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.

What I Study, and Why

As a college student, I find the question that I most often get asked is “what do you study?”  My answer—Near Eastern Studies—almost invariably provokes the same response:  “Oh…” (stares off into space with a perplexed look for a moment)  “That’s really neat!  What is that?”  After I do my best to explain, I usually encounter the follow-up question, “but what do you DO with that?” or my personal favorite:  “but… but WHY?”  This post is my attempt to answer all these questions.

First and foremost, I should differentiate between what I study at Cornell and what I’ve been studying so far at Oxford.  At Cornell, my major is called “Near Eastern Studies”.  This encompasses the history, literature, and cultures of the Middle East from the beginning of human history to the present day.  At Oxford, I have been taking courses from the Egyptology (Ancient Egypt), Assyriology (Ancient Mesopotamia), and Theology (particularly early Christianity) departments.  In my studies, both at Cornell and at Oxford, I have mostly focused on the history of Iran and on the civilizations of the pre-Islamic Near East.

I should note that there is often a lot of confusion regarding the terms “Near East” and “Middle East”.  The Near East, with some slight geographic differences, basically refers to the Middle East before the start of Islam in approximately 620AD (although some departments, like Cornell, do not make a distinction between the two terms).

What I study is fairly straight-forward.  Why I study it is a little more convoluted.  For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by ancient cultures.  My room is littered with books of history and myths.  I think this fascination is also what lies behind my love of fantasy novels, because most of them are set in medieval periods or earlier.  One of my favorite computer games growing up was Age of Mythology, in which you could either play as the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Norse, or the Atlanteans.  One of the reasons I loved the game so much (and still do) is that you could click on a unit and learn the history and myths behind it.  Overall, I just loved learning about how societies behaved and functioned before modern conveniences, and how different civilizations arose before collapsing or evolving into something new.

When I first arrived at Cornell, I was determined to study something ‘practical’, so I avoided classes on ancient civilizations in favor of exploring more modern-oriented fields such as psychology, government, and economics.  I even dabbled a little in computer programming.  As my foreign language requirement, I opted to take modern Persian (after being talked into it by an Arabic professor), since I figured that a Middle Eastern language would probably have the best career prospects aside from Mandarin.  This is where my love for the ancient Near East really began.  Until my freshman year of college, I mostly read about the ancient Greeks and Romans, medieval castles, and Old Norse myths.  In my Persian class, however, the professor exposed us to all sorts interesting history from ancient Iran and Mesopotamia.  Noting my interest, my professor suggested that I take his History of Iran course the following term, because he thought I would love it.  He was right.  From the very first lecture on the Achaemenid Persian Empire, I was hooked.  I decided I would study the Middle East.

My decision to focus on the ancient Near East did not occur until my studies here in Oxford.  When I was applying, I discovered that Oxford University does not have an all-encompassing ‘Near Eastern Studies’ program.  Rather, the Oriental Studies department is split into various modern languages—Arabic Studies, Persian Studies, Turkish Studies, and Hebrew Studies—as well as encompassing Egyptology and Assyriology.  At that point, I decided I would give Egyptology and Assyriology a go and try them out for a term.  After all, I loved a course I had taken the previous semester on the myth and religion of Mesopotamia, so why not?  As the term went on and I learned more about ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt (and ancient Israel through my course on Old Testament Texts), I’ve learned that this is where I belong.  I still wake up every morning excited to go to lecture, and I love all of the topics that I have to research for my papers, to the point that I get so distracted by some of the reading assignments that I end up checking the books out to finish reading them for fun.  I’ve had other courses that I’ve been excited about, of course, but none that have been able to hold me in utter fascination for months on end, as Egyptology and Assyriology have managed to do.

