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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Oxford, Part II (finally!)

I apologize for the lack of regular updates. My internet connection is spotty, so I'm writing down my thoughts in posts and then posting several at a time when I get the chance. If I need to post something written a few days earlier, I'll try to remember to note the original date for continuity's sake.

Alright, finally I have a couple hours to just sit down and write. We've just left Dresden, a lovely city which I shall tell you about later, because right now, I want to get some of my thoughts about Oxford in order before it's too far in the distance and my memory fades too much.

Therefore I invite you back, dear reader, to the ninth of July, oh so long ago, to the living room of Stephen's home in Oxford. I'd met his two housemates, Julie and Polly, the day before, and Stephen was planning to show me around the city that day.

Stephen and I took the bus into the city, which was just as beautiful and awe-inspiring as it had been the day before. Our first stop was the Pitt Rivers museum inside the Natural History Museum. The latter was housed in a huge open hall, displaying the skeletons of elephants and giraffes and all manner of stuffed creatures the world over. We wandered about for a bit, then continued on through a door in the back to an enormous room shrouded in a mysterious twilight. In the dusk stood a maze of old glass cabinets, packed full to bursting with strange objects. This was the Pitt Rivers museum, an anthropological collection of curiosities and artefacts from around the world, to which we had come with the primary goal of seeing the shrunken heads.

It took us a while to find them; on the way we saw spears, cloth, pipes, weapons, masks, boats, good luck and death charms, musical instruments, and every sort of tool imaginable. There were lanterns made of pufferfish and rainjackets made of seal intestine and a magnificent cloak from Hawai'i made of millions of brilliant orange, yellow, and black feathers, which had been gathered over years to make it. We finally did find the shrunken heads, along with a typewritten card informing us of the cultural motivations for taking and shrinking heads (the tribes believed that there were only a certain number of bodies in the world, and taking and "adopting" an enemy's head would mean that your progeny would have a body to inhabit) and the methods whereby they were preserved (heated with warm stones, not boiled).

The museum went on and on, and it was past one in the afternoon before we finally emerged, blinking, back into the sunlight. We dropped by a cute cafe with delicious sandwiches for lunch, then set about touring the colleges.

Now, if you've read my entry on Cambridge, you know that both universities have a similar collegiate system. The university itself is composed of these colleges, like a body is composed of cells. Unlike in Cambridge, though, in Oxford you apply to the university as a whole, and upon acceptance, you are guaranteed a spot in a college. Stephen took me to a few of his favorites, beginning with New College, which is tucked away on a back road in an unassuming fashion. Once through the gate, though, the college is gorgeous, with the now-familiar archways and spires, but also with a wonderful walled garden.

The next stop was All Soul's College, which had a beautiful open quad, a colorful sundial, a wonderfully cool and peaceful chapel, and a great view of the imposing Radcliffe Camera out the gate. We also took a brief tour through the majestic and imposing Christ Church College, featuring a long, lamp-lit dining hall laid out for a meal, a huge open quad, and a chapel--the latter we were unfortunately not allowed into because of an awards ceremony. I caught the door as someone left, however, and ventured in anyway, getting a glimpse of the vaulted ceiling and the carved choir, and got glared at for my trouble. These colleges are imposing and ridiculously gorgeous, but I have a hard time imagining living, much less feeling at home, in one. I'll have to try it and find out.

It was definitely getting hot outside, so we headed to the best ice-cream place in town--the name of which I have unfortunately forgotten--and took our rapidly melting dessert to the bank of the river for some entertainment. In both Oxford and Cambridge, punting is a popular pastime--pushing a small, flat-bottomed boat along the shallow river with a long pole. We relaxed in the shade by a bend in the river and watched the experts glide serenely by as the tourists swerved, wobbled, and crashed into each other. Generally, they waved and smiled good-naturedly as we laughed and shouted encouragement.

As it was getting on in the afternoon, we took the long way round to get out of the park and met Julie at a little but apparently famous pub hidden in the intersection of some alleyways for some drinks, then the three of us headed out to meet up with some more people.

We finally found Yen, a friend of Julie and Stephen's, Yen's friend Devi from Australia, and Devi's friend Poonam from Leicester. All six of us trotted off through town, ending up at a wonderful Thai restaurant, having altogether too much fun for the small room and close proximity to other diners. I had some delicious fried rice served in a hollowed-out pineapple. It was brilliant. We finished off with more ice cream from the same parlor as before, watching darkness descend over Oxford.

We agreed to all meet up the next day, except for Julie, who unfortunately had to work, and so we reunited at the train station the next morning to head for Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of the greatest master of the English language that the world has ever seen--that is, William Shakespeare. We made our way through the town, embarrassing poor Poonam by singing the whole way, got a quick lunch, and joined a walking tour around the city. Of course, this mostly anonymous town's single claim to fame is being Shakespeare's birthplace and hometown, so there are huge theaters where his works are performed on the Avon waterfront, statues inscribed with his words all over the city, and kitschy souvenir stores selling his works and his picture in little on every corner. As a town, I found it a little less that completely charming, but the commentary by our helpful guide and the sheer joyful silliness of our group made it so much better. We went by "The Birthplace" (i.e. the house where Shakespeare was born) and the church where he is buried, along with various other houses belonging to his relatives, all of which cost far too much to see the inside of, so we didn't bother. When the tour finished, we decided that it was high time for tea (anyone surprised?) and accordingly headed off to find a tea room.

