Long-distance Relationships

Just to give everyone fair warning, this blog is going to be sentimental in the extreme and deeply personal, because it’s about someone that means the world to me.

The term is winding down and my time in Oxford is nearing its end.  Already many of the friends I’ve made here over the past nine months have left for home, internships, or travel.  I’ve handed in the last of my essays, and all I have left is one tutorial before then I’ll be officially finished with my Oxford career.  It has been an absolutely amazing year, full of fantastic adventures, wonderful people, and beautiful sights.  It hasn’t always been easy; there have been plenty of late nights/ early mornings writing essays to meet deadlines, and I’ve seen the Oxford sunrise more times than I would care to admit.  And that’s without even mentioning all the difficulties that are inevitable with transitioning to a new place with new people.  But through it all, there have always been friends and family there supporting me.  I could go on for pages and pages thanking everyone who has helped me through this year abroad, but this blog is dedicated to one particular individual to has been a huge part of my life for the past nearly three-and-a-half years:  my amazing girlfriend, Mikayla.

First, a little bit about Mikayla and me:  the first time we met was a church lock-in just over four years ago, in the spring of my junior year of high school (her sophomore year).  From the very beginning, something just clicked between us, and we ended staying up all night just chatting about nothing and everything.  We exchanged phone numbers, but didn’t really chat until about ten months later, when Mikayla texted me out-of-the-blue, and again we stayed up chatting for hours and hours.  When we finally saw each other again (on Super Bowl Sunday, funnily enough), we just knew, and we’ve been together ever since.

Our relationship has always been long-distance.  We both went to different high schools growing up, and now we study at different colleges.  Sometimes the distance makes things hard, but we’ve done our best to see each other when we can and to make the most of the times we do get to spend together.  I always knew that I wanted to study abroad, and it is to Mikayla’s credit that she was always very supportive and never once tried to talk me out of it, despite knowing how much more difficult it was going to make things for us.  The day came for me to fly out to the UK, and as I left we reminded each other with tears in our eyes that it wasn’t a ‘goodbye’, but only a ‘see you later’.

One of the first things I did when I got to the UK was to get a smartphone, and it was one of the smartest things I’ve done since coming here (pun unashamedly intended).  It made it so much easier to keep in touch with everyone back home, both with Facebook messaging and snapchats, and we’ve been able to chat almost as easily as if I were actually still in the states and we were just on different campuses.  The time change did take a lot of getting used to, however, and it sometimes led to confusions and misunderstandings.  But we’ve learned to cope with it, and to some extent manage our work schedules and sleep schedules to make sure to find time during the day to just chat and catch up.  We also continued our weekly Sunday Skype dates, which have always marked one of the high points of my week.  Facebook messaging and snapchats are both wonderful, but nothing can match a conversation in which you can see the other person’s face and hear their voice, despite being thousands of miles apart.  Care packages and handwritten letters were also always wonderful surprises to find in the mail.  I would send Mikayla British treats and sweets and she would send me things I was missing from home, as well as the occasional surprise.  But the letters were always the best part; they always brought me a huge grin to my face and I would reread them whenever I was having a particularly rough or stressful day.

Two of the best weeks of my study abroad were when Mikayla came to visit me over the winter holiday.  She flew over the day before New Year’s Eve, and we rang in the New Year watching the fireworks in London from directly across the Thames from the London Eye.  Even before I knew I would be studying abroad in the UK, Mikayla and I had always said we would go on the London Eye together, and in those two weeks we had our chance.  We also went to museums and castles, travelled to Salisbury, Bath, Cardiff, and Oxford, and saw Stonehenge (in the pouring rain, of course).  We also celebrated Mikayla’s twentieth birthday in the most magical way possible:  a trip to the Harry Potter Studio tour in Watford Junction, where the model of Hogwarts was still all decorated with snow for winter.  Sadly, our travels were over all too soon, and after another tear-filled goodbye Mikayla returned to the States.  If anything, this goodbye was harder than the last, because we knew it would be another six months before we could see each other again.  But we could take comfort in the fact that we had made plenty of memories that would last a lifetime.