Those are the ‘what’ and the ‘why’; the answer to what I will do with my degree remains to be seen.  There is no doubt in my mind that I will apply to grad school to get an advanced degree in my studies; if I want to have any hope of a career in this field, I need at least a Masters, if not a PhD.  At this point, I have a decision to make.  Most, if not all, grad programs require that I choose either modern Middle Eastern or ancient Near Eastern studies.  Although studying the modern Middle East would offer more jobs, especially in government or corporate work, the ancient Near East is where my passions lie.  There are actually more jobs in this field than first meet the eye.  Although the typical career path would be to work for a university, there are also many museums and private collections looking for curators who understand ancient Near Eastern artifacts and texts, and there are literally tens of thousands of extant texts that have yet to be properly catalogued and published.  Far from being a dying field, the study of the ancient Near East is still in its infancy (or at most, its preteens).  There is still an unfathomable amount left to be discovered, both buried in museum and university archives, and lying beneath the shifting sands of the Middle East.  Just the thought of it is enough make me feel like a little kid, excited to go on a treasure hunt.

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!

Travels Around the South-Western UK, Part II

Apologies for the tardiness of this post; I’ve been travelling and I’ve had spotty internet.  School resumes next week and I should be back to normal posting by then.

The second leg of Mikayla’s and my adventure took a much more leisurely pace than the first.  We spent three nights in Cardiff, followed by two nights in Watford (an hour north of London) and one in Oxford.  Most of our days were spent casually exploring, which was a nice break from the busy and structured week before.  Cardiff castle was wonderful, and we ended up spending several hours there while dodging a massive school-group of 7 year-olds.  I was quite surprised to discover that the castle keep is entirely hollow and open to the sky; apparently, all the original interior structures were wooden, built within the surrounding stone shell.  We also visited the Pierhead building (cool architecture), the Millennium Building (cool architecture plus shops), and the Wales National Assembly Building (also cool architecture).  In Watford we mostly relaxed and wandered, and in Oxford I gave Mikayla the grand tour.  However, all of these were happy discoveries beyond the real reasons we went to Cardiff and Watford:  the Doctor Who Experience and the Harry Potter Studio Tour.

The Doctor Who Experience is in Cardiff Bay, in a large and appropriately blue warehouse near the BBC Studios.  The lobby of the building is strewn with various Doctor Who memorabilia, including a seven-foot LEGO Dalek, Clara’s diary, and the Moment, the doomsday device from ‘The Day of the Doctor’.  I was like a little kid in a candy shop, barely able to stand still while waiting in line for our turn in the ‘Experience’.  The Experience was a cute twenty-minute interactive prequel to the exhibit, where we had to run around, stare down Weeping Angels, hide from Cyber-Men, and attempt to evade extermination.  I expected the Experience to be rather kid-oriented, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Fortunately, there were some small children in our group, including an adorable little girl who was terrified to fly the TARDIS, but courageously did so to save all our lives.

Following the Experience, we were then welcomed into the exhibit, which was packed full of Doctor Who props and costumes, the majority of which were originals.  The collection ranged from the costume of the First Doctor, to the Face of Bo, to one of the original TARDIS consoles (from the 9th Doctor, if I remember properly).  Of course, I had to take pictures of everything.  My profile picture on Facebook is now of Mikayla and I standing in front of the TARDIS, if that gives any suggestion of how excited I was.  The Doctor Who Experience is definitely a must for any fans of the TV show, whether a die-hard fan who can quote every episode since the 60s (well, except the few that have been lost), to the casual viewer who’s only seen a part of the latest season.

As amazing as the Doctor Who Experience was, there is nothing that could compare with the absolute spectacle that is the Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter Studio Tour.  This was the one part of our trip that Mikayla and I had booked well in advance (at least a month), and much of our vacation was scheduled around being able to see it.  The day we chose to go also happened to be Mikayla’s twentieth birthday (not quite a coincidence).  Mikayla and I are both happy members of the Harry Potter generation; we grew up with the characters in the books, and as we matured, so did the stories.  Of course we own all the movies, and saw every single one in theatres.  I also am the proud owner of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and now also of The Tales of Beedle the Bard (my souvenir from the tour).  Needless to say, we were both very excited.

