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Stories from Abroad: England

 

SCHOLAR'S SEMESTER IN OXFORD

 

September 20, 2006

Oxford IS wonderful. I love, love, love it here. It is already expanding me and teaching me in ways I had not imagined... and I dream big! I experience fresh joys and fresh blessings every day.

 

September 24, 2006: Divine Service

Although attending Sunday service in Oxford no longer means making one’s way through a world of piety, as in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the city of dreaming spires is still crowded with churches, and hunting around among all the different denominations—and all the seemingly very different traditions contained under the shelter of the Anglican church—was not a task I relished. I was very excited to learn that Jonathan Kirkpatrick, the program’s Classics Tutor as well as Junior Dean (RD/houseparent figure) for the Crick Road housing, has a quasi-legendary enthusiasm for tea, and a home church with an evening service. So to tea-on-the-lawn and St. Andrew’s vespers we were all invited from the first Sunday onwards… now no longer a default option, it has remained a beloved ritual for many of us.

 

Having settled into this “Low Church” routine, it was with some trepidation that I set out this morning for St. Mary Magdalen’s, located in the heart of the city, and famous for being not-quite-Catholic. We—half a dozen students from the Vines—walked in to a dark, vast interior, composed of centuries’ piety: the central nave 1194, the Lady Chapel 14 th century, the Martyrs’ Aisle Victorian. I got my service book from an old man dressed—how else?—in tweeds, and filed reverently into a pew.

 

The High Altar is covered with a white cloth, bordered with broad lace; six bronze candlesticks hold tall tapers, flanking the ornate crucifix. Incense stings my eyes; I am almost frightened by the majesty of the place, the awful solemnity of drawing close to that great God who is fitly served—inadequately served—with so much splendor. When the Nicene Creed is said, the weighty, wondrous words are echoed in the stained glass over the high altar, where Christ in glory “sitteth at the right hand of the Father, whence he shall come…” Communion is taken kneeling at a dark rail in the Martyrs’ Aisle. “The body of Christ, given for you… the blood of Christ, shed for you.” The ivory Christ on the wooden crucifix still gazes heavenwards, face contorted with agony and love, brown age-staining surrounding His mouth like the residue from a vinegar-soaked sponge. We the sinner-worshippers return gravely to the pews for the prayer, the last hymn; the breath of those around me rises sweet with the communion wine. Gratitude for absolution unites us in joy; and when the minister gives the benediction, it is with my whole heart that I answer, “Thanks be to God.”

 

More to come . . .

 

The bells of St. Mary the Virgin are ringing me home, and a gibbous moon shines fantastically clear over Magdalen Bridge. In my hands I carry bags of fresh food bought at the weekly market on Gloucester Green, which, despite its name, is a brick piazza near the bus station. Cheap-bought tomatoes and apples, iceberg lettuce and seeded grapes, green beans, and chocolate make a good start to the Full Term. The chocolate is, obviously, just as much of a dietary necessity as lettuce. Tutorials start next week: I am nervous, but mostly—right now, anyway—I’m excited, thrilled, delirious with delight at everything I’m going to be learning, knowledge mediated by some of the best minds in the world.

 

October 15, 2006

The first frenetic, fabulous week of lectures is over. In the Oxford system, the only “registration” pertains to what courses of papers you choose to write during the term, for which you’re under the guidance of a specific tutor for each. So lecture-going during firstt week is a fantastic free-for-all, during which all options are open and no holds are barred (with the exception of graduate seminars.) Obviously tutors will usually recommend a series of lectures (or two) but student initiative is permitted and encouraged. I loved it. There were definitely a few lectures that I got into that were over my head—one given by a visiting Norwegian scholar on ninth-century handwriting, the evolution of the English language, sophism, and the tendency of trout to commit the logical fallacy of assuming the consequent—but it was all great fun.

 

Sampling of extra-curricular activities is also par for the course. In 0 th week, everyone goes to the vast and magnificent Examination Schools, which are crowded with booths (think the LSU Opportunities Fair x10) and over-commits themselves. Then you decide which ones you’re actually going to try. And after you’ve tried them out in first week, you go back (or not.) I’m going back to every one: I am officially a member of the Oxford University Chorus and will be singing in a concert at the end of term; and I also went out for Scottish dancing and a Gilbert and Sullivan sing-through. Scottish dancing is marvelous stuff, involving much circling, skipping, and galloping up and down. As a joyfully self-confessed mini-series addict, I was forcibly reminded of all those marvelous (or for devoted/hapless boyfriends/brothers/fathers, inexplicable) dancing scenes in Jane Austen adaptations. When whirling around the room, I half expected my next partner to be Mr. Bingley, or perhaps the infamous Willoughby! The fastidious Mr. Darcy would, no doubt, have found in the large church hall no beauties fine enough to tempt him.