The next several months had their ups and downs, as we knew they would.  The spring holiday was particularly hard, because it wasn’t always easy to keep in touch whilst I was travelling the UK.  But we made it through, and as end of term approached, I could feel myself getting more and more excited.  As sad as I am to soon be leaving Oxford behind me after a fantastic nine months, every day that passes is bringing my closer to seeing my wonderful sweetheart again.  I’m sure my friends have gone half-crazy from listening to me ramble on about how excited I am, not to leave, but to be home and reunited again.  I know that I am truly lucky and blessed to have such an amazing woman to share my life with, who has stuck with me and supported me through these past nine months abroad, and these past nearly three-and-a-half years.  If you’re reading this, I love you, Mikayla.  Thank you for everything, and I cannot wait to see your beautiful face again in three days!

Before leaving to study abroad, people kept telling me all sorts of horror stories about long-distance relationships and how they never work and aren’t worth the time or effort.  In my humble opinion, they couldn’t be more wrong.  I won’t deny that distance makes things harder and at times can leave you emotionally exhausted, and there are days that you would give anything for even just a hug.  But in the end, some people are worth fighting for.  It takes patience, understanding, hard work, and more than a little forgiveness, just like any other relationship.  This year has shown me that distance proves the strength of a relationship.  It proves that you aren’t in a relationship simply because it’s easy or convenient; there’s nothing easy or convenient about being over three thousand miles away from the one you love.  It proves that you are in the relationship because you honestly believe to the very core of your being that the other person is worth it, and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to make the relationship work.  I’d like to close with a quote that Mikayla gave me before I headed off to college, which ever since has always been on my desk, wherever I may be:

“Distance is not for the fearful, it’s for the bold.  It’s for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone, in exchange for a little time with the ones they love.  It’s for those knowing a good thing when they see it, even if they don’t see it nearly enough.”

Random Musings and Updates

Hello everyone!  I realize it has been quite some time since my last blog post.  The weather here in the UK has taken a turn for the wonderful, with lots of warm sunny days.  Meanwhile, my work has skyrocketed over the past two weeks with German and Egyptology tutorials, as well as an extended essay project that I am working on for Assyriology.  For grad school applications, I discovered that many schools would like a 15-20 page writing sample.  Not having anything approaching that length to submit, I approached my tutor about whether we could work together to craft an essay that would be suitable.  He wholeheartedly agreed, and for the past week I’ve started researching for an 8,000 word essay on the development of kingship in Mesopotamia from Early Dynastic times (3000 BCE) through to the end of the Neo-Babylonian Period (ca. 536 BCE).

As my tutor and I discussed our plans for the essay, it once again struck me how fortunate I have been to be able to study here at Oxford, especially as a visiting student.  The flexibility I’ve been granted here is nothing short of amazing.  Time and time again, I’ve been able to approach my tutors and the director of visiting students here at St. Catz about my interests, and they’ve always found ways to accommodate what I would like to do.  Not once has one of them told me that it was impossible or that I should perhaps reconsider what I want to do.  As a result, this year I have had the opportunity to follow my interests wherever they may lead, which has made me more certain than ever that I would like to pursue a career in academia focusing on the ancient Near East.  The more I study, the more I discover that I want to explore.  Although the work here is harder than anything I’ve done academically before, I’m never bored.  Quite the contrary, I find myself in a state of near-perpetual fascination with my studies.

As the weather here constantly improves, I am reminded again and again of what a beautiful city Oxford is.  The honey-colored limestone gleams in the sunlight, and the “dreaming spires” stand out starkly against the clear blue sky (well, except for today, which has been rather rainy).  Even more stunning is walking through Oxford in the evening, watching the stone slowly turn a rosy pink from the light of the setting sun.  With barely a month of my study abroad remaining, I can feel these moments of beauty becoming more and more dear to me, and I know that Oxford, the city and the university, will always hold a special place in my heart.

