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.