compressed comparison of the two.


London and Paris, while both swarming with tourists, are very different in the layouts of their monuments and must-see destinations. Our first night in Paris, we took a boat ride down the Seine, which provided a stunning view and introduction to the city. Eiffel Tower, Invalides, Louvre, National Assembly, cathedral of Nortre Dame, all in a row! A bit mind-blowing. We spent our days exploring these districts, mostly on foot (I quickly became sore from walking), never quite dispelling the illusion of timelessness and refinement. I see why Paris is often considered the most beautiful city in the world!

London, on the other hand, is more of an odd mix. The area around Buckingham Palace, which we visited on Friday, was more of what I'd pictured the city might look like, with fortresslike stone slab buildings clustered around such spectacular sights as Westminster Abbey, Parliament, and Big Ben. But the rest of the city revealed interesting layers of time, space, and culture. A stone fortress from 1200 on one block, a soaring modern glass tower right beside it. A jarring mismatch, something like a time capsule. Paired with more crowds and bustle, exacerbated by the way Brits really do drive on the wrong side of the road! But destinations like Buckingham Palace (where we got to tour the state rooms) had a jaw-dropping elegance that almost surpassed anything we'd seen in Paris.


Coming from the desert, all I have to say is wow. We visited the Luxembourg gardens on a perfect sunny day and sat around the fountain basking in the sun, then strolled the manicured lawns swarming with joggers and bench-loungers. I must say Europeans better know how to enjoy their leisure than Americans. In Paris many couples sat on the banks of the Seine, and grass-lawn picnics seemed a popular activity, especially beside the Eiffel Tower. In London, too, the parks were spectacular - none more than the St. James's park, where beautiful birds dotted the water and over-inquisitive squirrels tried to climb up our pants legs. What greenness, what color!


In the eating department, Paris wins out - no surprise, since I received many precautions about British food before embarking on this trip. What a wonderful variety of breads, wines, and cheeses! The crepes, even from street vendors, were quite good. And don't get me started on the chocolates and pastries...

British food, on the whole, is rather bland, but in a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs sort of way, reminding me of old Dickens novels where orphans line up in the cold for their morning helping of porridge. I've had porridge since I've been here, as well as the standard English fare of fish and chips and roast and potatoes. All fine for a hungry tourist, but not as good as the Lebanese cuisine we tried our second night in London.

Still, not all British food is completely awful. I've had a few good muffins and scones since arriving here, and the chocolate tart and hot chocolate we enjoyed at Buckingham Palace were wonderful, not to mention adorable.


Tough call, but I enjoyed the London and Paris museums about equally. Paris, of course, has the Louvre, which was stunning in architecture but did have me a bit tired of cherubs and Madonnas by the end. I loved the marble sculpture displays, and the later paintings (18th and 19th century) were stunning. Disappointingly, the space in front of the Mona Lisa was crammed, bustling, and not at all suited for real artistic reflection - too many tourists! But as fun as it was to see the Louvre, perhaps more enjoyable was the Musee d'Orsay, with its collection of more modern, realist, and impressionistic art. Van Gogh's self-portrait was amazing to see in person, as were the collections of work by such artists as Monet, Cezanne, and Renoir. As always, I loved the Rodin sculptures, maybe especially so because they made me think of Stanford.

In London, we visited the British Museum, which was astonishing in the breadth of its collection of artifacts. The Rosetta stone, large chunks of the Parthenon's frieze, the bronze bust of Augustus - they were all here. As well as sphinxes, ancient coins from around the world, mummies, Mayan and Incan art, Greek pottery, and so much else that I felt as if I could have spent days roaming all of the exhibits rather than mere hours. British imperialism = a good or a bad thing?


Paris had picturesque weather, around 70 and sunny, with the leaves just starting to turn and the late summer rays floating through the trees - which made it even harder to arrive in cold and rainy London on Wednesday. I went from basking in T-shirts to shivering under an umbrella in no time at all. Still, what else did I expect of England? The weather when we arrived at Oxford yesterday was warmer at least, so hopefully I'll get in a few pleasant days before real winter starts. I'm going to miss that California sun...

Culture and Communication

Europeans so far seem like friendly people (the occasional rudeness of street passersby notwithstanding), happy to help or offer directions, often not in such a rush as some Americans. Being in Paris made me wish I spoke French (or at least read it better than I do with my Latin-roots background), especially since the people we met in restaurants and on the streets were so courteous about communicating with tourists who obviously did not speak their language. Without fuss or disdain, they made themselves understood. Americans aren't always so accepting.

As for British accents, it's hard but I'm trying. The Brits so far have been extra polite when they see that I'm struggling, which is gratifying. I was pleased to see that many of the venues we visited in London openly advertised their British Sign Language interpreting services - not something you often find in America! (Now if only I understood BSL...)


Okay, so European cars deserve a final comment. I was infatuated with all the Mini Coopers and other similarly tiny cars in Paris (and the motorcycles! and trimly dressed professor types on bicycles!), but London is equally quirky with all its double-decker buses and 1940s-period taxi cabs. I'm even getting used to looking on the right sides of the road when crossing the street!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bon Voyage!

Hello friends! I've started this blog to be, literally, an internet log of my travels overseas during the coming three months. Seeing as I will be in Europe in less than three days, it's safe to say that I'm diving right in!

So who am I, and where am I going? I am an junior at Stanford, majoring in English and human biology, who is about to spend ten weeks at Oxford University as part of Stanford's Bing Overseas Studies Program. Going to Oxford has been a goal of mine since my senior year of high school, before I even applied to Stanford. As such, I am beyond eager for the opportunity to study at such a prominent and historic university, to see parts of the world I've never seen before, and to gain fresh perspectives along the way - perspectives that I hope will stay with me far beyond my return to Stanford. I've heard a lot about Oxford from a collection of friends and friends-of-friends (and other interesting connections), and I'm excited to be an inhabitant there for a while, visiting such places as High Street and the covered market, the Bodelian library and the various colleges. Finally, like any true English-lit nerd, I'm a bit giddy to be studying the written works I admire right in the heart of England!

At this point, it's also worthwhile to mention my apprehensions about going overseas, if only briefly. I am nervous about: 1) how I will handle living in a foreign country (and traveling abroad) for the first time; 2) the intensity of the Oxford classes, especially the tutorial, and my ability to balance schoolwork with sightseeing; 3) meeting unfamiliar people; and 4) understanding British accents! Since I am deaf, the latter is probably my biggest concern, as is the entire dilemma of communication. Fortunately, the Stanford overseas program was able to arrange for an American Sign Language interpreter in Oxford, though many friends will remember what a nightmare that process was! (I won't go into it here.) Overall, though, I'm much more excited than nervous, and I've realized that many of my fears are fears I will need to face anyway. For instance, communication is probably not much easier at Stanford than it will be at Oxford. I'm determined not to let fear of the unknown hold me back - especially when the entire experience will be so worth it!

My belongings are accumulating, my room is a mess as I pack (I'm going to try to jam three months' worth of stuff into one suitcase), and I keep darting off to finish last-minute errands before departing in two days. And then - bon voyage! I know that's not British, but still appropriate seeing as our first travel stop is Paris!

Until then!