Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Land of Harry Potter and other Great Things

I can't help but feel that I do in fact attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft in Wizardry in the fantastical land of Harry Potter. Everyday I find myself walking along the cobble stone streets (attempting not to topple over), past fortress-like walls, and around actual motes. Any fan of fantasy or fictional writing could appreciate the aura of Oxford. I think most alluring to my imagination are the libraries at Oxford. In this brief entry I will attempt to take you on a whirlwind tour of Oxford's best study rooms.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Radcliffe Camera Library is absolutely spectacular. I often study in the upper reading room which looks like it came straight from Beauty and the Beast with its delecate pale white stone walls and its robin's egg blue ceiling.

Duke Humphrey's Library is also spectacular. There are several reading room varying in architecture with heavenly ceilings to dark and mysterious corners.

This past Sunday I was exploring some of the more remote college grounds and as I was passing by this immense door I heard the soft melodies of a choir singing the Evensong. I excitedly paused mid-way through one of my long strides and quickly whirled back around to press my ear against the cracked wooden door. The music was heavenly! A quick glance at my Oxford college map let me know that I was standing outside the Merton College Chapel. I had the rest of the evening off so I decided to slip into the chapel and listen to the rest of the service. To my utter glee there was a massive organ in the Chapel accompanying the choir. Its presence was formidable as it appeared to rear up and over the church goers not to mention its strong chords reverberated throughout the stone pillars in the church. I made a commitment then and there to continue to attend the various Evensongs sung at the colleges in Oxford.

My finally harry potter moment occurred when I was out for a night on the town with my new housemates. My housemate excitedly whispered in my ear. "Do you like Harry Potter?" and I had to fight back my reaction to scoff at her "OF COURSE I like Harry Potter." She eagerly continued, "Then look over your left shoulder, its Hermione Granger" and as I spun around I noticed Emma Watson, the actress who plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films 5 feet away from me. Apparently she lives in Oxford. (Interesting side note: she has visited Yale twice because she is possibly looking to attend the University).

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Oxford…A Home Away From Home

Well, it’s been exactly a week since I arrived in Oxford and already I have been to “formal hall”, a “bop”, and a “tutorial”. So to explain these Oxford-isms in greater detail, I guess I better start from the beginning…

My mom and I arrived in Oxford last Monday and the bustling city greeted us with a wonderful rain shower. Our optimism was high, regardless of the dismal weather, and we surged onward through the storm to find our quaint English hotel -The Randolf- right in the center of the city- about a 2 minutes walk from my college (called Regent’s Park).

So you may be saying, “her college…but I thought Oxford was her college!...what is Regent’s Park?” Well…The University of Oxford is an academic institution that is made up of 36 colleges. These colleges are separate academic entities, kind of like the business school at Pitt or the law school at Yale, except they do not only specialize in one academic area. So Regent’s Park college is one of the ‘colleges’ at Oxford and I am taught within this building by Oxford professors or ‘tutors’ that are associated only with Regent’s Park. The college is way more than just an academic building. It is also where most students in Regent’s Park College live, where the dining hall is, where the Regent’s library is, as well as where all the social activities are held for students who are in Regent’s. Our college also has sports teams that compete against other colleges within Oxford- there are big rivalries (just like at Yale).

My College- Regent's Park

Like I said before, most students live in Regent’s Park College, but I live off campus in a house that is owned by Regent’s Park, called “Scotus House”. I live here with 5 other Regent’s students ( 4 women, and 1 man). Cat, Etche, and Elaine study law, and Ciara (pronounced “key-ra”) and I study history. And finally there is Tim who is our ‘warden’ and who I never see (but apparently he is nice).

From the start, I have been running around like a chicken with my head cut off- racing from one end of Oxford to the other attending orientations, meeting up with people, and trying to fit in academics as well! Things at Oxford really picked up on Friday when I went to formal hall. Formal hall is a fancy 3-course meal held in the Regent’s Park dining hall. All the students (wearing their academic robes) sit at three very long tables and the tutors and administration of the college sit at the high table. All the students stand as the high table processes into the dining hall and then a prayer is said before dinner and we all sit down. Then the real show starts as the waiters come in and start to serve dinner. General merriment ensues (great conversation, good food, and a warm atmosphere). Afterwards the students head to the Junior Common Room (or JCR) which is the social hub of the college. There was a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream social after formal hall this past Friday. I met so many wonderful people at the social- it was nice to feel welcome in my new home.

Then on Saturday evening I went to the college “bop” (or dance) which was Geek-chic themed. Everyone dressed up in nerdy glasses or some other iconic Geek costume. It was another opportunity to get involved in the Regent’s community.