The first thing we were shown on the tour was while waiting in line:  the cupboard under the stairs.  Then, after a short welcome video, we were brought into the Great Hall, complete with tables and benches and silverware, as well as the podium, the great hourglasses showing House Points, and the costumes of most of the professors of Hogwarts.  We were surprised to discover that the set had no roof as such, it was simply open to the ceiling of the warehouse.  Later in the tour, we were informed that the original attempts to create the floating candles through stage affects failed utterly; ultimately they were all rendered, along with the ceiling itself, by CGI.

From the Great Hall, we were sent into a gigantic warehouse that contained the original sets of the Potions Classroom, the Gryffindor Common Room, Dumbledore’s Office, the Burrow, and Hagrid’s Hut.  Beyond the sets, there were cases with props everywhere, including wands, the Goblet of Fire, the Triwizard Tournament Cup, and Skele-grow.  And this was all in just one room!  We must have easily spent an hour in that room alone, taking pictures and reading all about each of the props and sets.  From there, we were guided to an outdoor area that housed Number 4 Private Drive, the Knight Bus, the giant chess pieces from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Tom Riddle’s grave, and Godric’s Hollow.  But the real highlight of the back lot that we were in was that was where they sold butterbeer.  Mikayla and I each got some with a souvenir mug.  It was deliciously creamy with a very frothy head (that they put on with a spoon), and it prepared us for the next leg of the tour.

We were then guided to the creature room, where they showed many of the secrets behind the creation of the creatures, from the goblin makeup to a robotic hippogriff to a fire-breathing dragon (that could actually spit fireballs up to forty feet!).  Next was the set of Diagon Alley, which was so realistic that I felt like I was actually there.  All that was missing were the shopkeepers and the robes.  Diagon Alley was followed by a gallery of set models, storyboards, and set plans, which were all astoundingly detailed, even ones that didn’t make it into the movie.  The crown jewel of the entire studio tour, however, was in the next room.

As we walked towards the next gallery, the music swelled magnificently, and we were greeted by the snow-covered twenty-foot tall model of Hogwarts Castle in all its glory.  Mikayla and I literally fought back tears, the sight was so moving (I’m sure the music and dramatic lighting added quite a bit).  The detail was absolutely incredible.  It was as if they had taken an actual castle and shrunk it down to miniature size, it was so realistic.  As we followed a circular ramp down around it, we beheld stunning vistas that were just as beautiful as if we were in a real castle.  For two individuals who had grown up reading about and seeing this magnificent castle on film, it felt like we had truly stepped into a magical world.  It took all of my willpower to leave that mesmerizing sight and walk into the final room, which was filled floor-to-ceiling with boxes of wands, each one with a handwritten label containing the name of a member of the cast and crew of Harry Potter.  According to the signs, every single individual who took part in the production of the films had a box somewhere it that room.  It was a touching monument to the sheer number of contributors to such a monumental series of films that inspired millions of people across the globe.

After such an amazing two weeks, I was sad my holiday was reaching an end.  The last few days before Mikayla left to head back to the States were especially hard, knowing that it was the last time we would see each other for almost 6 months.  Our last full day together was spent in Oxford, where we shared an afternoon tea and walked around the city centre while I showed her all my favorite places.  We had a lovely dinner at Jamie Oliver’s (after trying the Eagle and Child and the White Horse pubs, whose websites’ had inaccurate hours), and then we wrapped up the night with a bottle of wine and some chocolate in my staircase.  The journey to Heathrow was a tearful one, and it was a very hard goodbye for both of us.  But in the two weeks we had together, we had some amazing adventures.  We met new friends, tried new food, saw amazing sights that took our breaths away, and made memories that will last a lifetime.  Now, it’s back to school for me and off to an internship for Mikayla, until we meet again (besides Facebook messaging and Skype, of course!).

 

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Travels Around the South-West UK

Apologies for the tardiness of this post; I’ve been travelling and I’ve had spotty internet.