Trinity Term

Term has officially started and the work is already piling up.  Trinity term is shaping up to be the most strenuous of my terms here in Oxford.  This term, I am continuing to study Egyptology and Assyriology, as well as starting a new series of German tutorials.  All together, they add up to 16 tutorials over the next 8 weeks; thankfully, at least I don’t have any exams.  I will definitely have to work hard this term and will be pushing my limits.

That is not to say that I will be completely cocooning myself up in my room for the next two months.  The weather has taken a turn for the better, with more sunny days and less rain (knock on wood).  A few friends and I have decided to try to get in better shape this term by eating better and exercising 6 days a week, particularly by going for lots of runs.  We are hoping to take several weekend trips around the UK as well to places such as Blenheim Palace (childhood home of Winston Churchill) and the beaches of Brighton.  We’re also planning a day to make it to the Viking exhibit in the British Museum, a huge temporary exhibit that even includes a genuine Viking ship that was shipped (pun intended) piece by piece from Denmark and reassembled in the exhibition space.

We have plenty of plans for frivolity around Oxford as well, of course.  Just last week was May Day, which takes place every year on the first day of May.  Many stay up all through the night partying til 6am, when they are joined by the less nocturnal crowd (myself among them) at Magdalene Bridge next to Magdalene College to listen to the college choir sing 16th Century madrigals from the college bell tower.  From there, the crowds depart for a hearty pub breakfast and some entertainment, particularly by Morris dancers, who dress up in period costume, complete with bells and colored scarves, as they have from at least the 15th Century.  May Day originally marked the first day of summer (thus making June 21, the summer solstice, Midsummer’s Day), and continues to mark the start of good weather, with all the picnicking and punting that that entails.  Trinity term will be a lot of hard work, but also a lot of fun.  Oxford has truly saved the best for last.

Hiking Through the Cotswolds

It’s been several weeks since my last post; in the meantime I’ve been enjoying the final weeks of my Easter Holiday travelling with my family, travelling to the southwest of England by myself, and hiking with friends.  I’ve been to the place where Thomas Beckett was murdered/martyred in Canterbury Cathedral, I’ve stood on top of a lighthouse overlooking the white cliffs of Dover, and I’ve eaten a scrumptious sandwich in Sandwich.  It has been a delightful break.  But now, Trinity Term is starting up and soon I will be back to attending lectures and writing papers (and posting blogs more regularly again!).

Although I could go on and on about everywhere I’ve been these past couple weeks, I would like to focus on the final five days of my vacation.  Towards the middle of last term, my roommate asked a bunch of the visiting students if anyone would be interested in a hike along “Shakespeare’s Way”, a trail that runs nearly 150 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon—Shakespeare’s birthplace—to the Globe Theatre in London.  One other brave soul (also named Mike) and myself thought it would be a wonderful way to end our holiday and whole-heartedly agreed to join him.  We decided to hike the 60-mile stretch from Stratford to Oxford.  On the 14th of April, we took a bus out to Stratford to begin our adventure.

Our first day was spent simply exploring Stratford.  We visited Trinity Church, the home of Shakespeare’s tomb.  It also curiously had what is known as a ‘weeping chancel’, which means that the chancel is bent to one side (rather than at a right angle), thus emphasizing Christ bent in agony on the cross.  According to a guide at the church, this style of chancel was popular with groups seeking to emphasize the humanity of Christ; if I remember correctly, he said that there are probably about 70 or so weeping chancels across Britain.  For dinner, we ate at the Black Swan, affectionately known as the Dirty Duck, a pub popular with the actors and crew of the Royal Shakespeare’s Company, the theatre of which was just down the road.  After a restful night and a hearty breakfast at our B&B, we were ready to hit the trail.

