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!

Friday, November 12, 2010


I'll begin this post this way: I love Bath. Maybe more than any other English town I've seen so far. Before coming to England, it was one of the destinations high up on my must-see list (in addition to Stonehenge and Cambridge), and today I had the opportunity to go there on a class field trip. I was not disappointed!

Take a natural hot spring that provided the roots for a Roman town, then later a flourishing resort escape and artists' abode for the wealthy, all situated against a gently-rolling-hills landscape, and you've got Bath. The
current architecture there is mainly of an eighteenth-century neoclassical style (see how much architecture class is teaching me?), whose clean-cut, elegant buildings I found wonderfully attractive. These buildings had just the right mix of the historic/classical, and enough of a taste of the modern, to make them really beautiful. Adding to the appeal of the city was its interesting layout, straight sloping streets combined with curving roads and sprawling open space. It turned out bigger than I expected, much more spread-out than medieval towns like Winchester, and when our class toured the city, up into the hills past the resort apartments the gentry built for themselves to stay in during "the season," we passed such grand curving landmarks as the Circus and the Crescent. And got a pretty magnificent view besides - now if only it hadn't been rainy!

Now, Bath (being Bath) also has, well, baths, long regarded to have healing and even mystical properties. The oldest among these is the excavated ruin of the ancient Roman bathhouse and city center, which I got to see with two friends after our class tour had dissembled for a few hours of free time. The foundations are all that remain, along with many artifacts, but the hot spring still fills the basins of the large stone baths themselves, which are remarkably intact. Having taken Latin in high school and having learned about the Roman bathhouse tradition, I found it fascinating to see this location for myself. (Random highlight: I unexpectedly ended up getting free admission once the audio-tour-desk clerks found out I was deaf. Hey, awesome.) The other eighteenth and nineteenth century baths, I didn't get to see except from the outside, but we did discuss the old genteel traditions of spending the winters here to socialize and relax and cure gout and other maladies - basically what you'd expect from reading Jane Austen. Bath's famed hot spring water was available for tasting, but I ran out of time to try it! (Although, from what I've heard, I wouldn't especially fancy gulping down a mineralized, sulfur-y, questionably beneficial liquid anyway.)

Final highlight of Bath: having delicious afternoon tea and scones and goodies in the Pump Room right beside the Roman baths! The Pump Room is one of the grand assembly rooms once used for British high society, and is a major setting in such novels as Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. I felt very surreal, sitting in that beautiful moulded room like Catherine Morland or some other character who's walked through my imagination. Add to that the wonderfully nerdy conversation my friends and I had about literature on the bus ride back, and it was an amazing day!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Because I Can't Resist: BSL

Continuing on the topic of my last post, this is possibly the most fascinating British-ism of all (at least, for me): British Sign Language!

No, I have not made contact with any deaf people yet in the UK - I honestly think I'll be too busy, although there's a big deaf event in London at the end of November that I might (very, very slight chance) go to, if I have nothing else to do that weekend. But my interpreters here both know some BSL, although they're predominantly ASL interpreters, and I've been curious enough to learn the BSL alphabet. This is almost the extent of my BSL knowledge, but I feel like I've picked up on it quickly - and I've been practicing! (Yes, only for my own amusement since it hasn't served any communicative purpose thus far. But still.)

For anyone who knows any amount of ASL, the above video probably seems a bit ridiculous. For me it is. I mean, a two-handed alphabet, seriously, when in ASL I can rip off a word by flicking a few fingers? This isn't fingerspelling, it's hand-spelling.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I've just realized that one month from today will be my last full day in the UK - I fly home on the 10th of December. With this in mind, I've been feeling rather conflicted: astonished that this time (this solid block of weeks that started out to me as so unknown) has passed so quickly, sad to leave and a bit panicky as I try to squeeze as much sightseeing and adventuring into the time I have left, but also excited to see home and my friends and family again. (And horses. And dogs.) Perhaps I'll write another time about the reflections my time in the UK has led me to have about home and my "normal" life.

