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.

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.

New Year, New Term, Old Resolutions

Hilary term has begun here in Oxford, and the work is already piling up.  Here at St. Catherine’s, about twenty new visiting students have arrived to study in Oxford over the next two terms.  New Yorkers have strong showing, and the count of Cornellians at Catz has risen to five.  All the new visiting students are settling in, and the rest of us are slowly finding our way back into the academic routine.  As this is the start of a new term, and as it is still quite early in the new year, I believe now is the opportune time for me to reflect and create a few New Years and New Terms resolutions.

The problem that plagues me most in college—and most of my fellow students, I’m sure—is procrastination.  Despite trying to get most of my work done early, I continuously find myself up into the wee hours of the morning the night before an essay is due.  As much as I enjoy late-night essay-writing marathons, the lack of sleep always catches up eventually, which of course leads to more late nights (after long afternoon naps to recover).  Therefore, this term I resolve to manage my time more effectively and reduce my procrastination.  In order to do so, I have decided to schedule my time working and my time relaxing during the day, so that I don’t get sucked into hours of TED videos and Candy Crush Saga.  My plan is begin with 10 minutes of play for every 50 minutes of work between 10am and 9pm (perhaps noon-8pm on weekends), with ample breaks for meals, lectures, tutorials, rehearsals, and the like.  I’ll see how well this plan works, and then tweak it from there.

Language study has never come easy for me, despite the fact that at least half my major revolves around various dead and/or foreign languages.  My skills in any particular language, as to be expected, get rusty with disuse, and yet I find that I have not forced myself to study and review enough during periods that I’m not actually getting graded on my language.  To counter-act this, my second resolution is schedule just 30 minutes of language study and review every day, in whichever particular language I’m in the mood to study that day.  As an initial experiment, I will try to make this study period be consistently at 2pm every day, to be adjusted as needs be.

My third resolution revolves around creativity.  Throughout my life, I’ve always wished that I was better at drawing and creative writing, but I’ve never taken the time to properly practice and develop my abilities in those areas.  I find myself again in the procrastination mentality of “well, I’ll do it tomorrow” or “I’ll do it as soon as I’m done with such-and-such”, and never actually doing anything about it.  Therefore, I have decided to treat ‘creative time’ much as I have resolved to treat my homework and with language study:  I will schedule in 30 minutes a day specifically for doing something creative, whether it be doodling, a serious drawing, writing a short story, or anything else that requires me to focus on creating something new.  I think morning would probably be best for this, so I will start by scheduling this period for 9am every day, immediately after breakfast, and see how it goes.

Three resolutions are more than enough for me to start off the year with, and I will do my best to stick to them, although I’ll inevitably fail occasionally.  However, I’m hoping that by making each of them at fixed times every day will help make each resolution become habit, which will then hopefully open the doors to new resolutions.  My goal is to attempt to keep each of these first for a week, and then for a month, without breaking any of them.  To keep track, I will put little stars or smiley faces in my calendar for each day, with the goal of rewarding myself with something small each week I keep my resolutions (perhaps a candy bar or a nice coffee), and something larger after a solid month of keeping them (perhaps a trip to the movies).  I wish you all the best of luck on any of your resolutions, and I wish you all a very Happy (very belated) New Year!

Thanksgiving

My apologies for how long it’s taken me to get this post up; we’re near the end of the term and life has gotten a bit hectic.  Next week’s post should be up by Sunday evening as normal.

 

Thanksgiving is essentially a North American holiday, celebrated in the USA and Canada, and therefore does not exist in the United Kingdom.  All of the American and Canadian at St. Catherine’s were not relishing the idea of spending Thanksgiving away from home.  For many of us, it is our favorite holiday, and spending too much time thinking about missing it was enough to put any American or Canadian student here into a melancholy mood.  The wonderful directors of St. Catherine’s visiting student program, however, the past few years have made it their task to ensure that the college puts on a proper Thanksgiving dinner for all of their students.

Although I still had class on Thanksgiving Day, I was lucky enough to be able to catch the tail-end of the Thanksgiving Day Parade (thanks to my lovely girlfriend, Mikayla), which finished close to dinnertime in the UK, due to the 5 hour time difference.  About an hour later, all of the American and Canadian students and staff were invited to the Senior Common Room—basically the lounge for all the resident professors and lecturers—for drinks with the Master of St. Catherine’s.  There we had a chance to meet several people, particularly grad students, whom most of the undergrads had never seen.  I met a Canadian couple, both grad students, who live on Lake Ontario directly across from my town.  After drinks, we all processed to the dining room for dinner.

When we entered the dining room, we immediately saw that it had been decorated for the occasion, with lots of flowers and fall vegetables covering the tables.  Dinner was a delicious 4-course affair, including all the staples:  turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and puzzlingly enough, bacon rolls.  Our only critique was dessert:  there was pecan pie instead of pumpkin.  The college Dean then gave a speech about his research into Thanksgiving while we enjoyed an after-dinner coffee, and then we all headed to the JCR, thoroughly stuffed, to watch what was left of the football match (American football, of course, not soccer).

The Cornell Club of London, not to be outdone, invited all of the American students from Cornell, Brown, and UPenn studying in the UK to join them the following Saturday at the East India Club in London for a Thanksgiving dinner of their own.  My friends Shen, Shannon, and Kelvin and myself took them up on the offer and we all headed out for London Saturday on the Oxford Tube, a bus company that runs directly from Oxford to London.

The East India Club was incredibly lavish, or ‘posh’ as the British would say, with family crests decorating the entrance hall and fine china and trophies prominently displayed.  We were escorted to a reception room, where we were all given nametags.  An hour of mingling with other students and Cornell alums followed, until it was finally time for dinner; this was around 8, and we were quite hungry.  The food was delicious and there was more than enough of it to go around.  Bacon rolls again made an appearance, and this time there was a scrumptious pumpkin pie for dessert.  The president of the Cornell Club followed the dinner with a speech, and we all finished off the evening with a rousing rendition of the Cornell alma mater.  My friends and I ended up staying until about a quarter of midnight, relaxing and chatting with some new-found friends.  We finally made it back to St. Catherine’s College around 3 in the morning, well-fed and ready to spend the next 24 hours sleeping off our fantastic feasts.

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 http://www.potw.org/archive/potw405.html]