We swiftly discovered that this hike would be like none that any of us had ever done before.  Although our guidebook had warned us that the trail would take us through private property (thanks to the owner’s kind permission), we did not quite realize what that would entail until we found ourselves crossing through the middle of what was to be the first of many large sheep pastures.  We quickly became acquainted with the colourful language of our guidebook, which such delightful passages as “our old friend, the river Stour”, “pass the scrappy fence”, and the positive gem:  “as you continue, glance back to watch as the stately home descends like a great ship beyond the horizon”.  The authors of the guide certainly kept us entertained.  As our first day of hiking drew to an end, the trail brought us to the edge of a vast yellow field of canola in full bloom.  The trail cut straight through the middle, and by the time we emerged from the other side to reach our destination for the day (Shipston-on-Stour), all three of us were thoroughly dusted with a bright layer of pollen.

The next few days brought us much of the same; the trail wound through pastures and fields, towns and woodland, hills and streambeds.  The weather cooperated beyond our wildest hopes, never being too hot nor too cold, and there wasn’t a single drop of rain the entire hike.  Every day we were presented with stunning vistas of the beautiful English countryside.  We had an extraordinary view of Blenheim Palace, and even walked past the surprisingly humble grave of Winston Churchill himself.  Our last day took us along a canal straight into Oxford, and after 60 miles of walking, returning to the “City of Dreaming Spires” had never before felt so much like coming home.

Cathedrals

It has been a little longer than usual since my last post.  Before I start this week’s blog, I wanted to give an update on my latest travels.  Since I last posted, I have been to Stirling, Liverpool, Lincoln, London, Bath, Chester, and Llangollen, exploring these vastly different cities.  On Saturday morning, my mother, father, and sister arrived safely at Heathrow to start their week and a half vacation here in the UK.  I’ve missed them all terribly, and I am so happy to get to spend these ten days with them.  But more our travels together next week; this week, I would like to talk about cathedrals.

Throughout the past almost six months, I have had the good fortune to be able to visit several cathedrals and abbeys throughout the United Kingdom.  As I have recently learned, cathedrals are churches that contain the seat of the bishop in charge of the local diocese and abbeys are churches that are, or once were, homes to a monastery or convent (thanks Wikipedia!).  The result in both cases is often a magnificent monumental masterpiece stretching towards the heavens which, at least until recent years, was usually the tallest building of a city.  Two of the most impressive cathedrals I have ever seen were both in Liverpool:  Liverpool Cathedral and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

Liverpool Cathedral is the Anglican cathedral of Liverpool, and it is utterly massive.  Completed in 1978, it is made of a beautiful red sandstone and it is the largest cathedral in the United Kingdom (and fifth largest in the world).  It has two pipe organs, the larger of which—the Grand Organ—may be the largest operational organ in the world with its 10,267 pipes.  Although it may be a very young cathedral, especially when compared with such venerable churches as Bath Abbey and Chester Cathedral, Liverpool Cathedral is simply awe-inspiring.  With its Neo-Gothic architecture, it looks exactly as one would expect a cathedral to look, only built to an extreme scale.  Its tower dominates the skyline, and it is impossible to walk underneath its vaults without being struck by its majesty.

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is the Roman Catholic cathedral of Liverpool, and it could hardly be more different from her sister Anglican cathedral.  Although older than the Anglican cathedral by eleven years, the Catholic cathedral is clearly a modernist cathedral.  It looks quite like an inverted funnel topped by spires, and is affectionately known as “Paddy’s Wigwam” or “the Mersey Funnel”.  The central tower of the cathedral houses what may be the world’s largest stained glass window.  The inside of the church, as well as the outside, is round rather than cruciform, giving the interior space a massive and unified appearance.  Along the edges are various chapels; most are decorated with intriguing modern abstract sculptures.  Despite its non-traditional appearance, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral does not fail to inspire awe.

