Oxford Summer Chronicles Day 1&2

Day 1/Day 2, Friday July 8th/Saturday July 9th: Chicken with a Side of

So I’ve never had a blog before and would indeed like to create an atmospheric introduction, but like with books, where it’s better to describe the main character as you go along by showing, rather than telling, so maybe with some close reading you can interpret my character, if you so wish.

The first day would not be particularly interesting to you, really; I left the Detroit airport with another girl from U of M and we met another student who was traveling with us, as well as a lot of MSU students who were at art programs in London. I was admittedly quite worried because the attendant at the ‘podium’, as they called the desk, was asking whether six people would volunteer to relinquish their tickets, so I had thought that perhaps my seat had been booked twice and I would be kicked out and have to wait until the next evening for the next plane. Thankfully, everything turned out well (I think the worst that happened was that I don’t particularly savor apple muffins and that was their breakfast), and we arrived at Heathrow (at around 7 AM the second day), which is terribly big and quite confusing to get around in. We had to claim our baggage –not exactly a place filled with the smell of roses— and get on a bus to take us from our terminal to Terminal 5, where we could find the Oxford bus.  As luck would have it, we were a few hundred feet behind the one that had just arrived at the stop, so we had to wait for another one. Typically, the buses come past every twenty minutes or so, but luckily another came in about five. These buses were ‘kempt’, I suppose you could say, because they were the sort you would get if you took field trips to far-away places back in elementary school and minus the televisions, they were basically the same design.

I have to say that I didn’t know that England doesn’t use the Euro in a lot of places; I had some from home and brought them here before I’d need to exchange money in the city, but whatever rates the driver was using to calculate my ticket price was at least five pounds more expensive than it should have been. So, if you go abroad, you mystery reader, it’d be advisable to convert at least a hundred dollars into your foreign currency, although it’s safest to calculate a smaller or larger amount if the dollar varies more or less than it does with the pound (roughly, a pound is about 1.6 dollars).

If you come to England and don’t have an appreciation for the countryside, then tsk tsk. It’s definitely one of the most notable and beautiful things about the UK, and who can picture Ireland or Scotland without thinking of rolling, verdant fields? Even if it’s not an appeal to you initially, when you see it in person it’s something special. That’s what I like about Nature: it feels one-on-one in a certain way, even though others can see it right when you are. It’s that whole concept of the individual and community merged into one, like the sorts that books and religions share. If you’d walk in the pastures alone and contemplate your surroundings rather than your tasks or your interactions with people for the day, I think you’d understand it without me needing to say a word. For a long time, I saw the sky without ever really seeing it.

So riding on the bus I looked out of the window and saw fields and many flocks of sheep; it’s strange, because in the Michigan-Illinois areas I’m used to driving through you see plenty of farmland but never any animals, and if you do it’s basically a horse or two, but here there’re many herds of cows and flocks of sheep! It reminded me of my family in Poland, because the drive there is somewhat similar.

When we got off in Oxford, we stopped a bit away from my college at The Queen’s College, but the walk to Magdalen College is only about two minutes away, which is nice when you have bulky suitcases and luggage to carry.

So I suppose I should talk a little bit about the colleges as in, how they’re relevant to my studying here. I actually applied through St. Peter’s and my program is ran through that college, but we’re housed by Magdalen, which I think is quite a plus and you will agree once I show you both of them.

From far away, Magdalen projects the feeling of a castle or an abbey; it’s such a big difference from the architecture of U of M, and to think we’ll actually be living there! Comparing Oxford to Poland, which is where I lived until I was three (I’ve gone back and visited quite a bit in the past), is intriguing, because they both have an older feel that I think goes for most of Europe, but the architecture distinctly varies. If you’re interested in that subject area or art history, I think it’d be a fascinating comparison study to make!

At signing in, we received an envelope with information, keys, and signed up for a group dinner out in the city to better get acquainted. The two RA’s were very helpful and friendly; they treated us appropriately for being college students but at the same time they seemed mature enough to trust with any possible personal problems. There was still some time before dinner, so I took my luggage to my room and went to sleep for a few hours, because no one gets anywhere near enough sleep on airplanes.

The dorms here are interesting because each room varies. Luckily, mine was one of the best arrangements, because I received a huge living space with couches, chairs, a desk, a fireplace, fridge, and a piano, which is excellent because I’ve just recently started playing again and now I can fit in practice (which mostly consists of learning a few notes of new songs and playing Lavender’s Blue and Ode to Joy, which are the only songs I –mostly- know from memory).