As I am writing this post, I am sitting in the lounge of the River House Backpackers hostel in Cardiff, directly across from the Millennium Stadium, watching Limitless with people from all over the world (US, UK, Australia), including the love of my life, after a delicious home-cooked meal of nan and curry.  It has been an absolutely amazing week of travelling and exploring.  I’ve seen 5,000 year-old monuments, eaten bread from a 300 year-old recipe, and made new friends from across the globe.  I’ve seen an 800 year-old document and Roman coins.  And I’ve watched possibly the best fireworks display I’ve ever seen.

On the 29th of December, I headed down to London to check into my hotel.  Early the next morning, I took the Tube to Heathrow Airport to meet my girlfriend of almost 3 years.  It was a very happy reunion, with many smiles and a few tears.  After a quick nap (I’d been up since 5, Mikayla since her flight left), we headed out exploring.  We checked out the Tate Modern and visited St. Paul’s cathedral at night.  Over the next few days, we visited the Tower of London, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Oxford Street, 221B Baker Street, and more.  Undoubtedly though, the highlights of our visit were the London Eye and New Years Eve.  Mikayla and I, ever since we learned that I’d be studying abroad, promised each other that neither would go on the London Eye without the other.  The morning we chose ended up being perfectly sunny, and as the ferris wheel spun and we rose higher and higher, we could see for miles.  The sun glistened off the top of Big Ben, and the Shard gleamed in the distance.  It was an amazing sight.

New Years Eve began rather rainy and grey, but the skies cleared up as the day went on.  We made our way to Victoria Embankment, directly across from the London Eye, by 6 in the afternoon.  The crowd was already substantial, and grew exponentially as the night wore on.  The group standing in front of us clearly were experienced at New Years watching; they had blankets, lounge chairs, and beverages galore, guarded their space jealously but were having such a good time that they kept all around them entertained.  Around 10, the music started and the lights on the Eye began putting on a lightshow.  Around 11, the mayor of London gave a New Years address (projected onto a building), and then the countdown began.  As the clock struck midnight, the Eye exploded into a dazzling spectacle of fireworks and bubbles and strawberry-scented air (which was bizarre but pleasant) piped into the area.  As the smoke from the last fireworks drifted away, the crowed bust into a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” to properly ring in the New Year.

After London, we spent a night in Salisbury at an adorable little Bed & Breakfast called the Wyndham Park Lodge.  The host was very sweet and helpful, and gave us lots of good tips.  From Salisbury, Mikayla and I took the bus to Stonehenge.  It was a cold and rainy day, but we braved the weather to venture to that ancient circle.  Just having those massive stones standing in front of us, as countless others over the millennia have before, really brought home the immense age and history of this island.  After we returned to the city, we went the magnificent Salisbury cathedral, which has the tallest spire of any Cathedral in the United Kingdom.  It houses one of the original copies of the Magna Carta from the 1200s.  But perhaps the most astonishing thing about the cathedral was inside, Mikayla and I encountered someone she knew and someone else that I knew, both from the USA!  We both could not believe that we both ran into someone from home thousands of miles away.

From Salisbury, we then headed out to Bath, where we stayed at the YMCA hostel.  We spent two nights there, and in that time we toured the Roman Baths, visited Bath Abbey, and walked to the Circus and to the Royal Crescent.  The entire city is on a hill, with stunning views of the surrounding area.  Mikayla and I shared our first proper afternoon tea together at Sally Lunn’s, reputedly the oldest food establishment in the city and the originator of the ‘Sally Lunn Bath Bun’, which was absolutely delicious.  We loved the place so much that we returned for dinner to celebrate our 35-month anniversary (seeing as we’ll miss our 3-year by about a month).  We then spent the evening in the hostel hanging out with a couple older gentlemen from the northern UK and a girl our age from Australia, watching quiz shows and telling stories.  We finally headed to bed around 1am, only to run into the two gentlemen again at the coach station, and again at the Bristol coach station on our way to Cardiff!

