28 October 2009

Conversation 101

Ok, so I feel like 50% or more of what I do here is talk to people. We are mostly talking about small talk here, and let's be realistic--there are lots of ways that small talk can go wrong. I feel like I am getting a crash course in conversation-making (though I plan to step it up by going to the Conversation Club--yeah that's right, there's a club for that. In the club you sit down over a meal and have conversations over a subscribed topic. Why would you want to be in such a club, you ask? Well, because you get to skip small-talk, and I am all about avoiding talking about my college, what I am studying, where I am from, etc.), and there have been many lessons learned (which I will share below). But there is one thing that certainly clamps down on the learning process.

You see, when you are having conversations with lots of new people, there is a ratio of good conversations to bad ones. Some might suggest that good conversationalists have higher ratios of good to bad convos versus poor conversationalists. But how do you really know? I mean, we all have those conversations where at the end we thing, "Wow. That was awkward." If we follow gender norms, girls probably think, "I am so uninteresting. Why couldn't I come up with anything better to say?" and boys might think, "Geez, he/she was boring." (This is just what I have heard.) So, I have decided the best way to really make the most of the many conversational learning opportunities would be to film and scout your conversations (Drake Women's Basketball style). If you could have a recording of each conversation, an unbiased third party could weigh in on who deserves to bear the responsibility of the awkwardness. Perhaps it is a two party lack of conversation, or maybe there is one person who really shouldered the brunt of the responsibility. Maybe awkwardness was created by what wasn't said, or maybe something you said caused the tension.

I know for me, there comes a point where I think to myself, "Self, I have asked him what he studies, where he is from, what he did before Oxford, and what college he is in. Let's be realistic, we have NOTHING else in common. And, that guy may just be boring/awkward." But I could use an unbiased, third-party opinion. In the absence of such a scheme, I will share with you some helpful tips that I have learned in my weeks here so far. I am sure that there will be many more revelations.

1. When a person introduces him/herself, listen for his/her name. Don't be so busy thinking about what you are going to say next. (This is what I do, and let's be realistic--I am going to ask what college you are in and what you are studying, so I should just put that on autopilot.)

2. When you fail at the first piece of advice, and you don't know anyone's name, ASK them the next time you see the person. Yes, it will seem worthwhile to wait it out, but you will probably never find out the person's name and the next time you see him/her it will only be more awkward and shameful to ask. Bite the bullet.

3. If you (like me) choose to play off the fact that you don't know someone's name, you will soon be several weeks in with lots of faces to recognize and no names. Hope that no one speaks to you by your first name so that you don't feel pressure to reciprocate. Better yet, greet everyone aggressively with a "Heeeeeyyyy" or "Hey you!" or British "Hiya".

4. If you have to talk to someone who is not facing you and you don't know the person's name, just walk closer and closer to the person until they notice that you are speaking to them...then you can pretend like you said their name at the beginning but they just didn't hear you.

5. At any sort of mix and mingle event, HAVE AN EXIT strategy. The hardest thing about this is definitely the mingle part. You don't want to be in one group too long because other people may be burdened by your company. The key is moving before everyone else is bored--keep them wanting more. However, there are a few important strategies (listed below).

6. Lines for moving on politely (in mix and mingle situations):
a. I am going to go find the toilet.
b. Oh, I need to go fill up my drink (this is why it is important to always have a glass of water. If you want to return, offer to fill theirs up.)
c. And others

7. Also, be aware of the size of your cluster. Once you get down to three or smaller, it is difficult to have a clean break. You cannot leave someone standing by him/herself, so you are best to stick to larger groups. If your group dwindles (a sign that you should be moving on), look for people to introduce to your group...and then bail.

8. Once you get down to three people, MAKE YOUR MOVE. If someone else leaves before you do, you have no more options.

9. If you are ever in a small group (3 or fewer) and one of the other members "makes a move" let them do it gracefully. Do not come in with a "Oh, I see how it is. I must just be really boring." line. First, maybe it is true--you may be really boring, in which case the line isn't funny. Two, whether you are joking or not, it will be immediately awkward--particularly if it is true. (This may seem strangely detailed, but that might be because it might have happened to me.)

I think this is more than any one person can absorb at one time, so that should probably be all for now. Expect an addendum.

27 October 2009

Honeymoon's Over: Cyclying

So I have heard that there is this point that you reach when living overseas where things that were cute, amusing, or charming for a finite period of time start to become a part of your day to day reality. I think you basically realize that these things are not performances that eventually fade into normalcy, but they are entrenched part of life in this new place and are going to be a part of everyday reality. Let's be realistic: riding your bicycle in the rain is fun for a few times because you are having charmingly new experiences, but this stops being fun or even amusing very quickly. (It's like snow. In Iowa, it has completely lost it's charm. Having temperatures cold enough to freeze the gas in your car will do that to you.) I have reached that point--the honeymoon is over.