 

Today was the anniversary of Virgil’s birth. Not many places in the world, perhaps, would boast inhabitants mindful of this. But Jonathan, SCIO’s Classics tutor, and a devoted Latinist, assured that the poet’s birthday did not go unmarked, and the weekly tea featured spontaneous (occasionally garbled) recitations by those of us familiar with his works; these involved much assistance and heckling from those of our biscuit-munching peers who cared to listen. I was marvelously happy.

 

October 18, 2006

On a steady diet of soundtrack music, I am writing the third paper that has fallen due in the space of a single week, and idly wondering why, in the face of such a workload, I am still so ridiculously happy.

On Monday I need to turn in a draft proposal for my Long Essay, containing a bibliography of 20 sources, 5 of them annotated, with library location information for each. Tonight while I was cooking dinner, conversation in the kitchen centered on Boethius’ attitude towards universals, and how it differed from Plato’s, with a sideline on medieval philosophy in general. Dinner table debate was on global warming. Yesterday, I spent well over seven hours in the Bodleian Library, reading Latin verse from the fourth century, early Cistercian correspondence, and secondary sources on twelfth century monasticism.

 

October 24, 2006

I have concluded that from this point in the semester on, lecture and class periods excepted, I will be living in the Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera, eating sandwiches on the steps of one or the other. Sleep, when it happens, will still happen at the Vines. This is okay… especially as the perceived monopoly of academic pursuits gives way in the evening to extracurricular fun.

 

On Monday, rehearsals with the University Chorus (we’re performing Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia and more traditional English Christmas carols for our concert); on Tuesday, Scottish dancing. Tonight we were taught the “gallop,” and the Strathspey Step, and danced the Windsor Reel, and another reel called Summer Assembly. Wednesdays are free for reading; Thursdays I can celebrate having my weekly essay turned in by going to the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, which sings through an operetta every week in the back room of the Rose and Crown. The landlord is always happy to see us (and hear us!) but I sometimes wonder what the other patrons think when our exuberant choruses resound through the garden.

 

Lest academia seem too tyrannical—I wish to formally state that I love it totally and absolutely, and it’s not really that bad—I still seem to find plenty of time for hanging out with fellow SCIO students, and enjoying the availability of cultural events. This past Saturday I organized a group trip to the opera, to see Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Nothing could be further from the dispassionate vocabulary of scholars, and our often uneventful lives! True Love, Real Hate and Strong Revenge—it’s all there, and it even predates Morgenstern!

 

Also, the regime of rigorous study has its own charms, made merrier by the fact that you share it with so many others. (Example: as I came to the “Rad Cam” this morning after lectures, another student was coming out; he grinned at me, saying: “I’m running away.” We laughed. It was fun.) My regular essay requirements seem more onerous than usual this week; but I think this is only because I am pining to do research on my Long Essay, which is tentatively titled: “The Doctrine of Love and the Rhetoric of Reproach: the Use of Ovidian poetry in the letters of Abelard and Heloise.” I am super-excited. I get to read Latin. For your delectation, a quotation from Boethius, the fourth-century author of De Consolatio Philosophiae:

“Quis legem det amantibus?
Maior lex amor est sibi.”

My translation :

“Who may give laws to lovers?
Love is unto itself the greatest law.”

 

October 28, 2006

I think libraries are sexy. And that’s not a word I use very often (“sexy,” I mean; I use the word “libraries” on a quotidian basis.) The Sackler Classics Library, located in St. John’s Street, next to the Ashmolean Museum, is a prime example. It is deliciously round, and all within is orchestrated in hues of deep green and coral; the wood of the stacks and the trim of the desks is golden oak, and the lighting is soft and romantic. The library even has its own special aroma. It also has lots of old folio books, and rolling shelves. Its quiet atmosphere—St. John’s Street is about 10 minutes’ walk from central Oxford—is ideal for study, except that I always get the feeling that the library is flirting with me, and that it would be rude not to respond by getting up and wandering the labyrinth of shelves, stroking the spines of books written in English and very foreign languages. I try to pretend that I am a Very Serious Scholar, single-mindedly devoted to my work, and that its seductive flattery will get it nowhere… but I don’t think it believes me.