And as I sit here in Cardiff, now watching QI and planning our next few days, it is nice to have a quiet evening in to relax and reflect on the week.  This has undoubtedly been the best week I’ve had in a long time, and one of the best weeks of my life.  And we have yet to go to the Doctor Who Experience and the Harry Potter Studio Tour!  These are the moments that truly make studying abroad memorable for years and years to come.

An Oxford Christmas

As many of you probably know, I spent this past Christmas in Oxford.  It was a bittersweet experience; this was my first Christmas away from home and my family.  I’m honestly not quite sure how well I would have fared without the internet to bring us together, as much as it could at any rate.  Christmas Eve, I made sure to call home and talk with some of my extended family during our annual grab-bag and gift exchange.  My parents also mailed me a couple boxes of presents and, through no short of a Christmas miracle, they arrived on-time and we were able through Skype to open presents together on Christmas morning (well, Christmas afternoon for me).  My parents even mailed me a stocking!  Although nothing could compare with actually being home for Christmas, we made the best of it, and it went far better than I had dared hope.

Spending this Christmas in the UK has given me the opportunity to see the season in a different light.  I have been regularly attending services at the University Church of St. Mary’s, and it was interesting for me to compare how the Christmas season is celebrated here versus back home.  Aside from a few different hymns, much of the services were the same.  There were still the obligatory abundance of readings from Isaiah (I think one every single Sunday of the Advent season), children still came up and lit the Advent candles, and there was still a ceramic nativity scene.  On Christmas Eve I attended a ‘Crib Service’, something I had never heard of before.  Upon arriving, I discovered that it was a reenactment of the Christmas story by the children of the congregation, much like the Christmas pageant my church holds back home.  I was impressed to discover that the service was written by two of the older children, who decided to turn the inn and the stable of the biblical narrative into a pub, where of course it was Quiz Night.  A good time was had by all, which was certainly not hurt by the Christmas chocolates handed out at the end.

I also attended my first Midnight Mass this Christmas, which followed the same general format as a regular service except for the addition of incense, resulting in the setting off of a couple of smoke alarms.  The vicar took this is stride, reminding us that this is a season of joy and saying that we should take the alarms as a reminder that not everything in church has to be somber and serious.  I enjoyed the experience, and I was quite amused by the assistant priest who told me, “I always quite like the Midnight Mass service; you always feel like you’re doing something slightly naughty because you’re up so late.”  I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’m regularly up that late working on papers; he just looked so gleeful.

Probably the most unique thing I noticed about the Christmas season in Oxford was the prevalence of ‘Carol Services’ with a varying number of ‘Lessons’.  I ended up attending three different ones, two because I was in the choir and one put on by the University Church for charity.  These are services that are split into about 1/3 readings (the ‘lessons’), 1/3 carols sung by the congregation, and 1/3 carols sung by the choir.  The service at the University Church also featured a short address by none other than Alexander Armstrong of ‘The Armstrong and Miller Show’!  I enjoyed all the services, and I learned several new carols that I hope make their way to the States (‘Torches’, ‘The Calypso Carol’, and ‘The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came’, to name a few).

I’m glad that I had the opportunity to experience an Oxford Christmas.  It was interesting to get a glimpse of how another culture celebrates such a special time.  Watching the town decorate for Christmas was a visual treat, and with sunset at 4pm I had plenty of time to enjoy all of the holiday lights.  Although I was very sad to not celebrate Christmas at home this year, I can still say I enjoyed the Christmas season, and maybe even learned something, too.

The Magic of Oxford

I went to see Catching Fire this past Friday (it was fantastic!), and walking back from the cinema I was struck with a thought.  Well, thought isn’t quite the right word; it was more of a feeling.  It was nearly midnight and the streets were almost utterly empty, except for the occasional odd couple leisurely strolling back to their homes.  There was a soft rain, just enough to make the sidewalks glisten but not enough to send you hurrying to escape it.  The streetlamps lit the way, as did the holiday decorations.  I was in no rush to get back to my room, and as I slowly made my way back to my college, I suddenly realized why Oxford has been the home of such literary masters as C. S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll.  Walking the empty streets on a late, rainy evening, the city felt absolutely magical, as if only I took just the right wrong turn, I would find myself in Narnia or Wonderland.