Cathedrals are among the most impressive structures ever built.  They serve a noble purpose:  to inspire awe and draw people closer to the divine.  Regardless of your beliefs, cathedrals are proud witnesses to the beauty and majesty that human hands, thousands of them working in harmony, can produce.  They force the individual to confront his or her own humanity; faced with such monumental structures, produced over decades by generations of people working towards a common goal, who cannot help but be humbled by what these monuments represent?  Although humans have caused a lot of harm in this world, both individually and collectively, cathedrals and other such monumental structures remind us of what truly great things we are capable of, if only we find a way to overcome our differences and work together.

The Highlands

For the start of my break, I decided to head to Scotland.  On Wednesday night, I headed down to London to catch my bus, an overnight sleeper bus to Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands.  Twelve hours later I was groggily stepping off the bus onto Scottish soil.  As I quickly learned, the Highlands are well-known for their mercurial weather, and during my first day in Inverness it went from rain to sun to rain to sun and back to rain again all in only a few hours.  Despite the rain, I did some exploring around the city, ultimately finding a beautiful view overlooking the River Ness from the back of Inverness Castle (which is now used as the police station).  I also found myself wandering the Inverness museum for a couple hours; it had a particularly good exhibit of Pictish carvings.  That night back in the hostel, I played probably the most interesting game of Taboo that I’ve ever been a part of.  The teams consisted of 1/3 native English speakers, 1/3 Germans, and 1/3 French speakers, resulting in all sorts of mistranslations and hilarity.

On my second day in Inverness, I went on a Jacobite boat tour along Loch Ness to Urquhart Castle.  As we travelled down the Loch, I couldn’t help but marvel at the mountains surrounding us.  Even though most of the trees were still brown from winter, the view was absolutely stunning.  Exploring the castle ruins was an absolute delight.  I felt like I was living in a fairy tale, with the mists surrounding the ruined castle on the shore of Loch, I was half-surprised not to see Nessie’s head rising out of the gloom.  Suddenly the stories started to seem much less far-fetched.  From the castle, we went to the Loch Ness Visitor’s Centre where we learned all about the Loch and the history of its famous monster.

Sadly, after two nights in Inverness, my travels in the Highlands had come to a close.  I met some wonderful people and I hope to return there many times throughout my life to continue to travel and explore.  The Highlands had once last treat in store for me before I left, however.  My bus ride from Inverness to Stirling (where I am now) took me directly through the Cairngorms National Park, a massive national park in the middle of the Highlands.  Every turn of the road brought new breath-takingly majestic views of snow-topped mountains and shining lochs.  At one point, it truly felt like we were driving through a cloud, the mist and snow making it impossible to tell where the snow slopes of the mountains ended and the sky began.  I will miss the Scottish Highlands, and I take comfort knowing that this visit will by no means be my last.

Hilary Term in Review

Once again, we have reached the end of term here in Oxford.  Hilary term has been an adventure, to say the least, full of new friends, hard work, and making memories.  This term St. Catherine’s had our college Ball, something that only occurs once every three years.  It was an amazing night full of good food, ample drinks, and wonderful music.  This term also saw the inauguration of Stephen Fry as the visiting professor of contemporary theatre here at St. Catz, including the obligatory welcome lecture which was both hilarious and thought-provoking (and I was within 3 feet of him as he walked by!).  With the Christ Church College Choir, I was fortunate to have the amazing opportunity to sing in the beautiful chapel of Windsor Castle, surrounded by the tombs of deceased British Monarchs.  Of course, Hilary term was as educational as always and I’ve learned a lot, both about my field and about myself.

