Archive | May, 2011

Stone Henge ROCKS.

14 May

Stone Henge ROCKS.

Sometimes planning ahead is overrated. Sometimes it’s not (as you’ll soon read about in a couple posts about our trip to London!), but more often then not a little spontaneity adds much needed spice to life. Our plan for Friday was simply to go to Salisbury, see Stone Henge, and be back at Regents in time for Formal Hall that night at seven.

Shortly after leaving that morning we discovered that there were no buses going from Oxford to Salisbury directly and that the best option would be to take a train instead. So we sauntered off in what I believed to be the right general direction then asked for more information when we reached the bus station. The best part is that when we finally got to the train station, I asked the first uniformed man I saw when the next train to Salisbury was. He said “It’s here now. Would you like to buy a ticket?” And just like that, without even asking the price, I immediately consented to buying a ticket and he magically produced two tickets to Salisbury from a hand-held machine. “But you better hurry,” he said, “The train’s leaving in about sixty seconds.” So we sprinted onto the platform and into the train right before the doors shut…and in an instant we were being whisked off to Salisbury. No amount of careful planning could’ve predicted such impeccable timing.

After a couple hours of lovely countryside scenery we arrived at our destination. And right outside the train station, as if waiting for our arrival, sat the big, shiny Salisbury Sightseeing Bus! And much in the same fashion with which we bought our train tickets, we bought tickets to see Stone Henge and the Cathedral and were promptly whisked away a minute later.

The strangest part about coming upon Stone Henge is seeing it from about a kilometer away and realizing its close proximity to the freeway. They don’t show you that in postcards. Most picturesque calendars and guidebooks lead you to believe that Stone Henge is this isolated monolith sitting aloofly atop a hill miles away from civilization. In actuality, it’s not on a hill at all, but smack dab in the middle of some farmland adjacent to a four-lane highway. It’s not as epic as they would have you believe, but it’s the kind of thing that any Salisbury George or John passes in his car everyday on his way to work. (i.e. Oh, the stones look nice today…*yawn*…Where’d I put my coffee mug?)

When we got up to Stone Henge everyone received a little electronic contraption which looked like some sort of cellphone prototype from the 1980’s. The way it worked was you found one of about twenty signs stationed around the stones and pressed the corresponding number onto the keypad of your 1980’s Star-Trek phone, after which you’d hear the site’s historical background detailed to you in a crusty British accent. You’d precede then to the next station after this, and so on.

After a few minutes of this approach Becca and I vied for a more interesting option. We the walkie-talkies aside and turned documentary time into a Stone Henge photo-shoot. Below you can see some of our glamor shots, which we spent the entire hour so carefully crafting. My favorite are the ones we tried to take by setting my minuscule digital camera down on a bench and/or the ground and turned on the automatic timer. Most of them turned out a little crooked but probably best succeed in capturing the essence of our Stone Henge experience.

After looking at ‘the rocks’ the Magic Salisbury Schoolbus took us down the hill to the breathtaking Salisbury Cathedral near the center of town. I was struck at how gigantic it was. It seemed unreal. Salisbury is a small and sleepy town with a center full of mom-and-pop type shops – the existence of a mammoth, ornate cathedral seems almost comically out of place.

The inside of the cathedral was gorgeous and, once again, quite massive. We spent a very full hour walking through the cloisters and the beautiful sanctuary, enjoying the Gothic beauty oozing from every ornate nook and cranny. But the serenity of our religious experience was cut unfortunately short by the realization that we had to catch a train back to Oxford ASAP to make it to formal hall.  (“Formal Hall” or Friday dinner is, as the name suggests, quite formal; so it’s very important that one arrives promptly to be granted a seat and escape any potential looks for judgment from professors etc.)

Catching the train this time around was a little less miraculous and fell disappointingly short of the Bond-like experience we had that morning. Trains weren’t running as frequently so we had to wait an extra hour to the next one back to Oxford. I remember that the three-hour train ride seemed so short on our way to Salisbury, but our return trip could not go fast enough. Time for formal hall was fast approaching and so was unlikelihood of us getting seats or having time to change into appropriate formal garb. But this was Becca’s only chance to experience a Friday formal at Regents, so I was determined that we were going to make it somehow. I called the house and cheerfully pleaded with a couple of my housemates to help us out.