Oxford is proud of its literary heritage, and it boasts among its alumni and former professors such greats as J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, and Jonathan Swift, among many, many others.  It is no surprise that many Oxford authors have found themselves drawn into the realm of fantasy.  The very air seems charged with the beauty, history, mystery, and eccentricity of this marvelous city.  Philip Pullman, in his His Dark Materials series, actually sets much the story in Oxford, albeit one in an alternate universe.  It is in this city that Lewis Carroll told stories to entertain Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, which would eventually grow into Alice in Wonderland.  Some even suggest that C.S. Lewis’s inspiration for Lucy’s first moments in Narnia can be found just outside the doors of the University Church, which he regularly attended, where two golden fauns decorate a doorway, near a quite out-of-place lamppost.

Oxford is a magical, wonderful city, and I am incredibly lucky to be able to spend a few months of my life living and studying in such beautiful surroundings.  It is a city that inspires the intellect and the imagination in equal measure, that taunts the resident and the visitor alike with tantalizing promises of fantastic and mysterious places to explore.  Explore I shall, and who knows?  Perhaps I may find Narnia after all.

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!

Saying Goodbye (Part I)

As many of you may know, I am spending my winter break in Oxford.  This has given me the chance to see many of my new friends off as they head their separate ways, some to home, and some to spend their break travelling.  Some of these friends will be back next term, and some of them have said their final farewell to Oxford.  Emotions were running high as we said our goodbyes, and many of us fought back the tears as hugged each other and promised that we would all meet again, however far down the road that may be.  As Michaelmas term comes to a close, now is the perfect time to reflect on what has been an amazing two months.

It already seems so long ago that I hopped on a plane in Rochester to set out on this adventure.  When I first got to Oxford, I felt apprehensive and utterly disoriented.  Despite the fact that American and the United Kingdom share a common language, accents and differing vocabularies led to plenty of confusion (I still can’t bring myself to call cookies “biscuits”).  The food was (mercifully) far better than my expectations, while the English weather proved to live up to its damp and dreary reputation.  I soon learned my way around the city, and by now I can navigate Oxford just as well as Ithaca back home, if not better.

It quickly became clear that Oxford University has earned its place as one of the best and most challenging universities in the world.  Although the terms are short—only 8 weeks each—they are intense, and all of my fellow American visiting students agree that after 8 weeks the level of mental exhaustion is the same as after a 12 week semester back home.  This is almost certainly because of the tutorial system; the strain from writing up to a couple essays every week to be personally critiqued in a one-on-one meeting with a tutor takes its mental toll, and every single student, matriculated and visiting alike, was ecstatic with the end of term.  Although I feel that I learn more sheer facts over a broader range of subjects in the American university system, the Oxford system is unmatched in the depth and the amount of individual research it demands from its students.

My favorite part about Oxford is of course the people.  Everyone has been very friendly:  the lecturers, the tutors, the other students, and the townsfolk have all been kind and welcoming.  It always surprises me how close people can become in such a short time.  The small communities found in the colleges bring people together, and even if you can’t name everyone who goes to your college, you can still recognize most of them when you see them around town.  The visiting students all share a common bond, but the regularly matriculated students are just as ready to make friends, even if they are sometimes baffled by the concept of a ‘junior year abroad’.  Even after only 8 weeks, it is clear that some of these new friendships could last a lifetime.

All in all, it has been a fantastic, if stressful, term.  I am excited for the upcoming Hillary term and the new adventures—academic and otherwise—that it will bring.  Although it was sad to see several new friends say their goodbyes to Oxford, I look forward to meeting the new visiting students that arrive in just over a month.  Until then, I will enjoy this Christmas season in Oxford, attempt to be some semblance of productive, and relish this opportunity to explore the city and the country that is swiftly becoming a home-away-from-home.