But, that being said, for the moment I'd like to focus on England. There are still several "British-isms" that feel strange and quirky to me, even after a month and a half here, and that keep taking me by surprise. In all likelihood, they'll probably continue to be mystifying until the day I leave. Here are just a few:

- The Brits drive on the wrong side of the road. Obviously. But they also drive on the wrong side of the car. As in, the driver's side is actually the passenger's seat. I keep doing double-takes (even now!) thinking, "Wait - what - there wasn't anyone driving that car!" Last week, when I caught a ride with someone to polo practice, I kept feeling weird and ill-at-ease, sitting on the left side of the car but not driving.

- It's apparently a big thing in England, especially among young people, to sign emails, texts, facebook messages, etc., with the postscript "xxx." As in "xoxoxo," but without the kisses. Depending on the scale of affection, people will type anything from a single "x" to "xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx." By those rules, I'd sign this post off with "Rachel xx."

- British people have no conception of some basic American food staples. When I wanted chocolate chips from the store, I ended up having a long and confused interaction that took me to the specialty baking section to buy teeny tiny overpriced bags of chocolate pieces. ("Wait, you don't even have a normal bag of Hershey's chocolate chips?" "No.") A friend of mine wanted canned pumpkin for pumpkin pie, but that also seemed nonexistent. Not to mention all of the different names they have for ordinary food items.

- My "American" accent (or whatever you call my voice - throughout my life Americans themselves have asked me if I'm foreign) throws the Brits off, to the extent that going to the store usually involves me pulling out a pad of paper and writing down whatever I need. Matters aren't helped by the fact that their British accents also throw me into a tailspin!

- The temperature here is in Celsius, not Farenheit. Hence I keep gaping when I see how cold it really is outside - no, wait, not really.

- I am still terrible with British money. The bills are easy enough, but there are too many coins! I know which ones are one pound, or two pounds, or fifty pence, but beyond that I'm worse than a kindergartener. This inevitably marks me as foreign. Strategy: count my change before I approach the cashier.

- Not to mention common vocabulary differences like soccer/football, metro/tube, dessert/pudding (or whatever the heck pudding actually is), etc...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Various Views of St. Paul's

...from several different times in London, and inspired by a paper I just wrote on the subject. (Oh yeah, I'm cranking out those papers!)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fireworks and a Bonfire

Last night, in celebration of Guy Fawkes Day, I joined a group of Stanford and Oxford students in walking over to one of the University parks for the annual bonfire, funfair, and fireworks display. The walk there took a while, since the legions of migrating students and local families had jammed up the roads and sidewalks, and there was still car traffic to worry about. Once we arrived at the park, the crowds had only increased - reminding me very much of the Fourth of July in Albuquerque at the balloon fiesta park. Minus the warm weather, of course. And the balloon glow. Though it was a clear night without rain, it was still quite cold, especially standing out in the dark for forty-five minutes waiting for the fireworks display to start. Some people passed the time with carnival rides, others with food and live music, but come fireworks time we were all gathered, clustered fifty people deep, in front of the Guy Fawkes effigy at one end of the park.

The fireworks display was spectacular and dazzlingly close overhead, and once it finished the effigy was set on fire. Watching it burn, consumed by flames, and then spread to the huge stack of wooden pallets behind it, more than made up for the long wait. It was the biggest bonfire I've seen, around forty feet high, and warmed our faces even from thirty yards away. I suppose all humans are pyromaniacs to some extent, and so my group of Stanford friends stood there for a while, staring in fascination and snapping pictures, until the cold got to us and we decided we'd better tramp on home.

As fun as this (sort of) British equivalent of the Fourth of July was, I still must say that I prefer warm weather, swimming, and barbeques to a cold, dark November night. But still, there's something fun about standing out in the chilly air surrounded by tangible excitement and warm bodies - especially when you get a nice steamy bonfire as a reward at the end, eh?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Stonehenge and Winchester

Epic, epic day. That's all I can say. One of my "must see" destinations before coming to the UK was Stonehenge, and today two friends and I made it happen! We found a bus tour heading out from Oxford for the day - to Winchester as well as Stonehenge - and proceeded to leave the Oxford bubble far, far behind.