 

Lest I be chided for favoritism, let me add that I love the other libraries of Oxford too. The History Faculty Library, in the words of the Regius Professor, is a place “both pleasant and useful,” while not as romantic as the Sackler or Bodleian. It has aspects both of the sanctum and of the workplace; and it is in this library that I am most conscious of its defining functions: the storing and lending of books. Its exuberantly overcrowded shelves, haphazard attitude towards shelf placement (think a Great Maize Maze, only with books,) and busy contemplation, or, as it were, contemplative bustle, give it a genius loci which I think completely appropriate to the historians who live (I mean, research) there. Even the English Faculty, with its (to me) unprepossessing modernist architecture, is a fun space, defined by shelves around the walls, and a vast grid of desks in the middle of the ground floor. On the upper floor is a gallery; and with glass-and-concrete roof and vast windows, it’s a great space to work or browse in. Getting to borrow books from all the different faculty libraries is a privilege not available to most Oxford students, who are forced to obtain letters for the purpose, although one can read almost anywhere. In the words of Skylar, one of my fellow program participants, this makes us “as Greek gods among men.” (We have decided that, as long as we’re indulging in a spot of apotheosis, Skylar shall be Dionysius.)

 

The Bodleian is monarch of the Oxford libraries, majestically beautiful, from the Schools Quad to the Upper Reading Room, and everywhere in between. It’s my favorite study space, where shelves of books arranged on utilitarian principle look as if they could have been bought by the yard, or arranged by an artist; golden light suffuses the reading space; and the university motto is ubiquitous, whether displayed in the frescoes in the Upper Reading Room, or the dark coffered ceiling of Duke Humfrey. The atmosphere positively thrums with good-humored cerebral vigor; and each reading room has its own special atmosphere. The Classics rooms always seem to be busiest, with crowded desks, constant soft-footed traffic to and from the book-ladders and reserve desk, and students boasting dog-eared personal copies of Tacitus in addition to the tomes taken from the shelves. I have gone barefoot in the Classics rooms. Explanation: one of the most sacrosanct institutions of the “Bod” is the Silent Study Rule. One of the greatest unspoken rules of Oxford is: Thou shalt dress in a classy manner. So… kitten heels + parquet floor + Silent Study Rule = evil, evil looks from other scholars. So, on self-appointed “skirt days,” I go barefoot in the Bod. And then no one looks askance.

 

Another fun characteristic of the Classics rooms is that no single language can boast that it has the majority of readers. Based on data assembled by peeking over people’s shoulders (I’m an inveterate book-snoop), English might have a plurality, but Latin runs it a close second, with Greek and German ably accounting for the remainder. Just as a note, I think the residual genius in the air makes it easier to translate (this is a hypothesis based on personal experiences of Ovid… although admittedly, sitting with a tall cider in front of the fireplace at the Mitre (one of Oxford’s most famous establishments, an upper-class pub/hotel) is probably not a locus notable for being conducive to academic endeavor, cultural refinement notwithstanding. Ah well. I’m off to the library!

 

October 31, 2006

I love Oxford. Just at the moment when I’m ready to give up and curl up and eat chocolates and watch Shakespeare in Love forever, suddenly, magically, research will become fun again. Suddenly, magically, it will all make sense: the king kneeling in the January snow at Canossa, and why it was imprudent for the pope to pardon him, and the organic hierarchy of the Church in the eleventh century. Thank goodness. Now if only I can write 8 pages on that for Thursday.

 

I love Oxford. I think I have become attached to it… somewhere under the ribs, as Mr. Rochester said to Jane Eyre… except the city is definitely more the Rochester figure in the relationship: charismatic and proud, affectionate, even tender, but not afraid to tell me when my work is inadequate… and definitely more than a bit despotic.

 

I love Oxford—not least because nerdy is cool here. More accurately, nerdy is normal, and super-nerdy is cool. Example of cool super-nerdiness: today is Hallowe’en. In comparison with American hype, British preparations and celebration are barely a blip. Some random people have been seen wandering around with plastic pitchforks and the like en route to parties, and pumpkins are smiling on doorsteps, but that has been all… until tonight. Last week’s Harvest Masquerade party having fulfilled, for students on the SCIO program, the basic human need of getting dressed up in the most random outfits possible (I was Miss Havisham), tonight required merely commemoration. And for my brilliant fellow SCIO-students, this meant finding a graveyard—with stones older than our country—and going there at midnight for the purpose of reading Edgar Allan Poe. This Friday, we’re just being nerdy: celebrating Ugly Sweater Day and getting together to go out to a bonfire-cum-fireworks display, and then coming home to watch V for Vendetta in (slightly premature) honor of Guy Fawkes Day. Remember, remember, the fifth of November!