It was dark when we finally reached Oxford. As soon as the doors slid open, Becca and I bolted out of train at a full sprint towards the college. Ten or fifteen minutes later we tumbled into Pusey Street, panting and sweating as if we had escaped a bear attack…or had just outrun Father Time. Formal Hall started promptly at 7:00 pm…it was now 6:48 pm. We heaved a rather winded sigh of relief and met David, who had pulled his car up to the front of the college with our formal dresses and shoes in tow. In our exuberance we gushed with some kind of effusive, semi-coherent thanks, grabbed our clothes from him and then scampered off to change. Of course, time did not allow for the typical female primping process to take place in all its fullness and/or glory. So began a five-minute frenzy: we hopped into our heels, splashed water on our sweaty faces and did our best to look socially presentable before serenely walking into the dining hall as if nothing had happened to fluster us.

I was quite proud of us. We had managed to do lots of things in one day – we had a full day of tourism of Salisbury, proven we could navigate Britain’s public transportation systems, AND still had made it back in time to enjoy a lovely fancy dinner with friends. The evening was one of my favorite Fridays in Oxford. We mingled among friends and cheap cocktails at the college JCR before a large group of us headed to Que Pasa and spent the rest of the evening on a steady diet of cheesy pop dance-tunes. I love dancing any day –but especially under these favorable circumstances.

All in all, it was a wonderful day: Not only did I discover my long-suppressed affinity for Kei$ha songs; but I also discovered that sometimes the best days are the unplanned, hop-on-a-train kind of days.

 (Becca and me at Formal Hall)

*(That’s the town of Salisbury, not to be confused with the grocery store, Sainbury’s).


The Adventure of Becca and Claire: Oxford

2 May

It was so great to have Becca come visit me during 7th week in Hilary! It not only provided me with the joy of her bubbly presence, but it also provided me with a great excuse for being a tourist in England, which is something I’ve tried expressly hard NOT to do in order to blend in at the university…(lest they discover I’m actually a crazy American. Shhh.)

It was Becca’s first trip to England, so the first night she was here we sat down in my room and crafted our British to-do list. It was lengthy, but in the end it didn’t prove too ambitious; by the end of the week we completed almost all of the tourist attractions we put on the list (i.e. Christchurch, Stone Henge, Big Ben, Tower of London, etc.)

With Becca here, I finally stopped to explore parts of Oxford that I had neglected to see since my arrival in January.

The Ashmolean is like a miniature British Museum: it houses artifacts from prehistoric times, Babylonian and Turkish Empires, Greek and Roman sculptures. It’s very neat, organized, and almost sterile when compared to the funky, eclecticism of the Pitt Rivers Museum on the other side of town.

From the Ashmolean we crossed the street over to the swanky Randolph Hotel and managed to sneak a peek at a few of their fancy ballrooms. I hear that having tea at the Randolph is a very posh (and very expensive) affair. Although I’ve never dined there myself, I figured I was probably as close as I was ever going to get to the experience, so I happily watched a couple of wealthy old ladies having their tea instead.

On our way to Oxford’s library conglomerate on Broad Street, we stepped into the famous Blackwell’s bookhouse to take a peek at the massive Norrington Room. The Norrington Room houses more books than any other single room in the UK. Becca wasn’t as fascinated with the Norrington Room as much as she was with the Children’s section, where she found a 3-for-2 sale on Little Miss books… So three books later, (Little Miss Princess, Little Miss Wise, and Little Miss Giggles to be exact,) we went to go see a slightly posher variety of books in the Bodleian.