Over the past two months, I have been taking Egyptology, Assyriology, and Theology.  All of these have been fascinating and exciting.  In Egyptology, I’ve learned about ancient Egyptian myths and religious beliefs, while in Assyriology I’ve focused on key moments in history, such as the fall of Babylon to the Persians and the disappearance of cuneiform writing (which were about 600 years apart).  My Theology tutorials have taken me on a whirlwind tour through the New Testament, spanning from the Gospel According to Mark to the Revelation to John.  I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the complexity and depth of the Holy Bible, and for history in general.  One thing that my tutors remind me again and again is the importance of stepping out of my own cultural conditionings to try to view the past in the eyes of those who lived there.  I never cease to be surprised by what such practice reveals.  There are both amazing continuities over the millennia (such as ancient Egyptian letters from husbands to their deceased wives protesting that despite the accusations, they did not sleep with the maid), and substantial discontinuities (such as a myriad of Egyptian creation myths, some of which appear to be impossibly divergent and contradictory to modern eyes, which are all accepted, incorporated, and given equal weight).  Studying the ancient past offers glimpses of both how humanity is fundamentally the same across time and space, but also how much of what we perceive as ‘obvious’ or ‘common sense’ is actually the product of millennia of culturally specific developments that may not be universally true.

In addition to all I’ve learned about the ancient Near East this term, I’ve also learned a lot about myself.  Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned quite a bit about my own limits.  I’ve seen 4am this term whilst working on essays more times than I would care to admit.  It comes down to a matter of my poor time-management.  I have finally come to terms with just how much I procrastinate instead of doing my work in a timely manner.  Although I can handle the occasional all-nighter to pull off a last-minute essay, this term has shown me that doing so too regularly wreaks havoc on my physical and mental well-being.  It’s a lesson that has been a long time coming, since I know I’ve always procrastinated on my work for as long as I can remember; I’ve just finally found a place where doing so simply isn’t practical anymore.  I’ve already taken a few steps towards better time management (though taking Candy Crush off my phone took a surprising amount of mental fortitude), and it will be my goal for my final term here in Oxford to establish the better work-life balance that I will need to make my hopes for long-term pursuits in the study of the ancient Near East possible.

Overall, I think Hilary term has been quite successful.  I’m having fun, learning lots, and making many new friends.  The past 8 weeks have been without a doubt the most academically rigorous weeks of my life, and I foresee the trend continuing into Trinity term.  But for now, as Hilary draws to a close and my friends and I say our goodbyes for the Easter vacation, I am looking forward to a month of relaxation, travel, and adventure throughout the UK (all of which I will continue to blog about, of course!).

Oh, What a Beautiful City!

This weekend my roommate has had a friend over visiting from studying abroad in Paris.  As any good host would do, he gave her the grand ‘highlights’ tour of Oxford, including the Ashmolean Museum, the Covered Market, Christ Church, and the Bridge of Sighs.  The weather has been beautiful this weekend—sunny and almost 60 degrees—and flowers are already beginning to bloom.  This is Oxford at its best.  After they got back from touring the city, she asked me:  “Do you ever get used to it?  Do you ever start just taking it for granted?”  My answer was a resounding, “Never”.

Oxford is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been fortunate enough to visit, not mention live in.  The city is a blend of age and modernity whose history reaches back over a thousand years.  Merton College, one of the oldest in Oxford, is celebrating its 750th anniversary this year.  That is not a typo; the college is seven and a half centuries old!  Merton was teaching students before there were Europeans permanently settled in North America (well, except perhaps Vikings, but they didn’t stick around).  I think part of Oxford’s charm is due to its primary building material:  the honey-colored limestone native to the Midlands.  If there is any masonry to be done, it is carved almost invariably in this local rock, which adds a certain degree of homogeneity throughout the city, which the various colleges, libraries, and private businesses then use in a myriad of creative ways.  No two colleges look alike, but due to the common stone, they all seem to visually—as well as in actuality—be part of a coherent whole.

It’s hard to believe that I have now been a resident of Oxford for exactly five months, and that my time here is more than halfway complete.  The time has absolutely flown by, and I’m sure it will only continue to rush by faster the closer I get to the end.  In these past five months, I know I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to discover in this beautiful city.  Every single day, I always notice something that I’ve never seen before; from interesting archways to beautiful parks to amusing gargoyles, there is always something new to discover.  Some days, I decide to travel a random different route just to see what I find, and I am rarely disappointed.  Oxford is after all an old city, and it has picked up plenty of treasures and eccentricities over the centuries.  This magical city never ceases to surprise and delight me, and I look forward to discovering more of its secrets during my remaining four months here in this delightful town.