The desk area is a little messy; I apologize on your eyes…and the other room is a small bedroom with a sink and dresser.

Wow; it looks like I just leave everything laying around; don’t judge me too poorly! L I was tired after all. From what I’ve gathered, a lot of other students just have one room here and often don’t have a piano. How sad! The only downside –other than having an Ethernet port that doesn’t work, as I’ll later get to— is that this is spoiling me and is going to make me very unsatisfied with my single at South Quad next year.

After the nice nap, I got ready for dinner and met with the large group of students going. Unfortunately, I did not take my camera, but I can tell you that there was this great guide for this ghost tour that we passed; he was dressed in a top hat and Inverness cape and was speaking very dramatically to the tourists; it looked like a character from a Victorian film.

The restaurant we went to had rather good food –I had chicken with goat cheese and some red sauce, along with fries and greens— and I think it was a fair price for English pubs, but my order was misinterpreted and led to some problems. We had pre-ordered, and I didn’t remember the name of my dish because it had some Italian-sounding word in it, but I remembered the description so I described it to the bartender and she seemed to understand what I wanted. However, I did not get my meal at all, and after I spoke to the waitress about it she said what I ordered had never been received; ah! I waited quite a while and they gave me the aforementioned dish that also had bacon on it, but because I knew that what I had ordered didn’t have bacon in it, it wasn’t the correct order, but I didn’t want to cause any more trouble (and they didn’t charge me as high of a price as my original dish cost) so I ate it; it was actually pretty tasty. If you’re wondering about beers in pubs, there’s quite a variety; I actually really detest/dislike alcohol so I can’t narrate much on this topic, but the Coca Cola seems to taste better in Europe, probably because it’s from a glass bottle. The college did give us a cultural drink though that was rather interesting, but that’s for Day 3.

This was mostly it for my first actual day at Magdalen; I was still tired from the trip so I went to sleep after wandering down the streets with some of the other people in my program. The next day includes explorations of Oxford, deer, and fancy cuisine, so pique your interest and watch for the next entry!



Another regular week had passed as we foreign exchange students have settled down completely and got used to the life at UTT. Both classes went well. After class, people may do all kinds of activities. Some would go to town center and taste more food or explore more sights. Some would go to grocery shopping at Carrefour or Leader Price which both are supermarket chain-stores. By the way, Carrefour is very internationally known because you can also see a lot of them in Asia!

Besides the 3-euro big meals at the University Cafeteria, a kebab shop has become a favorite. There are a lot of Turkish people in Europe, and therefore you can see a lot of kebab shops. So this kebab shop is just 5 minute walk away from our residence. For 5 euros, you can get a kebab full of bbq meat and lettuce with potato fries on the side plus one can of soft drink.

This weekend we were organized to visit the Champagne-Ardenne region which is like a district or province in north eastern France. Troyes is the capital of Aube, and Aube is a sub-department or sub-district of Champagne-Ardenne.

We set out Saturday morning and reached a restaurant around noon. The restaurant is very French country like as the decorations and setup inside were very neat. The meal was great too as there were appetizer wine, appetizer salad with bread, a glass of traditional wine, roast chicken as main course, a dish of cheese inevitably, a dessert cake, and finally a very small cup of espresso. French coffee is usually served in a very small cup, but it still does its job!

After the lunch, we went for our main activity today – visiting a champagne cellar. The company building was built, of course, around grape trees. After entering the building, we were soon led into the underground where the champagne cellars were. So yea, hundreds of thousands of wine bottles lied neatly underground not surprisingly. However, there were for champagne, which would be a little bit different from wine. Champagne needed to experience a second fermentation to produce carbon dioxide to therefore to produce bubbles. According to a rule, a minimum of 1.5 years is required to completely develop all the flavors. The bottles were also needed to be manipulated usually manually so that the lees will be settled in the neck of the bottles. Under the ground, there were also huge tanks and machines for the production of champagne.

After getting out of the cellars, we got to taste champagnes! Well, they tasted very nice serving chill. We also had the chance to taste different kinds of champagne, but the flavor did not strike too differently to me. The dryness of champagne matters a lot though. To me, I would prefer a less dry champagne, because dryness makes me feel more thirsty. Remember that champagnes are exclusively products produced in the champagne region of France, “champagnes” produced in any other places cannot be called champagnes!

