Oxford Study Abroad Chapter 3

On our third day, in preparation for classes, we went to the Bodleian Library, which was a nice 7 or so walk from Magdalen and is one of the most famous libraries in the world (there was also more Harry Potter-related filming here). I didn’t really need to use the libraries for my Shakespeare class, but I did end up coming here one more time; camera use was restricted in most rooms. The one where we got our library cards, which was modeled after Parliament’s interior, was one of the places where pictures were allowed.

This little table is where the officials, who took their roles very, very seriously, signed us up and handed us our cards after we took a spoken oath. There was also a game of attempting to fit into that chair on the far left; there was a little trick to lowering the piece in front of it before it was possible to squeeze in and sit.

Afterwards,  we took a tour of another library and found where the research material for our respected classes could be found. This library was at St. Peter’s, the college that sponsored our program but that we were not housed at (apparently, Magdalen is much nicer in terms of rooms and the exterior is as well, so I think we had a good exchange).

Around  5 that day, we had our first official formal dinner. These always were on Monday nights (except for the week following the 4-day excursion; then we had it on Tuesday) and consisted of reception, a lecture, and a sit-down dinner. The lectures were kind of like symposiums: a speaker, usually a professor, would come and talk for about an hour and fifteen minutes on a particular subject. This week’s was on ‘The Macbeths at Home’, a look on Shakespearean works as portrayed in film. The same professor would be a guest lecturer at our first lecture tomorrow morning, and he showed us clips from Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, a variation of the play with mobsters instead of kings, and an interesting independent movie featuring Christopher Walken as Macduff and the Macbeths as conquerers of a restaurant.
The dinner itself lasted for over an hour and a half and had randomly-selected individuals sitting at the ‘high table’ and the others in one of maybe four long tables farther down the hall (rather Potter-esque again). We started with grace and then sat down to conversations and a five-course menu consisting of bread, an appetizer, dinner, dessert, and coffee/chocolates, which was served to us by staff, along with wines.
I unfortunately never had my camera on me at these times, and so I can’t hope to render the same effect as being present had on me. It was a wonderful experience, though, and gave the feel of olden days where folks enjoyed performances and very social dinners followed afterwards. The opening night of Harry Potter, we had a wonderfully good time with a random professor who asked to join our group conversation at the pub, also a part of Magdalen, which is right next to the dining hall. It may not be as elaborate as the woodwork inside, but it has a lovely view of the water.

Day 3: Looking Back

Wow, it’s been terribly long since my first post! I actually am back in the States now, but because I had camera problems and couldn’t upload pictures on my phone until I returned back home, I figured that it would be difficult to do updates without having the pictures available when I post. I’m thinking to finish the blog in hindsight, which does shave off some of the initial emotions and anticipation, but it will allow it to be more like a story and prevent me from ranting for 2 paragraphs on such unimportant issues such as my hair straightener.

So the next day was rather hectic because there were items I needed to purchase and events I should have gone to. I desperately needed to buy a hair straightener because, well, girls would understand, so I went to this pharmacy called Boots and got one there. It’s a really nice pharmacy; they have many things there that were useful, like contact cases, bandages, and this energy drink my friend recommended, although they strangely didn’t have laundry detergent.

This is Cornmarket Street, where Boots and many other shops are located; it’s always a busy walk! The movie theater is not far from here either.

The thing with the straightener is is that I’m not going to be able to use it at home and will most likely leave it here, so I didn’t want to spend much on it. A normal-sized straightener was 60 pounds, so about 90-100 dollars, and if I’m only going to leave it here there was no sense in buying it. There were ones for 15-20 pounds of a smaller size and obviously not as good, but I got that instead.

 

Sorry, ‘cheap’ product, but you’re kind of a piece of junk. Barely gets the job done, but I got what I paid for, I suppose.