Bicycling--I finally bought a helmet, and had to buy new lights because my front light broke and then some theif added insult to injury by stealing my back light. (Here, petty theft is outrageous, while violent crime is not the same kind of problem as in the states...I am not sure which system I prefer) I spent 65 bucks on all of this (USD) which was just obnoxious. Also, I am slowly but surely tearing the bottom of every pair of pants I own. I am already riding with toes and knees pointed out to keep my pant legs as far from the pedals as possible (and I am wearing a helmet and lights, so I am a sight to behold). The next step is buying straps that velcro my pants to my ankles. Or I could buy skinny jeans. Both are against everything I believe and would only require more money that I don't want to spend. I have a budget, and I didn't realize I needed to make special "bike allowances".

Also, now that my honeymoon phase is officially over, I feel fully justified in commenting on tourists/pedestrians. I think we need to have walking classes here. No, you shouldn't just step off the sidewalk because you would prefer to walk in the street. That is what we call a bike lane, and you didn't signal with your hand to let me know you were coming over. Furthermore, you don't know me, and you don't know how good of a cyclist I am. I'll fill you in--you are endangering both of our lives.

To pedestrians who see me coming: I do not appreciate your game of chicken. Either speed up to get out of the way, or slow down to get out of the way. Why would you speed up and then slow down so that the timing creates an impossible choice for me (either hit a car, hit a pedestrian or stop. I know you are thinking that stop is the best choice, but it really isn't. In addition to challenging my skill set, I think there is an unspoken code about not stopping.) It is a good thing that I do not have a bell, or else I would "ding" it at you. Instead, I have a rusty bike with squealy brakes. There are times when I do not like this, but there are other times when I am thankful that my bike groans in protest when people cause me to brake unneccessarily. It has actually become a point of strategy for me...I will slam on my brakes in advance to let pedestrians know that the train is coming through. Ah, bicycle road rage--something that makes me feel profoundly American.

25 October 2009

On Privilege

I have always had this aversion to being called “privileged”. I am not entirely sure why it bothers me so much. I think I associate the word with inherited wealth, or more specifically with getting some benefit that you don’t deserve. And even more than that, because the privileged know that they are going to get the benefit (think Paris Hilton), their privilege encourages irresponsibility and poor stewardship of their time, opportunities, and any other talents that the privileged may possess. It’s almost like the promised benefit guarantees that the true potential of the benefactor will be unrealized—privilege becomes the stamp of unmotivated, unproductive lives.

Fair, true, or neither, I want nothing to do with the term. I don’t like the idea of unmerited benefit, because somehow I associate that with being lazy or at least receiving something that I didn’t work for—potentially at the expense of someone who was more deserving but less “privileged”. Call me hard-working, resilient, and persistent, but I don’t want to be known as too talented, because that would mean that things came easy and that I am the product of my advantages rather than being “self-made”. I have always hated winning a game that someone let me win more than I have despised losing (which is a significant statement), and it is equally unpleasant to think that life success is just a product of a significant head-start or rules that have given me an upper-hand.

But here’s been my most recent newsflash: You are in Oxford, England. No matter how you shake it, that is a significant blessing—one that will carry privilege with it for the rest of my life. But the reality is that I was privileged long before I came to Oxford. You see, I have preferred to think of privilege as strictly financial, something that only the disgustingly rich experience—you know, the spoiled ones. But even under this definition, I can’t deny that I have had my privileges. I was raised by two loving parents (which certainly is becoming more and more rare), I had a comfortable existence where I didn’t have to worry about my temporal needs, and even if I hadn’t had these first two things, I was born white in America. The reality is that my relative position in the world is one of privilege.

But beyond that, the reality is that privilege is often accumulated. I think Jacqueline Novogratz may have described it best in The Blue Sweater, when she said that “individuals gain privilege by their upbringing, beauty, athletic ability, or education, not simply from where they come or to whom they are born.” Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell promotes the concept (in Outliers) that the most talented and accomplished members of our society may have gained their status through a small advantage that was exponentially motivated over time (e.g. an athlete who is slightly more talented receives better coaching and is able to increase the initially small advantage). And I have certainly benefited from this kind of accumulation. Athletic talents (while something that I definitely had to work at) provided the opportunity for me to attend an excellent University, and eventually to open doors that would lead to a Rhodes Scholarship. It is overwhelmingly clear that I have been blessed—I have been the benefactor of privilege. And that concept makes me very uncomfortable.