British Food

Today, I am going to talk about food.  Not just any food, but quintessentially British food.  Over the years, the British have developed a reputation for not excelling culinarily (to put it mildly).  People laugh about British food, saying it is bland and practically inedible.  I cannot vouch for the food of 10-20 years ago or more, but in my experience the bad reputation of British food is entirely unfounded.

Aside from fish & chips and shepherd’s pie, the British have quite a variety of dishes that have not made their way to America, or at least not in any large quantities.  I have fallen madly in love with the Full English Breakfast (as opposed to the continental).  The St. Catz dining hall offers a full English every morning for 2.30 pounds sterling, and it almost never disappoints.  What a full English consists of varies by region, but the staples are sausages, bacon (think closer to Canadian bacon), toast, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, and—of course—tea.  Yogurt is also common.  The breakfast is heavy, like most British food, but it prepares you well for a long day of studying and researching.

Pub food is very popular here in the UK, especially when accompanied by a pint of ‘real ale’, which is generally served room-temperature and flat.  Say what you will, the British ales are a bit bitter to my taste; I prefer the cider (which, incidentally, is always hard cider in the UK; non-alcoholic cider here is called ‘cloudy apple juice’).  Besides the ubiquitous fish & chips, other staples include steak and ale pie, bangers (sausages) and mash, toad-in-a-hole (sausages in a Yorkshire pudding), and the ploughman’s lunch (a piece of bread with cheese and a pickle, sometimes with ham).  Oxford is positively packed with pubs, including several famous ones including the Eagle and Child (favorite haunt of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), the White Horse (haunt of Inspector Morris), and my personal favorite, the Turf Tavern (several centuries old, famously built outside the old city walls to avoid the civic authorities; also connected with Bill Clinton).  All the pubs I have been to thus far have been friendly, a bit eccentric, and full of good food, good drink, and good times.

A new favorite regional food of mine is the Cornish pasty (rhymes with ‘nasty’).  It is the ultimate packed lunch:  the traditional pastry is stuffed full of steak, potatoes, root vegetables, and gravy, baked to a golden brown.  There are a myriad of different varieties, including a surprisingly scrumptious lamb and mint pasty I had in Bath.  Theoretically, for a pasty to be a true Cornish pasty it must be prepared in Cornwall, although it does not have to be baked there.  The dish was popularized by Cornish miners who would bring them as their lunches for a long day in the mines.  Pasties are usually reasonably priced and make a wonderful cheap meal on the go.

Where the British truly excel, however, is with their desserts.  Never have I had so many scrumptious desserts.  Formal hall at Catz is a three-course meal, and the desserts are almost invariably excellent.  One of my favorites thus far was a ‘fruit salad au gratin’, which was, as far as I could tell, a fruit salad mixed with marshmallow fluff and baked.  So good!  Chocolate mousses routinely make an appearance, and millionaire’s shortbread is simply divine (a layer of butter shortbread, a layer of caramel, and a layer of chocolate).  Bread and butter pudding is always a nice treat when it is an option as well.  But the dessert that takes the cake (pun unashamedly intended) is without a doubt sponge cake with custard.  As my family well knows, for the longest time I was not a fan of cake; it has only been in the past couple years that it has grown on me.  All that changed when I discovered cake and custard.  First off, the cake themselves are usually delicious, light, and fluffy, and the hall staff generally gives out very generous portions.  Then the entire thing is smothered in warm, gooey custard (much like a warm, runny pudding).  One night, we had a yellow sponge cake with a rum caramel custard was the absolutely pinnacle of my UK culinary experience (at least thus far!).  I cannot wait to bring back many of these recipes back to the States to introduce them to my friends and family; although first I will have to figure out how to convert all the measurements out of the metric system.