Anyway, after the straightener episode, I realized that I didn’t have a contact case and my knee, which had been hurting me for the past week or so, was hurting again, so I went back to buy the case and one of those long bandages you use for sprains. Unfortunately, I missed the ‘Getting to Know You’ event because I came too late to meet with the group and then didn’t know where it was—and apparently didn’t know that it said so right on the schedule I had; whatever—and this early in the program it would have been a good idea to have gone, since the pressure is kind of on for getting acquainted. However, I did make the tour of the city.

Here is the New Building, basically our dorms. It’s in front of the deer park that I can see from my room, where, of course, we have grazing deer.

Well, more like lounging around than grazing at the moment. They were nice to look at but they got moved to a nearby park in the gardens because some students  jumped inside the fence to chase them. My pretty view is gone : (

Here are the Cloisters, which are directly across from The New Building. Some people dorm in here but not that many, and our dining hall and recreation room are located here as well. There’s the Oscar Wilde room there too, which is where he lived when he was a student here; there’s a lovely poster/wall hanging in there of him lounging on a chair.

This picture includes most of the main buildings of Magdalen; my lecture room is on the central right (more on those in the next part). We later took a picture here before formal dinner and the guy moved me to the back because I wasn’t smiling enough while we stood there waiting. I’m sorry; I was cold!

Here is the Cloister’s lawn, which is where we hold reception before Monday night formal dinners. The little table is where they serve us beverages, mostly champagne and water.

We then went into Magdalen’s chapel; this is a really hard-to-see replica of The Last Supper that was hanging in the wall. Below it, we got these oddities that looked like folded wooden chairs but I think were used for prayer instead…unfortunately, I forgot the names—and more detailed background—but this happens a lot with me. Unless it’s quantum physics or theology; I can retain that information all too well.

Here’s another shot of the chapel; this stained glass window was lovely, and I wish the details could show more. It’s a speculation, but I think it’s a scene of Armageddon; you have St. Michael preparing to stab a/the devil in there on the bottom. I really like St. Michael; more on that another time.

So the guide was talking about the choir here and the services, and my mom called as he was doing so; I usually have my phone on silence, and I forgot to check; I was a bit embarrassed, but he took it well; heck, he told me to tell her how much of a wonderful time I was having. He also danced to my standard T-Mobile ringtone, and for a man of like 60-70, that was a sight.

Next, we walked down High Street and went towards Christ Church (another college, but it also has a chapel inside), which they used in making the model of the dining hall for Harry Potter. It was Sunday, and therefore, there were flocks of tourists (no seagulls, though), but the line outside for the viewing of the church was ridiculous; it costed four pounds to get in and you probably couldn’t even move when inside.

Still, it would have been wonderful to see; if you come here early enough,it’s definitely an ‘attraction’ to check out.

This building wasn’t mentioned to be anything of praised importance, but it was in the field by the church, and I think it’s a great setting for a story. I like to muse on what the ‘story’ behind random architecture is haha.

 

This is the garden where Lewis Carroll set what I believe was the croquet match in Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately I didn’t get too great of a shot; my tour group liked to crowd haha.

 

Mass here is often held at about 6 PM, and this fellow guards the gates when it’s not time to enter. He was rather friendly, actually.

Our tour then took us by the museums, which I’ll have a separate post for. Nothing really happened there, except that I wasn’t hungry for lunch and wandered off on my own to get back but I got a little lost…thankfully, I had handy Magdalen maps on me and managed to find my way back without a problem. I bought some dark chocolate from a candy shop; it was with blackberries and ginger and had this nice aftertaste. It was akin to some rich teas. How very English.

Later in the day, we had an introduction and a nice welcome dinner with a reception in the lawn. They served us pimms, which is a gin-based drink that I believe has lemonade and tea in it. There were bits of fruits in it, and there was so little alcohol that you could barely taste it, which made it tolerable for me.

Afterwards, some other students and I explored the college a bit; we wanted to go on the top of the tower and take pictures, but apparently there’s an application that you need to fill out, get approved, and then get an escort in order to go, so we didn’t. The option became available later, but I unfortunately had paper-writing consuming my week at that time.

My Ethernet port didn’t work, so I had to wait a day and use the free wi-fi in the pub. It was quite the cozy place.