Unfortunately, only under very rare if any, circumstances do they let guests into the Radcliffe Camera and the reading rooms of the Old Bodleian. But with just an appointment, an ID check, and an official visitor’s pass, you CAN bring a guest into the antechamber of the old Duke Humphries Reading Room. We opted for this option, since it was pretty much the only one available and would at least give Becca the opportunity to see the Bodleian and say she went in. We went to the main library office and requested permission for a guest pass and were instructed to come back the next day for a 12:15 appointment, to not be late, and to spend no more than 15 minutes total in the library itself…and to not carry any pens or any bags or any electronic devices on our person whilst in the library. Wow, I thought, our Dept. of Homeland Security should start hanging out with these Oxford librarians. So after taking all the exorbitant security measures we went up to the Duke Humphries; we saw the shelves of old books, marveled at the Medieval architecture, said “Cool,” and then five minutes later went back to the college for lunch.

Note: I did manage to sneak Becca into the Lower Reading Rooms in the Bod so she could see more of the library and really make full use of that hard-won visitor’s pass. Technically, you’re not supposed to do that, but we were still in and out in less than 15 minutes so nobody was the wiser. But just in case any of the Oxford librarians come to hunt me down, consider this small statement of defiance off the record.

We wound our way through the old streets of the city center and to the grounds of Christchurch College. Once inside the college we luckily ran into a tour group, to whom we latched on like lost little barnacles for the remainder of the tour. We managed to gather some free historical information and see the cathedral’s ornate interior. We also made our way to the stately dining hall, famous for the inspiration it gave to the Harry Potter movies. We ventured out to the grounds and I showed Becca the banks of the Thames where we have our rowing practices. We went down to the river again on Thursday to watch part of the Torpids Regatta and chase some swans.

I had always wanted to attend ‘Evensong’ at Christchurch because it was a quintessential Oxford experience, famous for its beautiful music. At certain times during the week a boys choir sings the psalms, and this music, (as the name Evensong suggests,) directs the entire service. There wasn’t a typical boys choir on the Wednesday evening we went, but a choir with men who sang like boys. The most amazing thing was watching the counter-tenor who stood across the aisle from us and could reach high notes I’ve never even come close enough to wave at. It was beautiful…and it was weird. I think Becca had the same reaction because I noticed she stared at him with her eyebrows raised. At one point in the service she turned to me with a look genuine concern upon her face that seemed to say, Is he ok? and I nodded some kind of reassurance that he was hired to sing that way and had somehow been mysteriously been blessed with a voice that would make most girls jealous.

Once we got past this crazy body-voice discrepancy, we calmly sat through the rest of the service and tried to be on our best behavior. I found the experience less disturbing if I closed my eyes and just listened to the beautiful music alone.

In the completely selfless effort to fulfill my role as tour guide, I took Becca to the other notable places in Oxford, like G&D’s Ice-Cream Parlor on Little Clarendon Street, as well as Moo-Moo’s Milkshakes and Whittard Tea in the Covered Market. After all, you can’t say you’ve had an authentic British experience until you’ve tried a Nutella milkshake, right?

Speaking of food and such, after all that we saw in Oxford, Becca still firmly concluded that her favorite place in Oxford was the Regent’s Park Dining Hall. I even offered to take her around to different cafes and restaurants in town, but she said no – she just couldn’t get enough of that Regent’s Park food! Can’t argue with free hot meals, I guess. In the end, it proved a wise decision because she met more of my college friends that way and she probably saved us both a bit of money too.

My housemate David hung out with us a lot too and even helped to play tour guide when I was writing essays in the library. He gave us his own tour of some of the colleges and the old city center and later in the week invited us to dinner with his friend at Oriel College. So Thursday night was probably the most stereotypically Oxonian night we had the whole week: We got all dressed up and went to hear David’s friend and fellow theology student, Andrew, preach at Oriel College Chapel. After chapel the three of us went to Oriel’s old, oak dining hall for a formal 3-course dinner of bread, salad with goat cheese, duck, vegetables, potatoes, some sort of fruit torte and of course the obligatory bottle of red wine. Very posh. While at dinner we talked with Andrew and some of his other master’s student friends (most of whom were American, ironically) and even met one guy who was ecstatic for just receiving the news of his acceptance into Princeton! So it was a merry meal to be sure, completed by shared champagne from the future Princeton scholar. After dinner we hung out in Oriel’s MCR. Becca and I talked over tea while the boys played chess and Mr. Princeton messaged everyone in his contacts about his latest triumph. I’m sorry, but does it get more Oxonian than that?