Catz Ball!

This has been a week of glorious insanity.  The Catz Ball was this past weekend (more on that below), multiple nights this week I saw 3 am whilst working on essays, my friends and I celebrated a friend’s birthday today, AND this week I saw Stephen Fry(!!!!!).  But things are now settling back to normal and I now have a bit of time to write blog.

Oxford students, like most college students in my experience, like to work hard and play hard.  The workload here is intense, and I have spent more nights up working on essays into the wee hours of the morning than I would care to admit.  That being said, when it comes time to party, Oxford does it right.  Most colleges have regular bops or ‘entzes’ (in-college ‘fancy dress’/costume parties), where people will dress up and dance the night away in the JCR (the college lounge and bar).  However, there is one extravaganza that only comes to each college once every three years:  the college ball.  For my fellow visiting student friends and me, we lucked out, for this year was the year of St. Catherine’s ball.

Apparently, St. Catherine’s College is rather famous in Oxford for hosting the largest of the college balls, and this year was the largest one they had ever hosted with over 2,000 attendees.  Fortunately St. Catz also hosts one of the cheapest balls at the still-hefty price of 81 pounds sterling per head, with an additional 40 pounds if you would like to partake of a five-course banquet beforehand.  I chose to pass on that option, seeing as included in the ball price already were all-you-can-eat noodles, burritos, exotic burgers (kangaroo and zebra!), doughnuts, cotton candy, and candy galore.  There was more than enough food to go around.  The ticket price also included a budgeted 21 UK units of alcohol PER PERSON (I didn’t come close to even drinking half of my allotted 21, thankfully).  Additionally, there were two photo booths, wandering performers, carnival games, and Laser Quest(!).  St. Catherine’s truly pulled out all the stops.

The ball began at 8:30pm on Saturday night.  The dress code was black tie, so my friends and I spent about an hour getting ready beforehand, including me making at least three attempts before finally managing to tie my bow tie.  After some group photos taken in our staircase, we headed out to the ball.  Luckily, as Catz students, we were able to skip the queue and walk right in as soon as the gates opened (although a couple of my friends bought early entry tickets, and got in a half-hour sooner).  When we walked in, the first thing we were greeted by was a champagne bar covered in glasses that were filled to the brim.  My friends and I made a beeline for the noodle bar to beat the rush, and spent about an hour hanging out, eating, and chatting before venturing our way to the queue for the exotic burgers.  I was definitely a little apprehensive, but my kangaroo burger was absolutely delicious (a bit gamey, and very juicy).  Afterwards, we met up with another group of my friends in the JCR and relaxed, I enjoyed a glass of wine, and we had fun making ridiculous faces in one of the photo booths.

By that time, one of the headliners was about to take the stage, so we made our way back into the heart of the sea of marquees (the entire quad had been covered with giant tents for the ball).  The first act was Swing Republic, a group consisting of an amazing jazz singer and her backup DJ.  We danced through her entire set and had a blast, also admiring an older couple (at least in their sixties) dancing together sweetly in the corner away from the crowds.  After that, we took a bit of break to go outside to relax and cool off for a little bit.  A few friends had bought Cuban cigars to try, and they took the opportunity to light them.  (I admit that I had a puff of my roommate’s cigar, and it was probably enough to last me quite some time).  The amusing part for me was none of us are actual smokers, and the most anyone got through of their cigar was about a third before handing it off to someone else.

After our adventure with the Cubans, we rejoined the dance floor for the main headliner:  the Other Tribe, a funk/ disco group.  By the time they finished their fantastic performance, it was 3am and time for the silent disco.  I lasted about another half-hour, and then it was time for me to head back to my room and collapse.  I slept most of the next morning away, and unashamedly took an afternoon nap later.  I was utterly exhausted, but I knew it was entirely worth it.  The memories from that night will last me a lifetime.