And the next entry will include my class schedule and breakdown, so I hope to have it posted by tomorrow! The first few days had, understandably, much detail but when classes started kicking in, I suppose I can expand most entries to a few days. And the four-day epic environmental field trip…THAT was quite the adventure!

Watabori Park

6:30 AM. My last full day in Tokyo.

My second-to-last day actually never ended, since I came home at 1 AM and proceeded to talk to my sister for 3 hours. By the time I closed skype, I could hear birds chirping outside and decided that since I had yet to take a leisurely stroll around the area at 4:30 in the morning, now was the time to do so. I stuffed my phone and keys into my pocket and slipped out the door, thinking of a nearby shrine with some benches and a vending machine. A cold can of coffee while watching the sunrise? As my hand turned the lock, I doubled back into the house for a camera and a 500 yen coin. Now I was ready to go.

Outside, the sky was already pale lavender, though the moon was still up. I turned my feet towards Omiya Hachimangu, the nearby shrine famous for helping parents (especially mothers and soon-to-be mothers) raise good, healthy children. The soundscape changed as I approached the looming torii backed by dark forest eaves. Occasionally chirping birds acquiesced to the squalling drone of cicadas and other insects. I took the path to the side of the gate, quickly enveloped by dark foliage and the insects’ sighs.

I ended up ambling past the benches, allowing my curiosity to pull me towards some stairs I had noticed the day before. They led down to a park with a pond, some ducks, and some old people getting in their morning exercises. I stopped to photograph a blue heron stalking a fish and a middle-aged man avidly flying a remote helicopter. He was silhouetted against the rising sun as his toy droned in and out of focus. I took some dirt from the path as a souvenir, funneling it into an empty “pet bottle” (Japanese-English name for plastic bottle) with my fist.

This still did not satisfy my curiosity, which told me to explore a different way out of the park. As I walked on, I saw why – I had come across a fishing spot. 500 yen for 30 minutes; 700 for 1 hour. Opens at 9 AM weekdays; 8 AM on weekends. Shaved ice is 300 yen. I now have mid-morning plans, right after the pancakes I make with the last of my food supplies.

I continue on, then double back when an elderly regular tells me the shrine (and my house) are in the opposite direction. The torii swallowed up the dregs of the cicadas as I stumblingly meandered my way out of the woods. The sun shines brightly and cars flicker past on the main street. 6:30 AM in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood, and my last day has only just begun.

Having Fun at the Lake

After coming back from the free weekend, the Singaporeans were facing a hardship as it would be their last week of program. We Americans had one extra week of program. So the Singaporeans had their final projects, presentations and final exams all on Thursday and Friday. And besides that, we were going to have a Lake trip on Wednesday which would crunch their schedule again.

 

As everyone was still excited after coming back from their free weekend trip, we were ready again to go for the Lake trip. We set out Wednesday morning and arrived the lake around noon. After we finished having a quick and simple lunch, we were divided into three big groups for different activities.

The lake was a pretty huge artificial lake great for sailing, canoeing, and rafting. I was excited because I have never done those activities before.

Our group went for sailing first. After some quick instructions, a sailing boat was assigned to each two persons. So this kind of sailing boat turned out to be easily controllable. One person will be responsible for controlling the strength of canvas and thus will control the speed of the boat. Another person will be controlling the tail blade of the boat to control the direction. And of course, the power of this boat depended completely on winds. There were times when there were little winds and thus we had to go with the waves and waited. But overall the sailing experience was relaxing as the weather was nice enough for us to lie on the boat in the middle of the lake to enjoy the French sun.

Our second activity was canoeing, and it was a very tiring activity… it took us a long time to find out how to synchronize our rowing movements so that we can move our canoe efficiently. But we never got it perfectly. Maybe due to the bigger winds in the afternoon, our group of canoes could not manage to row far away from our starting point. Soon we all gave up and decided to go on shore to take a rest.