I should comment, at this point, that afternoon tea with friends is one of the best things in the world. I shared a pot of tea with Yen, made delicious by adding cream and sugar, and had a wonderful scone slathered with clotted cream and jam. We sat there drinking tea and laughing until the shop closed and we had to leave.

We dropped by a couple of souvenir shops, but since it was past five, the entire town was starting to shut down. We made a few halfhearted attempts to find some dinner, but none of us were too hungry, so with a last meandering walk through the town, we caught the train back to Oxford. It was getting late by the time we pulled in, so we went out to dinner in a restaurant by the station, still embarrassing Poonam (and Stephen as well, occasionally) with our singing and laughter. We split up to head home after dinner with face muscles aching from laughing too much.

As the next day was Sunday, Yen, Stephen, Julie and I went out to breakfast at a sweet little cafe and then headed off to church. Afterward, as it was a fine summer day and very warm, we rented a rowboat and took turns rowing, with varying degrees of success and skill, up and down the river for a couple of hours. The sky was brilliantly azure and the sunshine hot, but on the water in the shade of the trees that overhang the canals, it was perfect. I could stay out there all day, but eventually we had to head in.

After a stop for groceries, we headed back to Stephen and Julie's for two important events: dinner and the World Cup final. Dinner was great; if you watched the final, you know it was pretty boring. The two teams went the entire game without scoring, and only one goal for Spain in overtime finally proved Paul the octopus right. I had missed Top Gear while watching nothing in particular happen in football, so I had to catch up as soon as possible with that and went to bed rather later than I'd expected.

The next day, everyone had to work, so I was on my own. I started out by visiting the secretary at the university's Linguistics and Philology department to ask about admission and university expectations (just, y'know, in case). My plan was to visit the Cotswolds, which is an area between Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and Bath which is known for its beautiful countryside and adorable little towns. I took the bus to Chipping Norton, a Cotwolds town from which I was hoping to take another local bus to a different, cuter, RFS-recommended town. Also, Jeremy Clarkson lives in/near Chipping Norton. (Go ahead, facepalm now and get it out of your system.)

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Cotswolds are so small, so cute, and so unspoiled that they don't actually have regular bus service--at least, not to Chipping Norton. It was Monday, but the buses only ran on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, so there was no way out of Chipping Norton save for, say, walking. Which didn't sound good when I had a limited amount of available time and no map. A little irritated, I bought another Clarkson book (like salve to the soul, this) and got on the return bus to Oxford.

Now fortunately, my bus route went right by the adorable town of Woodstock and more importantly, the grand Blenheim Palace. RFS had recommended this place, but because of the high entrance fee and difficulty in getting there, Stephen and I had vetoed it earlier. Now, though, I was on my own, with plenty of time, and the bus dropped me off right outside.

Blenheim Palace was, really, spectacular, even just to see it from the outside. The grounds were perfectly manicured, with an elegant bridge over a slender lake looking very much like paradise in the afternoon sunlight. The Palace itself, a reward to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, for his victories against the French, is a marvelous beige affair with golden accents, wide gravel courtyards, and imposing columns. If, in the last sentence, you said, "Churchill?" then yes, it's the same family; Winston Churchill was the nephew of one of the Dukes and spent much time in his youth at Blenheim, so of course, there was an exhibit about him. I also took a tour of the rooms, which were fittingly grand and glorious, although my favorite was the Long Library, a cream-and-gold room with shelves of beautiful books on one end and an organ on the other.

I took a leisurely walk through the gardens and down by the lake before I had to leave, as the palace was closing. I got a picnic dinner from a supermarket in Woodstock and hopped back on the bus to Oxford. I'd planned on leaving Oxford that night to go back to London, but by the time I got back to Stephen's house, I just couldn't be bothered, and they very kindly let me stay another night.

In the morning, I packed up, bought myself an Oxford T-shirt, and headed back to London, and that brings us back to where I started up again (here). I found Oxford to be wonderful, lovely, and a lot of fun, and I wouldn't mind living there at all; there are a lot of interesting places (like the Cotswolds, Bath, Bristol, and London) that are within easy reach of Oxford, and during the school year, the tourist crowds would be much less. I don't, however, have my heart set on it, nor on Cambridge. I first have to figure out what exactly I want to study, though for what I'm interested in, Cambridge seems to be more my flavor--although Cambridge is farther from London and, really, anything else. Besides academics, though, I'm really looking forward to seeing Edinburgh. Everything I've heard is that the city is wonderful, and the university has a strong linguistics program as well. So I'll have a better idea after I've been there as well. We'll see.

What really made Oxford wonderful for me were the people I met there. It was really fun to see Stephen again--something I wasn't sure would ever happen because of schedules and money and distance--and his friends were all so welcoming and so much fun. I didn't want to leave Oxford, less because of the enchantment of the city and more because I wanted to spend more time with them. Which is, I think, the best possible feeling I could've had when I left.

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