I think my uneasiness is rooted in the feeling that somehow I have received something that I shouldn’t have, or have benefitted from unfairness or inequality. But the reality is that refusing to acknowledge my privileged status doesn’t change a thing. In fact, the better question is, what do we do with privilege? If you are reading this blog on a computer, you are privileged in many ways. Knowing this, our time would be better spent asking what the appropriate response to privilege is rather than trying to explain it away. It is possible that the real reason why privilege is so uncomfortable to me is because I know that it comes with a level of responsibility. The most important thing that I can do as a privileged person is, first, to refuse to allow my privilege to turn into a sense of entitlement. I must refuse to internalize the advantaged position that I hold in society. Instead, I must carry my privilege as a great responsibility. We each have a responsibility to be good stewards of our circumstances. So I have realized that I can no longer refuse to recognize the advantages that I have been given, because doing so makes it much easier to waste them. Instead, I will be willing to acknowledge the benefits that I have received in order to accept the responsibility that must accompany them.

23 October 2009

So, I am actually a student here...

I don't want anyone getting the impression that there isn't any "serious" work going on here, and while I was able to maintain the very non-academic illusion for a few weeks, I think it is time to talk a bit about school. Many people hold the perspective that going to school in England is not really that different, or at least not as different as going to a country with a different language, and there is certainly a great deal of comfort in a common language (Note: that I did not say "same" language, and the degree to which it is common is open to interpretation.), it would be misguided to assume that the English system is any less foreign. Here are a few observations:

1: For starters, on a strictly practical level, you have to buy all new school supplies. I had grand plans of packing three-ring binders, loose leaf paper and legal pads in my gigantic bags. Surprisingly, I ran out of room. If you need a mental picture of how big my bags were, assume the fetal position and then imagine a bag that could fit three of you in that position inside of it. In fact, when I bought my bags, there was a comment about fitting a dead body in it. I used my noggin and got as far away from that person as possible. I have to admit that at the airport I was slightly embarrassed to be that girl--you know the one who brought all of her (fill-in-the-blank, probably shoe) collection--and I got kind of sweaty trying to manuever my luggage, but now that I am here, there are all kinds of things I wish I would have brought, so I just feel sorry for all of the people who succumbed to social pressure and brought normal-sized bags.

But it's a good thing I didn't bring school supplies because they would pretty much be no good here. For starters, loose-leaf paper does not exhist--I know this for a fact. I have kind of gotten over trying to fit in, so I just confront strangeness wherever I find it, so a classmate informed me that loose-leaf paper does not exhist (Instead you have to buy notebooks, tear it out, and then put it in your binder. Or you can just put your notebook in your binder, which kind of defeats the purpose). But let's say I had brought some loose-leaf paper. I wouldn't be able to use it, because it would have 3 holes. Here, paper has 2 holes. You and I are both asking in unison, "Why?" Maybe for the same reasons why they drive on the left side of the road here, or maybe for similar reasons as to why we don't use the metric system, or maybe because the number of holed paper is related to the issue of what direction your toilet flushes (which I think is only different in the Southern hemisphere, but you get the idea). I think these arbitrary distinctions serve to create cultural pride and "solidarity" (Two points for using a vocab word from my reading! And just substitute unity in there...again, why?). I mean, I'm proud to be an American where at least I have more holes punched in my paper than you do.

2: Multiple times this week, there have been entire sections in my assigned readings that have been in other languages. At first, I thought the article featured a split translation, with English on one side and French/Norwegian/etc on the other. Imagine how puzzled I was to discover that the section in a foreign language was unique and untranslated. I was left with no choice but to shrug and assume that it is unimportant. As far as I can tell, the only reason to include such a section is to secretly bad-mouth exclusively English-speakers. For those of you who are unaware, pretty much the best place to find exclusively English-speakers is the good old USA. Let's be realistic, I read and hear plenty of American criticisms, I am sure these sections I skipped are unimportant.

3: Here, the authors of my texts have names like "Gunnar".

4: Perhaps the greatest difference, and the one that I will have the most difficult time articulating is the sneaky and secretive academic culture. It is almost a point of pride to not tell you, the student, what you are supposed to be doing or what is actually going on. For example, on my "syllabus" (I am sure there is some other name for it, which is probably in latin.), there is a list of twelve essays questions, from which I have to write two essays for my tutor over the course of the eight weeks. Strange, I think. Certainly there will be more direction than this, or the tutor will provide some guidance as to which questions I should answer. When I asked my tutor if he would make any suggestions regarding which prompts I should work on, he tut-tutted me and said, "Lindsay, (it is always very patronizing to me when someone who doesn't really know my name, but just looked it up for the meeting, starts a sentence with my name) you are a graduate student (another patronizing comment. Let's be realistic, I know what kind of student I am.), no one is going to tell you what you should be doing." Now we are getting down to business. The best part is that the lack of information, guidance, or clarity is the point of immense pride. Welcome to Oxford.

22 October 2009

Formal Hall(s)

Thought things had gotten a bit visually boring, so here is a tour of a few formal halls.