Our final stop was visiting a castle. To me, the size of it is not a castle, but rather a private mansion. But this castle has witnessed more than five hundred years of history. It was exciting that our coach had to drive through a very small and forestry road to get there, and the weather was thunderstorm which added more excitement, haha.

A Few Interesting Japanese Sights

My stay in Tokyo is running just shy of 2 months, and I have yet to post about funny, or at least interesting, signs I have found. This would be understandable for someone researching, say, micro-organisms or sheep, but hardly excusable for someone who is supposed to be thinking about consumer culture, nationalism, and aesthetics. Most of what I do entails snapping pictures of train station ads and rifling through advertisements from the 1930s; if I’m doing my job right, I should have a gold mine to draw from.

Here are a few I managed to dig up:

I'm not sure what the makers of this candy were aiming for when they named it.

Homer Goes to Japan (in Nagoya)

A dude in Harajuku who is part of a "circle" (i.e. club) that cheers people up by dressing up and doing randomly nice things for people. Who knew that Tokyo had a DoRaK (current UM student group)? This guy later gave me a cell phone strap decoration he had made.

A Clothes Shop in Ueno, Tokyo.

This was just cool. A fountain pen shop dating from the Showa period (1926 - 88) in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture.

A toy panda tied to a pole in front of a game center in Ueno. It was wheeling around in squeaky little circles.

Adventure Weekend

The program planned us activities for almost every weekend we stayed there. For this second weekend, it’s called an Adventure Weekend as we were heading to the southern part in France to have some adventurous activities. We set out Friday early morning, and it would take us 6 hours to get there by coach. On the way, we were able to see the distinct changes of landscape as we were advancing downward in France. The terrain got more and more mountainous as we were approaching the Alpine region.

At around 1 pm, our coach started to drive along a river in the mountains. We soon learned that we were going to do white water rafting in that river as we saw rafting boats floating against the fierce currents in it. We reached the hut, had a quick picnic, geared up with water-suits, safety hats and oars, and got on the coach again to go to the starting point. As we were divided into three teams we quickly got on our boats. Each boat has a professional rafter on it. After the trainer’s brief instructions, we set out for the river. Most of the time was pretty safe and sound, however, our team was the most tragic one as we lost one person during a sudden tilt and we also punctured our boat somehow! Fortunately, the boat was designed with several air compartments, so we only lost one compartment and the boat would not sink with that damage. During the process, we also stopped ashore two times to jump off high cliffs into the water for fun. It was pretty high!

After we finished white water rafting, we were ready to go to our residence for the weekend and have a rest. We resided at a town called Evian. If you have noticed, it’s the same as the water brand “Evian”, and indeed, Evian is the origin of “Evian”! Evian is a town beside a lake bordering Switzerland, so you can literally see Switzerland just across the lake. We had a dinner on the balcony of the hotel. The scene was absolutely splendid and beautiful as you could see the lake, lights of houses, boats, mountains, and sky while eating. The food was not bad as well as we got to choose an appetizer, main course, dessert, and drink. Most people chose wine to celebrate this dinner.

We had the chance to walk around the city as well. The city was built on a slope sliding down toward the lake. There were a lot of restaurants, bars along the lakeshore. There was also a casino! It’s definitely a great vocation spot. In European cities, you can usually see outlets or fountains of water everywhere. I drank from a delicate outlet of water because it’s the true “Evian” water, haha! As most of the people decided to spend some night time at the bars, I decided to go check out the casino. I got in with my US driver’s license. It was pretty exciting because it reminded me of Ocean’s Eleven. However, this casino was rather small. One friend of mine tried Black Jack and he lost pretty badly. “The house always wins” especially in Black Jack. I was merely an observer because I really didn’t want to arouse my greed in gambling and lose money.

The second day of this Adventure Weekend was one of the craziest days of my life… because we did parachuting and canyoneering! For parachuting, we needed to jump off from the top of an Alpine mountain! When the car which took us to the top climbed higher and higher, our hearts beat faster and faster as we saw the town down the valley became smaller and felt the air we breathed became thinner. But the parachuting experience turned out to be relaxing as the professional up behind you would fly you with ease. The view was splendid but it was cold up in the air! Sometimes the professional would thrill you by making a 360 degrees violent turn, it was a little bit nauseous but it was fun!