Then Sunday was spent preparing for my tutorial, which is a one on one meeting with my tutor. These tutorials make up the main part of Oxford learning (which is supplemented by weekly lectures). And today (Monday), I met up with my tutor in Regent’s Park to discuss Ancient Greek history. This week we focused more on archeology and chronology and had an hour-long discussion about the ‘reliability of ancient historical dates’. Next week I have two tutorials. One on Monday with the Ancient Greek History tutor, and one on Tuesday with my Victorian history tutor. For each tutorial I have to write a 10 page paper which I will read out loud and then discuss with my tutor. (most tutorials are conducted this way: where students are given a reading list and a question to address in a essay. Then the student does the reading, writes an essay and then reads the essay out loud to their tutor at their weekly tutorial and then discuss the material).

The Camera Library

Monday, 12 January 2009

Foggy London Town

To put it simply: London was fantastic! I spent 3 days in London with my mother and we had a whirlwind adventure. Our first night there we took the Tube (the London subway) to Westminster to see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. To make things even better there was a full moon cascading just over the left shoulder of Big Ben (speaking of Big Ben- Go STEELERS!). As we started walking around, the bells started tolling from the great clock tower- it was magical in the crisp night air and I felt like I was in 'foggy London town of old'.

We made our way down the length of Parliament and heard a lone bag piper playing at Westminster Abbey. His eerie song made the night ever more magical. As we walked, we headed towards south bank and the London Eye (the giant Ferris wheel). It was lit up gloriously- a pale blue/purple ring of fire in the dark night sky. It was pretty chilly and we were feeling the cold in our bones- so my mom and I decided to try to find a pub to warm up in. We ended up traveling back to Oxford Street and finding Sir Christopher’s Place (which is a really cute/quaint alleyway full of boutiques and cozy restaurants) We went to the restaurant that the concierge recommended- Paradiso Restorante Olivelli established 1934.

Jetlag hit us hard that night and we slept in until 12:30 the next day! But we started off our day with a trip to the Marble Arch where a protest against the war in Gaza was being held. We hopped on the tube and headed out towards St. Paul’s Cathedral. The view upon entering the main body of the church was spectacular! The walls heading towards the altar were splashed with colorful mosaics in rich colors like burgundy, royal blue, and forest green. The mosaics sparkled and glimmered in the cool lights because they were embedded with thousands of gold flecks. The dome was humongous! It was decorated/painted in a black and white Greek-antiquity-like scene. I sat down in the semi circle of chairs that was set up directly under the dome and just took the moment in. I felt like I could really enjoy the splendor of this church after having taken Art history!

Then I headed back out, reluctant to leave this beautiful place. I met up with my mom and we headed back over to Westminster to go to Westminster Abbey and hear the Evensong Choir service in the Abbey. We sat on the left hand arm of the church as the service went on. It was beautiful. The all men’s choirs was phenomenal. The men wore white robes with red over robes. I read in the info pamphlet that Westminster Abbey has a college dedicated only to becoming professional choristers. No wonder the choir was so good. Around us were hundreds of tombs for past kings, influential politicians and scientists, and war admirals. The tombs ranged in style reflecting the age of the church. It was almost chaotic in its diversity and reminded me of the clusters of sculptures I would see in the Parthenon etc. After the service we headed out down the center of the nave through the area where the choir sang under the glow of red lamps. My mom wanted to donate some money to the church and I noticed that we were standing in front of Sir Isaac Newton’s tomb! So cool- I had a DaVinci code moment!

Then we took the tube to Harrods for our 5:00 reservation of afternoon tea. We headed up to the 4th floor, passed through the Pet Palace department and found the Georgian Room. The Georgian room was pleasant. They had a piano player there and the walls were washed in a soft pale pink. The ceiling was beautiful too and had these cool star shaped lights. After we had tea we headed out into the store for a bit of a shopping spree!

The next day we ventured to the British Museum where I had some major academic moments: mostly related to art history. The museum is AMAZING! I think if a museum were ever tailored to my interests- this would definitely be the museum. The ancient history was breath taking- I was nearly having a heart attack when I walked through the ancient Assyrian and Egyptian exhibits! I GOT TO SEE THE Rosetta stone! So exciting!

Then we went over to the National Gallery where I saw so many amazing paintings but the ones that stuck out in my mind were: da Vinci’s cartoon of "The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist" and Piero della Francesca's "The Baptism of Christ." Both pieces were MUCH larger than I thought they would be, which just added to the awe factor. I was sad because they were doing restoration work on da Vinci's "The Virgin of the Rocks" but hopefully I can pop up to London another time to see it.

Then it was off to Oxford!