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.

Separated by a Common Language

This post has been quite a while in coming.  This week, I would like to explore the myriad of ways that British English and American English differ, sometimes remarkably, with the inevitable mix of awkward and hilarious results.  It must be said, of course, that the vast majority of the language remains the same and—regional accents notwithstanding—I have generally been able to understand/ decipher what people are talking about.  There were some words that I was warned of ahead of time (an especially big thank you to Alexander Augustus Peck for his linguistic tips before I left the US), but most of the following I have discovered on my own.  These must be taken as a mere sampling, for I am sure that there are many, many for British-isms that I will encounter in the remaining months.

First off, I would like to begin with spelling.  Whatever the reason, British English is inundated with the letter ‘U’.  Besides the normal places an American would expect it to show up (like ‘would’), many words have retained the ‘U’s that their relatives must have lost on their way across the Pond.  Most of these are pretty innocuous and rarely catch my attention, such as the ‘U’s in ‘colour’, ‘neighbour’, ‘savour’, and ‘honour’.  They seem to fit quite nicely there.  I have even picked up the habit of writing a few of these myself.  However, I still can’t quite bring myself to write ‘favourite’; it just doesn’t feel right.  The same goes for ‘theatre’ and ‘centre’.  Although I can manage ‘theatre’, ‘centre’ still simply looks wrong.  A spelling/pronunciation I have picked up whole-heartedly, on the other hand, is the alternative to ‘while’:  ‘whilst’.  It just rolls off the tongue, as does its brother ‘amongst’.

This brings me to the realm of pronunciation.  There are some words, especially place names, whose spellings simply don’t match how they are pronounced.  My very first encounter with this occurred on my first day in the UK, when the bus driver informed me that my stop was in what sounded like ‘Glawster Green’; it wasn’t until we had actually arrived that I discovered the stop was spelled ‘Gloucester Green’.  Equally confusing was when I was trying to find Worcester College for an audition; my pronunciation was eventually kindly corrected to ‘Wouster’ (pronounced somewhere half-way between ‘Wooster’ and ‘Wuster’).  Magdalene College also caught me by surprise, as it is pronounced ‘Maudlin’.  I still haven’t figured out where all the missing syllables went.  Two more words also continue to catch my attention:  the river Thames (pronounced ‘Tems’ or ‘Tames’), and the suffix ‘shire’ (used synonymously with ‘county’, and pronounced both as ‘shy-er’ and ‘sheer’, depending on whom you are speaking with).  Maybe the pronunciations are the product of various region accents.

Beyond spelling and pronunciation, some words simply don’t mean the same thing in British English as they do in American English.  If you ask for ‘chips’, you will get fries or potato wedges; you have to ask for ‘crisps’ if you want to enjoy thin strips of fried potato.  The Brits also differentiate between ‘biscuits’ and ‘cookies’:  cookies are soft and gooey, like chocolate chip, whilst biscuits are crisper, like ginger snaps and shortbread.  For an American biscuit, however, you’ll have to ask for a ‘scone’ (variously pronounced as ‘sc-own’ or ‘sc-on’).  Sometimes you’ll come across ‘mash’ (mashed potatoes, simply enough), which is usually paired with ‘bangers’ (sausages, less obviously).  And ‘puddings’ tend to be much more substantial than in the States; think bread pudding or rice pudding.

Besides food, many day-to-day objects simply have different names.  When walking downtown on the ‘High Street’ (Main Street) looking at shops, be sure to walk on the ‘pavement’ (sidewalk) and to throw away your ‘litter’ into the ‘rubbish bins’.  If it is getting late, you may want to consider bringing a ‘torch’ to light your way.  If it is chilly, put on your ‘jumper’ (sweater) to keep you warm.  When you get home, you may want to change out of your ‘trousers’ into something more comfortable; but remember, ‘pants’ are what you wear under your trousers (giving the term ‘pantsuit’ all sorts of amusing connotations).  Also, whilst you are driving, if you run out of ‘petrol’, you should pull off to the side of the road, or into a ‘car park’.  Speaking of cars, you put your luggage into the ‘boot’ of the car, and you have to lift the ‘bonnet’ if you want to check your oil.  Whilst at ‘Uni’, you ‘read’ for your degree and graduate after you have ‘sat your exams’.  If you are reading for music, be sure to keep all of your ‘semibreves’ (whole notes), ‘minums’ (half notes), ‘crochets’ (quarter notes), ‘quavers’ (eighth notes), ‘semiquavers’ (sixteenth notes’), ‘demisemiquavers’ (thirty-second notes), and ‘hemidemisemiquavers’ (sixty-fourth notes) in order.

Additionally, there are a couple differences in grammar and punctuation that I’m still working on wrapping my head around.  Personally, I am a fan of the British tendency to place periods (or ‘full-stops’, as they are known) after a quotation, rather than inside it.  But it still takes me a moment when someone says “Where I’m stood” or asks “Is anyone sat here?”, rather than “Where I’m standing” and “Is anyone sitting here?”  And, when someone is very sick, you will find them ‘in hospital’, rather than ‘at the hospital’.

Of course, there are also a plethora of, well, impolite words that differ between British and American English (some of which sound quite amusing to members of the opposite culture), but I hope I will be forgiven for not exploring them here.  Instead, I will leave you with a quote.  Whilst several of us were hanging out in a pub after choir rehearsal this past Monday, I mentioned that the UK is generally more expensive than the US, to which our choir director replied, “Of course it is; someone has to pay for all those ‘U’s!”  Thanks for reading this exploration of British English, or as the British would say, “Cheers!”

Super Bowl

As most people who know me realize, I am not an avid sports fan.  Generally the only time I will watch a game on TV is if I am hanging out at home and someone else (usually my dad) has put a game on.  I don’t really have a team, although geographic loyalty usually has me cheering for the Buffalo Bills and SU.  It’s not that I dislike watching sporting matches; it simply just isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I’m looking for something to do.  All that being said, I never miss the Super Bowl.

If you asked me why I never miss the Super Bowl, despite not following football all season long, I honestly would not be able to give you a very good answer.  I’m not emotionally (or financially) invested in the outcome of the game, although I do love the commercials and the half-time show.  When people ask me which team I’m cheering for, I’ll usually just reply with:  “I just want it to be an exciting game”.  I just think there is something quintessentially American about the Super Bowl, and I could not imagine missing it.

One of my American friends here at St. Catz is the Visiting Student Rep for our college JCR (Junior Common Room; basically the college’s undergraduate student union).  She, along with most of the Americans here, knew that we needed to do something for the Super Bowl.  Through the JCR, she secured about 60 pounds of funding to buy snacks and throw a Super Bowl party in college.  A few of us pitched in with shopping and cooking, and by the time the game started, there was a massive pile of chips and 4 huge trays of buffalo chicken dip and seven-layer dip waiting to be devoured.

I personally was surprised by the turn-out; there were probably around 50-60 people in the JCR (the term also means the student lounge) for kick-off, more than half of which were British students.  Kick-off was at 11:30pm UK time, and by half-time most of the spectators trickled off to bed.  A few brave souls, myself included, decided to stick it out to the bitter end.  Of course, those of you who saw the game know that it was a landslide victory for the Seahawks, so by the middle of the 3rd quarter few of us were actually watching the game.  We were all just enjoying each others’ company, with the British students complaining about the absurdities of American Football whilst the Americans did our best to explain the rules.  As we headed back to our dorm a bit past 3 in the morning, bracing ourselves for lectures that were a mere 6 hours away, we knew it was worth it.  We’d made some new friends, defended one of our national pastimes, and overall had a wonderful time.  Even though we didn’t get any of the commercials.