For the canyoneering, it was the craziest of all… After we geared up with water-suits and safety hats and some clinging equipment, we headed to the river canyon in the mountain. We had to climb down watery cliffs using ropes, jump off cliffs into a pond, slide down small waterfalls, cling onto cliff walls, and swim in the water… and all of those required bravery to let go and have life dangers. The very last act was to climb down a waterfall with more than six stories in height!


(That’s me!)

On the third day we had rock climbing, but I forfeited my chance to do it. I decided to walk around the region around the rock climbing place and enjoy the Alpine countryside with my eyes.

After finished rock climbing, we all got back to the coach and headed back to school. What else can I say, this Adventure Weekend was test of bravery and a blast!

UTT Life

UTT (University of Technology of Troyes) has a fairly new campus established in 1994, and it’s one of the “Grande Ecoles” in France. A Grande Ecole is a school outside of the normal university system in France, and it’s usually a school of a specific course discipline. For example, UTT is basically an engineering school. Grande Ecole is usually considered a better school because its programs are more intense and focused. However, the tuition is considerably higher than a normal university’s.

Students in UTT are mainly French from all over France. It also has a considerable amount of international students from other European countries and Asia. The classrooms and curriculum system are pretty similar to American’s. Students at UTT usually graduate in four years, however, they are required to study abroad for one semester and also acquire internship experiences within four years.

The two courses we were taking at the UTT are Project Management and French Civilization. We were also glad to have two other groups of students joining us for the same program – one group from the University of Buffalo from New York, and one group from Nayang Technological University from Singapore. The Buffalo students are taking their own engineering statics course and French Civilization while the Singaporeans were taking the same courses with us Michigan students. In addition to the two main courses, we would also have a survival French course. So the schedule everyday was as follows:

0900 – 1200 Project Management

1200 – 1400 Lunch Break

1400 – 1700 French Civilization

Then I had survival French from 1200 – 1300 on Wednesdays and 1700 – 1800 on Thursdays.

The survival French course was different for each person as it’s divided according to levels.

I was in the very beginner level, because…I didn’t know French at all except “bonjour” and “merci”!

So the schedule was pretty full, and the three-hour long class time made people tired as well. Our teachers all speak English. PM teacher was from New Zealand, FC teacher was from England, and French teacher was a real French.


I would say the most intense course was the French class! Because the teacher did not allow speaking English in class! However, how were we supposed to do that because none of us in class knew how to speak French! But somehow, the teacher managed to keep the class going by forcing us to speak French. It was a very funny class as well, because weird pronunciation and misunderstanding of us always caused surprising humors! I also had to pay attention in this class every second, because I would never know when is the next time teacher would call me up to speak French!


Our main choice of lunch was to have it at the University Cafeteria because it’s only 3 euros per meal. With 3 euros, you can pick up a piece of French break, a slice of cheese, an appetizer dish, a main course, a dessert, and a yogurt. So it’s actually a pretty good deal! One thing you have to know that French love bread and cheese so much as they are essential to French people daily. There are around 400 distinct types of cheese in France!

One interesting side note is that lunch is usually the biggest meal of the day for French while breakfast being the least important one.

So yea, this is our school life in France.

“Salary-man” Living on the Edge

As I force another swallow of my yakisoba – garnished only with purple cabbage, carrots, and not nearly enough yakisoba sauce; not terrible for a first attempt – the salary-man* next to me furtively takes his feet out of his sandals, stretching them a little with obvious pleasure. He smiles at the refreshingly energetic wind and swaying trees, while I smile at his endearing action. It feels like salary-men are stereotypically the most tiring people to deal with (in Japanese, people usually say 難しい = muzukashii = difficult). They cascade into the trains at 7 AM in their uniformly black suits, slacks, polished shoes, and briefcases, most with the recently popular “cool biz” haircut; never seem to smile when they are working; present you with unreadable faces or (what feel to me like) egregious bows  when you inadvertently ask inappropriate questions, and otherwise ensure that the bureaucracies they work at function bureaucratically. Or so I hear.