In the evening, we also played pedanque and shooting. Pedanque is a popular French recreational game played all over France. A small ball will be thrown at first and then your goal will be to throw your steel ball as close to the small ball as you can. I really like how delicate the iron ball was made. The shooting was fun as its laser-shooting the flying plastic pans. I did pretty well and the trick was to hold your gun firmly and pull the trigger when the pans flied right under your aim.

 

The final activity was to have a barbeque dinner! Sausages, steaks, salads, wine, and so on. It was a fulfilling day.

About Fukushima

I know this doesn’t entirely fit with the tone of this blog, but I was so moved by this video I wanted to share it … (the title looks a little extreme, I know).

Watching Japanese news generally gives one the impression that the crisis has been effectively dealt with, and that the best way people can help is through consumption. Celebrities are sponsoring “Let’s go Tohoku” campaigns, urging people who feel strongly about the victims of the tsunami and nuclear meltdown to buy products that come from that area … Though I’m sure it somewhat helps to revive the prefectures, there seems to be only relatively muted discussion about the fact that products with high radiation levels have been allowed to enter the market, or that the government has been doing almost nothing to solve the problems in these areas for the past 4 months.

London

The next coming weekend is a free weekend as it’s FREE! So everyone this week was planning to go somewhere else for the weekend. Everyone was excited because people now have the opportunity to choose their own favorite destinations!

 

One thing to note about was that the laundry shop was so freaking expensive!!! You will need to spend at least 8 euros to wash and dry only one load of clothes! So I decided to wash by myself and hang them in the dorm room to dry in the future…

The Americans came out with three destinations and thus divided into three groups – Amsterdam, Dublin, and Barcelona. However, none of the destinations seemed attractive to me, and therefore I chose to go with the Singaporeans’ decision – London.

 

The Singaporeans had made their plans like three or four months ago, so they had everything booked. I was unable to take Eurostar (the train that goes through English Channel) because it was too expensive that time! 250 euros for a single trip! Therefore, I had to adopt a time-consuming way – train from Troyes to Paris, train from Paris to airport, flight from Paris to London, and lastly tube (London subway) from London airport to my own hostel.

 

I set out Friday noon and arrived my hostel at around 11pm… it was tiring but adventurous because I found that I kind of enjoyed traveling alone. My hostel was a Victorian era style building with the inside as well. You got to meet youngsters from all over the world in the hostel because it’s economic. There’s also a coincidence that I met a fellow from Taiwan who just slept on the bed beside mine.

The next day early morning, I quickly learned to take the famous red buses in London to the hostel where the Singaporeans lived. Their hostel was right above a bar, so it’s convenient in some way, but I preferred mine. After meeting with them, we set out to explore London!

Like a group of tourists, we took pictures all the way and visited the top tourist spots like the Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge, the tube stations, the Oxford Circle, the British Museum, red telephone booths, and so on. Here you need to know that the London Bridge does not equal to Tower Bridge! Remember singing “London Bridge is falling down” when I was a child and thought that London Bridge was the pretty one, but it turned out that the pretty one was actually called Tower Bridge. London Bridge was actually just a normal-looking bridge.

 

We were lucky that day as well as that day was happened to be the “Queen’s Birthday”! So there was a huge royal parade along the long road toward the Buckingham Palace. We followed the crowds and watched the parade. We got to see William and Kate, and of course, the Queen!!!

(The Queen)

Here I have to introduce you two great places to visit in London: the Borough Market and the Camden Market. The Borough Market was similar to a farmer’s market, and there were full of European food booths there! So delicious! I ate apple sauce bbq pork, German sausage, roasted scallops, fish&chips and lemon carrot juice! The Camden Market was a market operating on Sundays for goods. You can find all kinds of souvenirs, clothes, gothic stuff, interesting stuff, and so on. Both were very worthwhile places to visit, and we wish we could have more time for them!

 

The Chinatown in London was also the best Chinatown I’ve ever visited. It’s pretty and clean.

Overall, I like London very much as it gave me a very good impression. The people there were nice, food were good, places were pretty, and it was just great! London is a city that will not let you down!