Rowing On and Off

1 May

For almost the entirety of Hilary term the Regent’s rowing teams have been gearing up for the Torpids Regatta, a university-wide competition taking place in the latter half of 7th week.  Due to the shortage of time and of space on the river, placements in this year’s Torpids are determined by last year’s rowing results.  Those who did well last year (aka. Regent’s men’s crew) are guaranteed a spot in the regatta, but those who were not on that level (aka. the Regent’s women’s crew) had to compete in a preliminary race to qualify for a spot in Torpids.

This preliminary qualifying event, known as Rowing On, occurred on the Friday of 6th week, after we had only had 2 (just TWO!!) outings going at full or what we call ‘race’ speed.  At this point I had barely learned how to feather my blades and had just begun to keep up with the other seven crew members.

Let me remind you that the other seven girls had the benefit of rowing for an entire term already: beginning with basic instruction then gradually honing their technique and increasing their speed as a team over the course of 8 weeks prior.   I had not. I had been squeezed into the line-up come January, after Regent’s crews had already logged hours of practice and one regatta.  In fact, I wouldn’t have even been able to join the team had not my expressed interest luckily coincided with a team member dropping out of the team.  My late arrival to rowing made the learning curve quite steep, to put it mildly.  It was like learning to swim by being thrown into the deep end.  After the panic sets in and you think you’re about to drown, your gym teacher leans over the side of the pool and says, “Paddle!”

So paddle I did. It may not have been a matter of ‘sink or swim’ in this case, but of ‘paddle or be paddled.’  There’s a whole host of metaphors I could use to describe the way I felt but the primary theme was simply that of survival.

Honestly, I didn’t even really care if we qualified for Torpids or not, so long as I personally could complete the race without getting my blade stuck in the water and/or falling in the water myself.   I really wasn’t sure I’d be able to accomplish even that, because as I mentioned, I was the newbie in the boat and knew it would take every ounce of concentration I had in my being to just stay in time with the other seven girls and — preferably — avoid becoming part of the Thames.

But I tried my best to ignore my fears, to ignore the cold and relentless drizzle that always hangs over your head in the most convenient of moments.  The clock started, the horn went off, and we rowed on.  We rowed as fast as we could down the river while trying to stay at a steady pace with one another — something always easier said than done.

My focus was completely consumed by the flipping of my oars (“blades”) at the  right moment.  Too fast and my stroke would have no power.  Too slow, and my oar would get stuck.  This getting stuck or  “catching a crab” as they say is a very unfortunate and dangerous occurrence that creates disruptive drag and can even catapult you out of the boat and into the water  if the force is strong enough.

The fear of catching a crab was sufficient enough to keep my head in the game — or in the boat– the entire time.  The intensity of my concentration faltered slightly towards the end of the course when my arms were aching and my hands were numb.  But the success of my inaugural race experience was that I completed the course (a)without dying and (b)without catching a crab.     I was thoroughly exhausted and my arms seemed permanently stuck in rowing position for a few minutes afterwards…but once we all gained feeling in our limbs again we celebrated by high-fiving and singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” in a 3-part round.

The bad news is that we didn’t make good enough time to qualify for the race, but it cannot be denied that we had fun and were free from the all-consuming Torpids schedule of 7th week.  In fact, on of my sorority sisters from CSU, Becca Holman, came to visit Oxford during 7th week so I was able to spend more time exploring England with her!  The wild Adventures of Becca and Claire will be detailed in posts to follow…but if you want a good laugh in the meantime, check out our team’s pictures from Rowing On by clicking on the link below.  I’m the one in the middle (“Bow 5”) in the garish green shirt. Can’t miss me, because everyone else is wearing red and white like we’re supposed to be wearing.  (woops)