Perhaps it’s partly due to this veneer of uniformity, but public space in Japan (and even private, depending on who you’re with) feels highly regulated. For example, there’s the obvious I-was-eating-a-sandwich-on-the-train-no-one-else-was-and-people-kept-looking-at-me. There are the more blatantly obvious scenes, like a police car inching along behind you in a residential neighborhood, loudly reminding everyone to “follow the traffic rules and remember to always think of others so that our neighborhood can be brighter and more fun.” But there are also more subtle things, like a great-aunt mentioning in passing that she heard your great-uncle arranged for you to meet with your other great-aunt. When interpreting this information, you are intended to realize  a number of things: a) Think of who might have communicated this to your great-aunt, b) realize that it was probably your great-uncle, c) realize that he went to a lot of trouble to arrange this meeting and probably called because he was not feeling so great about having to do a favor like this for an adult, d) realize you have not yet thanked your other great-aunt for meeting with you, or thanked your great-uncle for arranging the meeting, and e) realize that you should contact relatives on you own. I’m exaggerating a little, but you see how someone might be inclined to err on the serious, formal side in any given interaction. It feels very much like constantly, consciously performing some kind of role (though this may simply be because I have to work to understand these norms, since I didn’t grow up with them).

This is why I love finding moments when people ooze just a little bit outside their roles. It’s a nice reminder that, despite the sense of constant policing in Japan, almost everyone secretly wants to break outside the rigidity of public interactions.

I noticed something similar when I realized the salaryman sitting next to me on the train was practicing ballroom dance steps. For a second, it was like sitting next to Richard Gere in“Shall We Dance?” Another time, the girl walking in front of me evidently had a dance routine stuck in her head, because she kept practicing it – not ostentatiously, but with small twitches that fell into a pattern if you bothered to notice. Having been unable to resist shaking my head to Rosinha de Valenca’s “Summertime” just minutes ago in the train – I was embarrassed, but I couldn’t help it – I couldn’t resist a smile. What other personalities are hiding behind the uniform “salarymen*?”

*In Japanese, サラリーマン, which refers to office workers/businessmen. The feminine equivalent is OL (“office lady”).

Hello from Tokyo!

Pipo-kun (prounounced "peepoh coon"), the Tokyo police mascot.

Research has been off to an eventful start! Apologies for not introducing myself sooner. As I mentioned in my project description, I’m doing anthropology research on how cute things in Japan affect public space, and, interestingly, World War II memory. A lot of researchers have already commented on the prevalence of Japanese cuteness, or “kawaisa,” in how people think about Japan from abroad (I say Japan, you say anime/Pokemon), as well as on its saturation of public space. Almost every institution – the police, the firemen, prefectural governments – have their own “cute” mascot to gain popularity and, in the last case, to appeal to potential tourists.

Lately, I’ve become interested in the Japanese “pop idol phenomenon,” which has been trending for probably a few decades now. Right now, my roommates tell me there probably isn’t a single person in Japan who doesn’t know about the latest idol group, AKB 48. There are actually 58 girls in the group, making them the largest pop band in the world. Besides singing and dancing (not particularly well), they act in dramas, are featured in fashion magazines, and otherwise promote themselves through various media.

So far so good – like any other pop band. There’s a slight tweak, though. Every time a fan buys an AKB 48 CD, they can vote for one member. Whoever ranks the highest by the time they announce the results of their “general elections” – the accumulation of those votes – gets to be front and center onstage. Those who make it into the top 10 or 20 get to actually sing the songs, be in promotional videos, be featured in magazines, etc. Which means those who don’t make it into that select group have fewer chances to gain popularity or connect with their fans. Accordingly, there is undoubtedly vicious competition between the members surging under their veneer of innocent cuteness.

AKB 48 Elections

Luckily for me, their general elections were held a few days ago, just a 20-minute walk away from where I live. I grabbed my housemate and went to snag some interviews. As the glowing, ideal representations of cuteness, I wanted to know what made them so popular, what about their cuteness appealed to people, why their fans defined as “cute,” and how this might inform my current understanding of the term, “kawaii” (which, though translated as “cute,” can also be used to describe a wide range of small, pathetic things like E.T. or even old people).

My friend K and I pass through the Edo–period wooden gate after overhearing a conversation between a ticket scalper and a high school girl. “You have a ticket?” “No …” “How much money you got?” Our feet carry us steadily away as K catches the last bit of their negotiation: “… well the bank’s still open.” We had also passed a number of desperate fans with cardboard signs asking those lucky enough to have tickets to give them theirs. For a second, I felt like I was at a football game – though the stakes here seem a tad bit higher.

Though the interviews went well, I’m still working out what exactly to make of them – if you are interested, please see my “research blog,” which will drone on ad nauseum about my various thoughts and theories about cuteness and the like. Until next time –