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.

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.

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.

The Ashmolean Museum

This past Friday was grey and dreary, and I had just wrapped up an intensive week-long German ‘catch-up’ course in order to start taking German classes next term.   Therefore, I felt that I deserved a break from my studying (well, honestly I was just looking for a good excuse to go out and do something) and I decided to reward myself with a trip to the Ashmolean, Oxford University’s Museum of Art and Archaeology and the oldest museum in the UK (take that, British Museum!).  The Ashmolean is one of Oxford University’s four principle museums, along with the History of Science, Natural History, and Pitt Rivers museums.  The museum is spread over 4 floors and its collections span the globe and the entire course of human history.  I was in heaven.

The museum is ordered roughly chronologically, beginning with prehistoric finds from Eurasia and Africa.  I started in the East Asia section and slowly worked my way west.  By the time I reached the Ancient Near East section, I had already spent 2 hours in the museum and my legs were beginning to get rather tired.  Then, I saw it:  the Sumerian King List!  For those of you reading who aren’t Assyriologists, the Sumerian King List at first glance doesn’t look all that exciting.  At second glance, it still doesn’t very exciting.  It is a clay rectangular prism no more than 8 inches tall and maybe 4 inches wide and deep.  It is a bland brownish-gray, and it looks like it’s been glued together from a bunch of fragments, which isn’t far from the truth.  On all four of the long sides, the SKL is entirely covered in tiny cuneiform text.  It is the text that makes this artifact so exciting.

The Sumerian King List lists the kings (surprise!) of various dynasties that ruled ancient Mesopotamia from the pre-dynastic period to about 1900 BC.  Although there are several known copies, the most complete one is the prism displayed in the Ashmolean.  The SKL is a key text for reconstructing the early history of Mesopotamia, as it not only lists kings but also records when they ruled and from which city.  The document has to be considered with measured skepticism however, especially for the earliest periods, for it also records the reigns of mythical figures such as the god Dumuzi, to whom is attributed a reign of 3,600 years, as well as pseudo-mythical kings like Gilgamesh, who was both a historical figure and the subject of mythical epics.  Despite its difficulties, the Sumerian King List remains an important text, and pictures of it are shown in practically every Intro to the Ancient Near East course.  Seeing it person really brought into perspective how even seemingly small, mundane looking finds can have an enormous impact on an academic field.

I absolutely loved my visit to the Ashmolean Museum, and I will definitely going back there several times while I’m here.  I’ll have to; after spending several hours wandering the Ancient World collections, I had to leave because the museum was closing.  I never even made it past the first floor!

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.

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.