Stonehenge is one of those iconic places you see so often in books and pictures, but let me tell you - pictures do not capture the experience of being there. Not. At. All. The stones were bigger than I expected them to be, and their striking arrangement against the sprawling English landscape made all of us gasp and stare the instant our bus rounded over a hilltop and they came into view. Walking around the stone circle, I couldn't get over my feelings of wonder. How and why this monument was built remains a mystery, but a magical one at that. (Just to convey how huge these stones are, the guidebook said that the largest one weighs several tons, as much as seven elephants. How these prehistoric people moved such enormous masses over such a distance and then arranged them so precisely in the ground is mind-boggling, to say the least.) In the end, the aesthetics of it bowled me over: the sky streaked with clouds, the stones weathered and moss-covered but still stolid and commanding... simply wow.

After a wonderful hour of gaping at Stonehenge, we were off to Winchester, home to many medieval buildings and to Winchester Cathedral,
the second-largest cathedral in all of Europe. We took a walk around the walls, beside the river, and wound up in the main city square before heading up the High Street for lunch (delicious pasties and tarts and scones, which we ate atop a stone pillar overlooking the street). Then the three of us headed to the ruins of Winchester Castle, complete with some very cool dungeons and underground tunnels and the great hall, where we saw the original round table. That's right, as in King Arthur and the knights of the round table! Sir Launcelot and all those chaps. I think we were all a bit giddy at seeing this bit of medieval history/legend in person.

In the afternoon, we spent some time in Winchester Cathedral itself - very impressive for the length of its nave, as well as some original medieval tile floors and some amazing old books, including some intricate and well-preserved scribed Bibles. It brought back many memories of high school history class and learning about the medieval clergymen who spent their whole lives copying and illustrating Bibles... They were very beautiful, even though they're nearly a thousand years old. Another highlight of the Cathedral: the spot where Jane Austen is buried. The literary nerd in me was beside myself at standing on this spot, especially since Winchester also hosts the house where Austen spent the last days of her life (we passed it earlier in the day). There's almost too much history in England for me to take in!

Tired but happy, we all made it back to Oxford in time for the annual bonfire and fireworks display for Guy Fawkes Night - but, to do that justice, I'll write about it in another post...

Friday, November 5, 2010

Guy Fawkes Day

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot...

Today is Guy Fawkes Day in Britain - yes, even 400 years after the original plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. There aren't any American traditions that old. Over the course of the day, I saw several effigies out on the streets, and tomorrow night I plan on attending the annual Oxford fireworks display, bonfire night, and funfair in honor of the occasion. Details to come in a future post!

I'll say this now, though: how interesting to participate in other countries' holidays, and to contemplate what kind of event makes a day worth celebrating. On an annual, nationwide basis, that is.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Study Overload

Okay, let me take a moment to confess how insanely intense the Oxford academic system is. Stanford is a challenging place academically, but not like this! I've spent virtually all day, the last three days, studying in my room or in the library. Every night I feel like I surface for a brief respite of air (i.e., sleep) before diving back into it again. I've never been expected to read or write so much, or so sophisticatedly, in my life. My brain feels like a bloated sponge.

Admittedly this week will probably be one of my worst: I've got three full-length papers due in the space of four days, and a ton of reading to finish besides. But still, prodigious amounts of work seem to be the norm for everyone. As one of my friends put it last night, "Every week here feels like finals week!" For sure.

Just to give a bit of perspective, here at Oxford I am "only" taking three classes (including my tutorial), whereas at Stanford I've always taken four, plus many hours of extracurriculars. Here at Oxford, I am "only" taking 15 units - fewer than my usual load at Stanford. And I still feel like I'm drowning in work. By the end of this quarter, I'll be either really burned out or really good at cranking out those scholarly papers. (Probably both.)

But alas, there's still time for fun, and I've had plenty of that here as well. Photo of the day: I love fall. (And can it really be November?!)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Doors Galore

One of my newly discovered obsessions in the UK: doors. No, seriously. Some buildings, flats, and gateways in Oxford have the cutest doors. How'd you like to come home to one of these every day?:

Not to mention the entrance gates to the colleges (many of which have doors within doors) - they're teeny, people were so much shorter back in the medieval days!