Cheers, mates!

This blog chronicles the bloody brilliant, pond-hopping adventures of Kristin Taylor, an English Literature major in the Honors Program at Columbus State University who spent the Fall semester of 2008 studying abroad at the University of Oxford.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Sole" Searching: My Adventures in Britain

When I first received my acceptance letter to the CSU in Oxford Visiting Student Program, I was ecstatic. The program allows CSU students to study abroad at Regent’s Park College of the University of Oxford while living in the beautiful Spencer House (generously donated to CSU by J. Kyle Spencer) – all for the same cost as attending Columbus State. The opportunity to study at one of the world’s most prestigious universities while immersing myself in the culture of Britain was an opportunity too wonderful to pass up. So I began preparing myself for the hop across the pond, reading books about the English culture and the periods of literature I would be studying once I arrived and talking with friends who had taken part in the program at Oxford in prior years.

On September 25th, 2008, with my passport in hand, I boarded Delta flight number fifty-eight and made my nine-hour trek across the Atlantic. Brandon Harris (the other CSU student in the program), Dr. Dan Ross (a CSU professor of English literature who acted as site administrator for the Fall semester), and I arrived at the London-Gatwick airport feeling very jetlagged. But even after our two-hour coach ride to the Spencer House, Dr. Ross would allow no sleeping lest it be even harder for us to adjust to the time difference. Instead, Dr. Ross took us on a tour of the city of Oxford. Although I had visited Oxford once before during a ten-day tour of the British Isles and recognized several of the sights we saw, it was a very different feeling to realize that the town in which I was walking would be my home for the next semester. As we looked at the Bridge of Sighs (an exact replica of the one in Venice), the world-famous Bodleian Library, and the Oxford University Press, I was both in awe and beginning to feel a sense of intimidation. When I called my mom later that night, I told her, “I don’t know why I feel intimidated. I guess because it’s Oxford. There are just such big shoes to fill.” I will never forget my mom’s response. “Well, just remember that you have big feet,” she said.

What was so memorable about her response was its appropriateness. Being an English Literature major, I had to overanalyze the statement, interpret it both on its literal and metaphorical levels. On the literal level, she was right; I do have – or at least I have always believed myself to have – big feet. Her remark was just comic enough that every time I began to feel the trepidation rising yet again, I would hear her voice in my head once more, and I would find myself so amused that my worrying would temporarily subside. On the metaphorical level, she was also right, but that took me a few more weeks to learn. It wasn’t until I began to meet my tutors, attend my first tutorials, and receive high marks on my first essays that my apprehension truly began to wane. I realized that I did belong there, that I could fill the large Oxonian shoes. After that point, I did all I could to live my Oxford experience to the fullest.

During my semester at Oxford, I took a tutorial in Medieval literature with Dr. Victoria Condie and in Modern literature with Dr. Julian Thompson. I enjoyed the reading for my tutorials, which included several texts from the Chaucerian canon and writings of the Gawain-poet, as well as works by W. B. Yeats, Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, Philip Larkin, George Bernard Shaw, David Jones, and D. H. Lawrence. Alongside working diligently to prepare for my tutorials (writing three essays a fortnight!), I was sure to enjoy the cultural experience of living in England. I made several trips to London. The first time, Dr. Ross, Brandon, and I went to the Tate Museum of Modern Art and the Imperial War Museum, while also taking the time to see the London Eye, Big Ben and the Parliament buildings, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and to ride in the Tube. I retuned to London twice after that – once to see Vanessa Redgrave’s final performance in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and to peruse the famous London markets and again to see an adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. I also walked to a nearby town called Iffley, where I was able to see a twelfth-century church, and later visited Salisbury Cathedral and saw Stonehenge. In Oxford, I had the opportunity to hear Evensong at Christ Church, and I even became involved with choral activities myself by joining the Advent Choir at Regent’s Park. Plus, I made many new friends, even throwing my own British tea party (a delicious tribute to Yorkshire black tea, scones, and clotted cream) for some of them before I returned to the States. In fact, it still amazes me when I remember that I arrived in Oxford only knowing Brandon and Dr. Ross, but I left knowing more people than I could count, many with whom I still keep in touch. As I enjoyed my life as an Oxford student, experienced the British culture, and made new friends, I watched myself grow both academically and personally. I began to realize that the proverbial shoes of Oxford actually fit very nicely.

