Doctor Who, “The Day of the Doctor”

This past Saturday, November 23rd, at precisely 5:16pm, marked the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, the longest-running science-fiction television series in the world.  At 7:50pm, the BBC broadcast the 50th Anniversary Special, ‘The Day of the Doctor’, simultaneously to millions of televisions and over 1,500 movie theatres in 94 countries across the globe, setting a record for the largest simulcast in world history.  The broadcast peaked in the UK at 10.6 million viewers, meaning over one-third (37.4%) of people watching TV in the UK that evening were watching Doctor Who.  The special was, in my opinion, fantastic, and paid homage to the actors and storylines of the past 50 years while offering tantalizing hints of what the future of the show will bring.

To avoid spoilers, I am resisting the urge to ramble on and on about how much I absolutely loved the special; rather, I will focus on the event itself.  Although I did not make my way to London for the Doctor Who extravaganza there to celebrate the 50th anniversary, I did go to the local Odeon (Oxford’s main cinema) to watch the broadcast in 3D.  The special was shown on three screens, or half the theatre, and each showing was completely booked.  Quite a few audience members arrived in costume or with props, the favorites being fezzes, immensely long scarves, and of course sonic screwdrivers.  Passionate arguments raged over which of the eleven Doctors of the show’s history was/is the best, and what the scariest monsters are.  The fans ranged in age from small children to senior citizens, and looking around at their faces, it was obvious that they were all equally excited.

Doctor Who clearly appeals to a wide variety of individuals, and it is a testimony to the show’s popularity that so many viewers across the globe tuned in to watch the anniversary special.  That a British television show about a time-traveler and his companions who travel the universe fighting monsters could draw in millions of people throughout the entire world boggles the mind.  It shows that we really aren’t that different after all.  Perhaps we all secretly dream about someone showing up on our doorstep who will take us away on a magical adventure across space and time.  Or perhaps we all simply fall in love with the Doctor’s huge and caring heart—well, hearts.

Keeping in Touch

Although the purpose of studying abroad is to experience new cultures and meet new people from across the globe, keeping in touch with home is equally important.  Family and friends back home provide an anchor that can make all the difference during a rough day or a rough week.  Even just the knowledge that they are there has a huge positive effect on the transition to a new place and a new culture, regardless of how often you actually talk.  And speaking from experience, absolutely nothing brightens a rough day like getting a letter or package from home, or seeing a family member or an old friend face-to-face over Skype.

One of the first things that I did when I got to Oxford was get a UK phone.  I knew I wanted to get some sort of phone for the duration of my time here, both for safety purposes and for an easy way to contact people in the UK.  Fortunately, I was able to find a reasonably cheap used iPhone in a tech store in central Oxford.  I opted to go with a pay-as-you-go plan rather than sign-up for a contract, as that would have required me opening a British bank account, something that I was not prepared to jump through the hoops for at the time.

Getting a smart-phone has proven to be probably the most useful purchase that I have made here.  Although my plan comes with very limited data, all of the Oxford colleges and libraries share a wifi network, which is very easy and convenient to use.  I can use the texting on my plan for staying in touch with friends in the UK, and apps that use wifi for staying in touch with home.  Facebook has been a great way of staying in touch, as have Snapchat and Voxer.  Snapchat is great because it makes it easy for me to show people what I’m up to, and for me to see what others are up to.  Voxer is wonderful because it works a bit like a walkie-talkie, as well as allowing you to record voice messages.  Sometimes the other person’s voice can make all the difference in the world.

Facebook, Voxer, and Snapchat are great ways of keeping in touch while on the go, but absolutely nothing compares to a sit-down Skype date.  By paying about $3 a month, I can call anyone in the US through Skype at no charge to them; this has been especially useful calling home, since my house has limited internet.  Video-chatting with Skype is by far the best, though.  Although the video and sound quality is not always the greatest, it is worth putting up with in order to be able to actually chat with friends and family from home face to face.  My girlfriend and I have two standing Skype dates a week, and I try to call home at least once a week (or video-chat when we have the data left at the end of our billing cycle).  There is always so much to talk about, regardless of how much we’ve emailed or messaged back and forth throughout the week; rarely do our conversations last less than an hour.  It is a huge comfort, both for me, my family, and my girlfriend, to be able to actually sit down, see each other, and chat, despite being nearly 3,500 miles apart.

Last, but certainly not least, is ‘snail mail’.  I absolutely love getting mail from back home, even when it is nothing more than a postcard.  Finding something in my mailbox always brings a smile to my face.  One corner of my desk is reserved for letters and cards from home, and whenever I need a pick-me-up I can just reach over and pick one to read.  I find writing letters myself are also something that I greatly enjoy, and I try to write one once every week or two.  I especially like sending postcards, particularly ones with pictures of Oxford and any other places that I visit, so people can get a glimpse of where I’ve been.  Of course packages with snacks from home are also always much appreciated (and no, this is not me hinting for more, I swear).  I always save them for stressful days—and nights—of paper-writing when a taste of home is really needed.

With all of the technology available, it is incredibly easy to keep in touch with home.  Although it’s important to branch out and meet new people wherever you go, being able to see a familiar face from home is always an immense comfort.  Though it may be becoming a bit old-fashioned, sending and receiving handwritten letters that can be read over and over again offer a piece of physical reassurance that, despite the distance, the love and support from home is still there, and is stronger than ever.