 

Oh, and I’m also writing an essay on the topic: How did the papacy justify (and enforce) increasing claims for temporal power in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries?, as alluded to in the first paragraph. The paper is almost done. It will represent 0.00000001% of the information that exists on the topic.

 

November 14, 2006

Not to be handed to another reader
Nor to be left at your seat
But to be given to the
Member of staff at the
Reserve Counter

 

Now, I’m not an English major, but I find something very poetical about that notice, a typewritten copy of which is found glued inside the back cover of reserve books in the Lower Camera. I like the line breaks, despite the repetitious article. I like the use of the word “nor,” and the parallelism of the first two phrases. I’ve probably been in the library too long… and I was told today that a 1:1 ratio of hours of sleep to cups of tea in a 24-hour period is probably not the healthiest thing in the world… but I’m happy! I’m writing a paper on Pearl, a 14 th century poem. I would say “a 14 th century romance,” or “a 14 th century allegory,” or “a 14 th century dream-vision poem,” but no one seems to agree on its primary genre. And despite my tutor’s exhortation to argue my opinions more vigorously, I’m not feeling quite brave enough to jump into over a century of scholarship and say “Ooh! I know! I know!”

 

I still love Oxford, so dearly and so deeply that sometimes I feel like whimpering with the beauty of it all, and with the knowledge that I must leave it. I wish I could have a movie camera following me around all the time, like Dziga Vertov. I want to document each of my journeys, even the simple ones: from Frewin to the Camera, across Cornmarket, down Market Street past the grocer’s vans and the brick-faced pub and the spectacled man with his small son in a trolley (stroller, in American.) Then Brasenose Lane, carefully avoiding the cyclists on the Turl: past the stout, serious don in his academicals, the lanky female student in her elegant boots; with the good smells of solid British cooking from the College kitchens, and the sound of someone practicing the violin. Past my favorite satyrs on the lintel in St. Mary’s Lane, a zig-zag around tourists, and into the sanctum, up the path, past the sign that says “READERS ONLY” and the one that says “DO NOT TREAD ON THE GRASS” and up the sensuously curved stone steps to the desk where I open my bags and display my University Card before tripping blithely down the curved steps to the Lower Reading Room. The Lower Reading Room has enormous windows ornamented with wrought-iron grilles, and bays of books, all beauteous. (The alliteration of that clause you may attribute to my immersion in ancient languages.)

 

One of the things I like about Oxford is that it inspires me to think crazy things, such as “I should apply for grad school here!” or “Translating Medieval Latin is so much fun!” or “I need another cup of tea.” Tea… yes… I think I’m going to put the kettle on.

 

November 20, 2006

So, today, besides researching the interaction of Christian and non-Christian cultures in the Iberian Peninsula in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, I practiced the ars thrifti storiis (English: art of thrift store shopping). I found a dress at Oxfam. And not just any dress—a sheer-fitting, off-the-shoulder, ankle-length, slit-up-the-side black formal, with a wide, wine-colored organza collar. Why, you ask? Because of a posh University Dance on the 2 nd—my solution to being homesick for Christmas Tradition! Nicola, the ever-loveable program administrator, is going, and enthusiastically inviting others to come with her. And in the pride of my heart I resolved, “I am not going to my very first ever black-tie event, at Oxford University, in ‘the best thing I brought along.’” So, I am going in a formal dress that cost less than ₤20 and is ten years old if it’s a day… but it fits like a glove! Also I made a date to go see Ruddygore with a guy from the Oxford University Gilbert and Sullivan Society, of which I am a proud albeit temporary member.