In fact, I had such a wonderful time in Oxford that I will be returning to England for five weeks this summer, only this time I will be trading in my Oxford shoes for a London pair. While I am there, I will take a course entitled “The 'Other' Britain: The Caribbeans, South Asians and the Romani in London.” I know the London program, like my experience in Oxford, will be a life-changing experience for me. What I learn will stay with me and will be helpful as I prepare to enter graduate school in the very near future – and later when I eventually become a professor of English literature. I also know from my prior study abroad experiences that any time spent immersed in another culture forever changes the sojourner for the better, so I look forward to discovering the person my time in London will make me. Needless to say, I very eagerly await my departure!

This article appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of The Chronicle, the Honors Program Newsletter.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Look, I Threw a Tea Party!

Today I threw a tea party for some of the British friends I've made here as a way to say thanks for their friendship and also to say goodbye. We had a lovely time. In fact, they arrived at 4.30, and when I looked at the clock after they left, I realized that we had been chatting and drinking tea for four hours. It was great fun. And I also think the table spread was just amazing. Check out the photos:

My lovely table full of yummy food

Posing with my lovely table

Decapitating the caterpillar cake

With Becki, Rachel, and Mark

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Salisbury and Stonehenge

Today Dr. Ross and I ventured out early -- in the freezing cold -- and made our way to Salisbury because I have really been wanting to see the cathedral before I go home. So I got to take my first ride in a passenger train, and we arrived in Salisbury. After walking a little and getting turned around a few times (thanks to Dr. Ross's wonderful Magellan sense), we made it to the cathedral, and I was so amazed to see how beautiful it was in person. Even the photos are beautiful, but seeing the real thing was just magnificent. After taking a cathedral tour, we ate in the cathedral restaurant and then journeyed toward the bus station because we were going to ride to Old Sarum, the original site of the cathedral. But walking through the bus station, I saw that we were really close to Stonehenge, so I very quickly suggested that we buy a ticket to see the ancient ruin. When we got to Stonehenge, it was so magnificent. We couldn't have asked for a prettier day -- clear skies, beautiful green grass, sunshine, and it wasn't even that cold near the Stonehenge site. Also, as we made our way around the rocks, the sun started to set, and there was such an eerie feeling when the colorful sun beams were making their way through the rocks on one side and the moon could be seen on the other side. It was truly magnificent. And to top it all off, we stopped at a Thai restaurant once we were back in Oxford for a yummy dinner. It really was a great day.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Home in Five Days!

Things are really winding down here. Michelmas term ends on Friday. I've finished with my tutorials, and I've made As in both. Meanwhile, everyone is gearing up for the holidays. The streets are filled with Christmas trees, lights and decorations and also with brass bands and carolers serenading the passersby. Regent's Park is having an advent service and dinner tomorrow evening, and I'll be singing in the choir. It will be my chance to say goodbye to my tutors and a lot of other people I have met at Regent's this term. Many of my friends here are already beginning to leave, and by Monday, they will all pretty much be gone, so I've been trying to spend as much time with them as possible -- especially seeing as how I finally don't have essays to worry about writing. Then Tuesday, I, too, will make the journey back across the pond. I still have a few more things to look forward to before then. On Saturday, Dr. Ross, Brandon and I are going to Salisbury because I really want to see the cathedral. On Sunday, I'm going to throw a tea party to say goodbye to the British friends I inherited from Sally. Then Monday I'll finish packing, take my books to the post office for shipping, clean my room, and do any other last-minute things I have to finish before leaving. Then Tuesday, I'll be on a bus at 6.30 a.m. so I can make it to the London-Gatwick airport and catch my flight home.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Spencer House Halloween

Well, we had our Halloween party tonight, and it was so much fun -- a much needed break from all this studying! I decided to dress up as Sarah Palin -- with the beehive, flipped-out hair, and all. And the funny thing is, I didn't even have to tell people who I was. They just knew. And people kept telling me all night that I looked so much like her. Yeah, it was a bit unnerving, but quite hilarious.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I'm Dreaming of a White . . . October!?