Okonomiyaki Story

It’s been a while since my last post, which is both a shame and very exciting, since it’s a sign that I’ve been so splendidly busy I haven’t had time to record what I’m up to. There is quite a bit to report, but I’l write this post about restaurants in Tokyo.

One of the main reasons I love living here is the food. Though transportation is a killer (incredibly convenient but expensive), a hole-in-the-wall bar run by your local mom-like figure, and regularly frequented by the neighborhood crew is always less than 5 minutes away from wherever you live. And the food is, almost without exception, well-priced and either excellent or decent. Besides this, you always return from a dining experience with a little story.

The other day, for example, a friend and I were saving ourselves a few bucks by walking home from a farther station instead of taking the train. Ravenously hungry and in search of a good okonomiyaki place (savory pancake from Osaka area), we debated where to eat. Wandering into a random restaurant or izakaya (Japanese pub) was all very good, but who could guarantee it would be worth it? Then again, looking for recommendations online sounded time-consuming and ultimately unhelpful in our tiny neighborhood. As we turned the corner at the bus lot, my friend said, “Well how about there?”

I looked over at the slightly dingy-looking place advertising its okonomiyaki. It looked like most of the izakaya in our neighborhood – a few red lanterns out front, with a short blue noren (cloth divider) and a fluorescent sign. The wooden door slid open as an older sister let a toddler outside to blow a few bubbles (apparently, not an uncommon past-time – my 20-something badminton friends wanted to bring bubble blowers to a barbeque, along with the less surprising volleyballs and frisbees). The 5 or so tables were occupied by a young family and a few older men with giant bottles of sake. I looked suspiciously at a man wearing grey parachute pants – the person subletting to me had said at some point that yakuza (Japanese mafia/gangs) members tended to wear them… Apparently many tend to live in this area; maybe it was a regular hangout …

“Let’s go!” My friend, who had arrived only a few days ago and was therefore unaware of the potential danger of parachute-pants-wearing men, walked briskly towards the door. My hunger and vague feeling of embarrassment won out over my paranoia, and I trotted along after him.

Everyone seemed to stare as we wandered in and plunked down at the only open table. I suppose foreign-looking pairs don’t wander into hole-in-the-wall izakayas frequented only by the neighborhood crew that often. As I puzzled over the menu, my friend nudged me a little. “I see the owner is a women’s wrestling fan.”

“Huh?”

“Look at the posters!”

I stop deciphering the menu – peppered with kanji and dishes I don’t know, anyways – and look over at the posters to my left. Five wrestlers frown down at me, their black leather costumes gleaming. Well, that certainly isn’t kawaii (cute). Though all the wrestlers are wearing make-up, they don’t display any markers of kawaisa/cuteness (smiling, bright, soft, small, etc). “You should ask the owner about the posters,” my friend prods. I nod and order for both of us (he can’t speak or read more than five words in Japanese). Since you are supposed to fry your own okonomiyaki, the owner brings us a bowl of the mix and shows us how to get started. After we work through our first and she brings us the monjayaki mix (a thinned-out version of okonomiyaki), I ask about the posters.

“Are you a wrestling fan?” (An obvious question, since the tiny place is covered with wrestling posters).

“Yup,” she says. “Those two over there are wrestlers.”

“Huh?”

“This is Giro-san,” she says, pointing to a poster of a frowning woman with short hair and turquoise eye-shadow. I look over at the two larger women who had walked in a few minutes ago, noticing the resemblance. Apparently they come here at least once a week, bringing boxes of pizza and sharing wrestling stories with the other neighborhood characters. She knew them from outside of work before she started the shop. I look at her again, wondering if she had been a wrestler before. She does have the build and if she knew them outside of work … Too shy to ask, I let the moment slip by; we pay for our clumsy meal and continue on our way, debating whether or not we should have asked for a picture with the owner and wrestlers.

“That would’ve been so great …” Our voices melt into the humid darkness as we trod home, sighing dreams of what could have been at our small discovery.