Remember, Remember, the 5th of November…

Although Halloween is starting to catch on in the United Kingdom, the autumn holiday that most Brits look forward to occurs on the 5th of November.  Variously called Guy Fawkes Day, Bonfire Night, and Fireworks Night, the 5th of November remembers the night in 1605 when Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, was caught underneath the Protestant-controlled Parliament with several barrels of gunpowder.  He and his co-conspirators were seeking to destroy Parliament and assassinate King James I.  They were discovered due to an anonymous letter, and were executed, Fawkes famously leaping to his death from the scaffold, to thus escape his hanging and subsequent mutilation (drawing and quartering being in vogue at the time).

This past Sunday, Oxford held its traditional celebration of the 5th of November.  Thousands of people converged at South Park for the festivities, which were reminiscent of a carnival, with games, rides, musical performers, and lots of food stands.  Grabbing a Cornish pasty for my supper, I made my way to the east end of the park, where stood a giant pile of wooden pallets easily three stories tall, hinting at the size of the bonfire to come.  At 7:15, the fireworks began, lighting up the sky to the awe of the onlookers.  (A little boy next to me turned to his mother and said, “Mummy, look!  They’re so many colors!”).  As the smoke from the last firework drifted away, the bonfire was lit.  The entire pile soon was engulfed in flames that reached easily forty feet into the sky.  The heat could be felt from hundreds of feet away.  It truly was a sight to behold.

The celebrations were all in good fun, but there was also a darker side to them.  Absent from the Oxford festivities was the traditional effigy of Guy Fawkes, which would normally be thrown onto the bonfire.  Historically, the effigies would sometimes also be of the current pope.  Bonfire night is a celebration that was born in the Protest-Catholic wars of the 15th and 16th centuries, religious wars that led to the slaughter of thousands in the name of Christianity.  Although (mostly) sanitized from its past, Guy Fawkes Night still retained enough echoes of its origins to make me feel a bit uneasy.  After all, the evening celebrates a series of events that ultimately led to the deaths of several religious extremists.  And had they been successful, we would remember the 5th of November for a far different reason, more akin to that other day that is known by its date:  9/11.


Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes and his companions

Did the scheme contrive,

To blow the King and Parliament

All up alive.

Threescore barrels, laid below,

To prove old England’s overthrow.

But, by God’s providence, him they catch,

With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

A stick and a stake

For King James’s sake!

If you won’t give me one,

I’ll take two,

The better for me,

And the worse for you.

A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,

A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,

A pint of beer to wash it down,

And a jolly good fire to burn him.

Holloa, boys! Holloa, boys! Make the bells ring!

Holloa, boys! Holloa, boys! God save the King!

Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

[courtesy of]

College Choirs

Apologies for the tardiness of this post; I try to post once a week, but the past week has been rather hectic (so maybe there will be two posts this week!)


Although there are a couple university-wide choirs, and there are a few a cappella groups spread out throughout Oxford, the true core of choral music in the University is made up of the college choirs.  I personally am a member of two of them, the St. Catz College Choir and the Christ Church College Choir (not to be confused with the Christ Church Cathedral Choir; more on that later).  College choirs tend to be small, with numbers at about 30 for the largest of them.  Probably because of their small size, the choirs, in my experience, have been very friendly and the group quickly bonds together, often going out to a pub after rehearsal to hang out and relax.  Although each choir is primarily made up of students from its respective college, many students, such as myself, are members of multiple choirs throughout the university.  The choirs are student-run, generally directed by an upper-level music student and accompanied by an Organ Scholar.

Christ Church College Choir, like most of the college choirs, is specifically tied with its college’s chapel, in this case the gorgeous Christ Church Cathedral.  The choir rehearses twice a week for its weekly performance at Monday’s Evensong.  Evensong, as I was quick to learn, is a short evening church service, in this case an Anglican service, involving some choral music, a couple prayers, two Bible readings, and a hymn.  The music is very much in the Anglican canon, generally involving a magnificat, a nunc dimittis, an anthem, and a psalm, all of which vary every week.  After the service, the college chaplain Ralph treats the choir to juice and sherry in the cathedral priory, followed by free formal hall in the Christ Church Hall (the inspiration for the Great Hall in the Harry Potter movies!).

St. Catherine’s choir functions slightly differently from many of the college choirs in that it is not associated with a college chapel; St. Catherine’s is one of the few Oxford colleges that does not have a chapel.  Rather, the choir meets roughly once a week or so to prepare for one of its two annual concerts:  its Christmas concert or its summer one.  The music is still principally spiritual in nature, although it is less explicitly tied to the Anglican Canon.

Another feature of many Oxford choirs are the so-called ‘choral scholars’.  These are students who audition exceptionally well and are thus granted a scholarship, generally between one and two hundred pounds for the year, and are thus required to be at all performances.  Most choirs have a couple scholars, while the rest of the choir is made up of ‘volunteers’ who typically also attend most if not all the rehearsals and performances, but are unpaid.  Some choirs, such as the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, are made up of mostly choral scholars, and in this case students from the cathedral school (as far as I can tell, an Anglican school for boys).   These choirs often have far more demanding time commitments—the Cathedral Choir performs Evensong five or six times a week, as well as all the Sunday services in the cathedral.  This is probably the reason they are so well paid!

            Most of the choirs will occasionally go on tour.  The Christ Church College Choir traditionally travels to another cathedral outside of Oxford to sing Evensong during 4th week of every term (Oxford counts the terms by week, from 0th week to 9th week).  This week being 4th week, on Monday we travelled to the beautiful Gloucester Cathedral to sing.  Last year the choir also did a summer tour to Dublin, and there is talk of doing another tour this summer.  All in all, joining the Christ Church and St. Catz choirs have been two of the best decisions I have made in my short time here in Oxford.  They are fun, musically rewarding, great ways to make friends, and great ways to get out of Oxford and see parts of the UK that I may otherwise never have had the chance to see.