 

Have you guessed? I’m still loving Oxford. This morning in my Medieval Latin reading class we read excerpts from Augustine’s Confessions and City of God. And if you thought understanding doctrines about the Trinity was hard in English…! At lunchtime I came and read at the SCIO headquarters at Frewin, enjoying studying in fellowship with other students… and also enjoying being distracted from studying by fellowship with other students! I made everyone tea, and there was much rejoicing. On Friday I went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see The Winter’s Tale performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, because all work and no play… Sorry; bad pun; moving on. It was a fantastic performance, and the four of us who went raved about it the whole way home… until we fell asleep in the train, that is. This afternoon, as per usual, the professor of my Medieval Latin literature class (not to be confused with Medieval Latin reading class!) took as many of us as were available out for tea. So I got to chat about ancient and medieval cookbooks, fables, textual transmission, and silly translations with my professor and a grad student who’s doing his doctorate in twelfth-century medicine. It was pretty super.

 

Now I’m off for the second-to-last rehearsal (yikes!) of the Oxford University Chorus. We’re singing Christmas carols—great English Christmas carols, so traditional that hardly anyone’s heard of them. But I have, thanks to a discontinued RCA recording that my Dad owns, entitled imaginatively “An English Christmas.” It makes me feel very culturally integrated. It also makes me one of the conductor’s favorite people—at a frantic gesture of his eyebrow I sing the melody VERY LOUDLY.

 

December 2, 2006: Lessons and Carols

Christmas has come to Oxford. Ever since mid-November, beautiful greenery and sparkly tinsel have decorated the always-artistic shop-windows. Now, colder weather and mince pies are confirming the season’s advent, together with increasing numbers of wreaths hung in the city, and giant Christmas trees appearing in college quads. Balliol has its enormous, two-storey spruce established on the pedestrian segment of Broad Street, adding to the festive atmosphere created by Oxonians milling in and out of shops, bags and parcels in hand. This past Sunday, I attended a service of Advent Carols in Christ Church Cathedral—in the diocesan Cathedral, in the enormous medieval space given a Cardinal Wolsey facelift, with students and the college Dean performing the readings in reverent voice and flawless diction, with one of the finest boys’ choirs in the world ravishing heart and mind together with Handel’s Messiah, with medieval chant, and haunting twentieth-century carols. On Thursday it was my turn—with the University College Music Society, I sang in Keble College Chapel, an enormous neo-Gothic edifice. We sang our hearts out on Ralph Vaughn Williams and traditional carols, and had the reward of seeing our conductor transfigured with affection and triumph. Afterwards, we all went in festive mood back to Univ., and had ourselves a merry little Christmas party—with, of course, mince pies.

 

It is hard to fathom that one week from today, I will be on a plane, crossing the Atlantic. In just one week, I will have left Oxford, not forever. Already the signs of term-end are here. I have completed both of my tutorials; and much to my delight, the quality of my work was praised. My primary tutor, Katy, with whom I met once a week in the beautiful Gilbert Library of Hertford College, brought mince pies to celebrate our successful completion of studying “Medieval Christendom and its Neighbors: 1000-1300.” I have finished the lecture series I chose to attend, slipping quietly and unnoticed out of the routine of the Faculty of History at Oxford. The two seminar classes I took have also come to an end; these more poignantly bittersweet. I will miss my classmates, many of whom I got to know, and grew to be fond of, especially Laura of Lancashire, who has a love-hate relationship with the poet Horace, and Vincent, who’s doing his Master’s degree on theories of time in the Middle Ages. I will miss the Monday-morning sense of humor of Professor Charles-Edwards, presiding over the Latin translation class. I’m melting softly out of their lives—the quiet American.

 

I’m feeling a little forlorn, to be honest. And I know I should banish these thoughts, this proactive loneliness, for the sake of enjoying Oxford while I’m here—and being productive. I’m finding that paper-writing sessions tend to trail off into sessions of gazing wistfully out the window towards the fog-shrouded spires of Oxford, “Towery city, and branchy between towers, rook-racked, river-rounded, the dapple-eared lily below.” I’m quite sure I haven’t punctuated that poetry correctly, but it sings itself in my head without line-breaks.

 

I think I can say—albeit at the risk of sounding too much like Anne of Green Gables—that this semester has “marked an epoch in my life.” Certainly I feel that I have learned great things; and producing 150+ pages of academic writing has been only a part of that. I have learned things, I think, about myself, and about other people. I have learned things about this green and pleasant land, this earth, this realm, this England, and about my own country. I have learned things—dare I claim it?—about God. Gladly and with my whole heart I can say that the University motto is mine: Dominus Illuminatio Mea. Oxford has won my heart and stimulated my mind in a very special way; in a way, I hope that will leave me lastingly changed, for the better, and more ready to accept such change in the future.

 

 

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