Today has been a very busy day, the greater part of which I spent reading Chaucer in preparation to write my essay, which I plan to do tomorrow. Pretty typical scholastic preparations. And tonight I rode into town to eat dinner at the school, as I do every night. But upon leaving Regent's Park, I noticed that something was very different. It was snowing outside! The white flakes were visible as they fell from the sky. Yes, snowing! In England! In October! Oxford rarely sees snow, so the fact that it would be snowing this early in the year doesn't seem to be such a good sign for cold-natured people like me, who are already fearing the bitter cold that looms ahead. It was so beautiful though, and I have to say that the freezing weather here doesn't feel as cold as freezing weather at home. I'm not sure why that is exactly; maybe it has something to do with the humidity in Georgia (and thus, a higher level of moisture in the air). And that's not to say it's not cold here -- because it is -- it just doesn't feel as cold at this temperature here as it would at home. But I rode home on my bike with huge snowflakes pelting me in the face, smearing water and ice all over my glasses, and every minute of it was exhilirating. I just couldn't stop smiling, and I walked in the front door of the Spencer House, completely soaked, and all I could say was, "It's snowing!" And the large group of people in the dining room (Phil had a bunch of his friends over tonight for dinner) just laughed. Brandon said, "Looks like you had a nice bike ride." And it's kind of funny because a few days before I left, I got the idea to check out the Wikipedia article on Oxford, just to see what it said. And the only picture was of a collection of bike racks covered in several inches of snow. One of my friends laughed at me and told me that I was going to freeze. So later I asked Sally if that was typical Oxonian weather, and she said no, that it had never snowed the entire time she was there, and the only reason there were so many pictures of Oxonian bikes covered in snow is because it is such a rare occurrence in Oxford. Funny, then, that I would get to experience the exception to the average Oxonian October. "Typical," the British would say (according to Kate Fox at least), "How typical!"

Monday, October 27, 2008

Magical Thinking

As for England, the days here are getting shorter, even more noticeably now because our clocks have turned back an hour. And it's starting to get much colder outside; it doesn't get above the forties during the day, and at night, it's below freezing. As for me, I'm reaching that point in study abroad where things start to have that feeling of everydayness. I'm settling into a routine. There are things to get done, places to go, essays to write. It takes me thirty minutes to run my errands instead of the two hours it used to take me before I knew my way around Oxford. I can pick out the tourists when they walk by. And I know to say that I want a single or return ticket instead of a one-way or round-trip and to ask "What are you reading?" instead of "What is your major?" and that I want aubergine at the grocery store instead of eggplant and that Renaissance is pronounced "Reh-nay-sense" not "Ren-nuh-sance" and that it is always a queue, never a line. In short, in many ways I'm beginning to feel like I'm a part of this place and no longer an outsider. And it's so hard to believe that, in a few days, Michelmas term will be half way over. On one hand, it feels like I've been here for such a long time, and on the other hand, it doesn't seem like so little time should be left before the term ends.

I got my "mark" on my first Modernism essay, and I got an upper 2.1. Their marking (grading) system is very different from ours. You can get a 1 (called a "first"), which according to Lynn means you're pretty much a supergenius. Then the next grade down is an upper 2.1, which is a a really strong A. Then there's a lower 2.1, which is an A/B. And so on. So I was very pleased with my first mark. Tony, one of the other residents in the Spencer House, told me that an upper 2.1 from Julian (my Modernism tutor) is excellent because he is a really tough marker. But Julian told me earlier that it would be very easy for me to improve my grade to a first because basically, to earn one on the last essay, he would have only wanted me to explore a couple more poems. So that's exciting. I had my third tutorial with Victoria (my Medieval tutor) today, and I handed her my first essay, which she said she was pleased with. I'll get my mark on that next week. In the meantime, I have two essays due next week, one for Victoria on Monday and one for Julian on Wednesday. So far so good.

I had my first experience at the Bodleian library today. Click on the link to learn more, but pretty much, the Bodleian is like England's version of our Library of Congress. They have a copy of every book that has ever been published in England plus tons more. But they don't lend out books. So you have to request them to a reading room, and then you're allowed to use the books there. But back to the point. The Bodleian, I learned today, is pretty much like a steel fortress. You have to show your student ID card at the front desk. And you have to let them look in all your bags when you enter one of the library buildlings, move from one part of the library to another, and when you leave. It was very cool, though, to feel like an Oxford student -- headed to the Bod to look at books while groups of tourists snapped their pictures of the door I was walking through. On my way to the Bod, I walked down a street that I remembered from when I was here in 2005, and it was quite surreal to see myself as one of those tourists three years ago and then to see myself as an Oxford student now.

On Saturday, Dr. Ross and I went to see the final showing of The Year of Magical Thinking at the National Theatre in London. And it was marvelous. For those of you who don't know about the play, here goes. The playwright, Joan Didion, wrote a memoir called The Year of Magical Thinking, which was published in -- 2005, I think. The book is Didon's account of her grieving process following her husband's (the author, John Gregory Dunne) sudden death because of a heart attack. She calls it The Year of Magical Thinking drawing upon the anthropological definiton of "magical thinking", which refers to the beliefs shared by many ancestral peoples that taking a certain action will bring about a certain supernatural effect; for example, tribes sacrifice a virgin in hopes that the rain god will supply rain. Didion, too, experiences a type of magical thinking because she spends the year following John's death thinking that if she takes certain actions she will be able to hold off his death or allow him to come back. For example, a particularly powerful image from the book (and the play) is her refusal to throw away his shoes, insisting that John will need them when he gets back. Throughout the book, she comes to terms with her grief through various means and finally accepts the reality of his death. But the book ends -- in a very Modernist way -- not with a sense of resolution, that all is will, but with the idea that death is pervasive, that the effects of grief never fully disappear -- in short, that the idea of the (re)integrated self is a fallacy. After Didion published the book, she was approached by the Broadway director, David Hare, who wanted to turn her book into a play. In rewriting the book for the stage, there were the typical issues to address about how to translate a written work into a visual work. But there was also an extral layer of complication because in the interim space between the publication of the book and being approached by Hare, Didion's thirty-nine-year-old daughter, Quintana, also died of health problems. So it was necessary for Didion to deal with Quintana's death and the grief that resulted from it in the play because, as Hare said, they didn't want audience members to know something more than the speaker of the play, i.e., that the audience would know that her daughter dies but that the speaker wouldn't. So those issues resolved, the play consists of Joan Didion, played by Vanessa Redgrave, monologuing to the audience for the play's entire 2.5 hour duration. And it is pure brilliance. In the play, you get this very powerful sense of just how grief-stricken Didion is and how "crazy" her grief is making her that you don't get in the same way from the book. In the book, you're so inside of Didion's thoughts and you empathize with her so strongly that you almost take on her grief as your own, and the irrationality of it comes to make sense -- almost like you're experiencing it with her. But with the play, it's like you're able to look at her in a more objective (but equally touching) way because there's a visual inconsitency between Redgrave's mannerisms and her words -- as she tells you that she's fine, but you know differently based on the way she presents herself. Redgrave just portrays a traumatized person so naturally -- from the way she nervously fidgits her hands, plays with her hair, moves in the chair in which she sits for most of the performance to the sudden pauses between thoughts that allow her to portray the stream-of-consciousness manner in which a grieving person moves from one idea to the other. You really get a sense of how talented an actress Redgrave is -- because she is able to act so nervous and raw and traumatized that it becomes so real. Really, it was so haunting and moving that I can't get it out of my head. Absolutely wonderful. Go read the book now if you haven't.