The two pictures with lots of portraits and few people are of Christ Church. Harry Potter fans rejoice, this is where the movie was filmed. It is pretty incredible, and has rules (that are enforced by a fine) for anyone who takes pictures of/while (?) people are eating.

The other two pictures (balcony shot and group picture--in gowns) are of Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin). The guys in the balcony are singing "grace" in latin. We (a group of us who were visiting) were very touristy--and probably broke some rules--by taking photos during the prayer. I would feel guilty about it, but I don't understand what they are saying anyway, so I can't really "Amen" with them in any honesty.

How to...Open a Bank Account

Just in case you ever find yourself in the UK, this "hypothetical" situation should prepare you for the finacial process...

Step 1: You go to Rhodes House on your first day in England in order to sign up with the Royal Bank of Scottland (Ok, maybe this isn't realistic hypothetically, but it's my hypothetical situation...). When you meet with the bank representative, they will ask you if you want a check book. When you ask if you need a check book, they will say no, so you will decline the offer. Then, the bank will tell you that it will take five days for your account to open, a few days for your check to clear, and then you will have access to your account. Translation: They will lie to you. (Switching back to English teacher mode: This is what we call foreshadowing. Now would be the time to "make predictions" about how this story, I mean hypothetical situation, will unfold.)

Step 2: A week will pass and you will not hear anything. When you inquire, a few days will pass before you are informed that you can pick up your bank account information. However, you have no checks, no debit card...and oh yeah, there is no money in it. You are told that in a few days, your debit card and pin number will be mailed to you--separately. For security reasons, of course.

Step 3: After checking your pidge (mail slot) every day, you will be excited when you have an envelope from RBS. However, when you handle it, you realize that it is much thicker than a debit card or a pin number. When you open it, it is a checkbook. Wait a minute...you didn't ask for a check book. Don't ask questions. And don't write any checks because there is still no money in your account.

Step 4: You have a bill due, so you visit the RBS to find out the status of your account. Good news: there is money in the account. When you inquire about online banking, you are told that you will need your debit card. When you ask about your debit card, you are informed that the debit card will come separately from the pin. The banker is unsure as to which order the information is mailed out (Apparently there is no pattern). This must be a security measure to keep the theives on their toes.

Step 5: You have an envelope from RBS. It's your deposit slips. This is almost as exciting (and confusing) as the day you got the check book that you didn't request.

Step 6: Your pin number arrives. You set it aside until you receive your debit card...Two days later.

Step 7: When you go to register your debit card, you realize how many security measures were taken to protect your information--in addition to all of the other smoke and mirrors (read "No one knowing what was going on, or at least no one being able/willing to explain to you what is going on.") that they clearly just did for your protection.

The pin number is not only sent separately. You have to scratch off a metal cover to reveal it (which would definitely confuse alot of theives, especially if they don't have any coins on them or have never used a scratchers ticket...which they may not have in the UK, so maybe that's legit.). But, it is even more secure than that. Because before you can reveal the pin, you have to open a flap on the back of the paper, then scratch off the metal cover (from behind), then you have to lay the hologram over a white piece of paper to read it--kind of like a secret code. If you are wondering it the process was confusing or if my description was just unclear, it was definitely the former--the system is not at all intuitive, unless you're a Mason. The reality is that no one could really figure this system out (theives or customors alike)--but there are directions. So, if a given theif can't read, your information would be safe. Otherwise, you might just be confused.

Step 8: After following a maze of online instructions, including providing codes and passwords that you have not yet been given, you will have a bank account. Congratulations. It only took about 3 weeks...

Step 7:

19 October 2009

Heavy Lifting

So, before you start to wonder if you are on the wrong blog, let me say up front that this is going to be a bit of a change of pace. While you wouldn't know it from most of these posts, I am actually a student here, and at some point, that secret was bound to get out. Without getting into the politics of the issue (if that is even possible), I was reading a book about why the United States has never developed a strong socialist party. (I know there are probably some who are jumping around their living rooms because they believe this statement is no longer true given the current political climate, but remember that this book is at least five years old AND that we are not getting into the politics of the subject. The book does not make a value judgement about socialism, it simply suggests that it is unique that the US has virtually no socialist political influence--something I didn't even realize on that scale.)

I came across this quote in the book (It Didn't Happen Here by Seymour Martin Lipset, if you are interested):

"He pointed to the "over-valuation of success" inherent in America's pure bourgeois achievement-oriented culture, which made "who won" the only question of interest in sports and economic and political life. As he emphasized: "The American prays before the god of Success, he strives to lead a life acceptable to his god...[Since] all individuals are bent on success, each must aim to come ahead of the rest."

This really resonated with me because there have been a few moments here when I have been aware of just how different American culture is, and ironically, those moments have often been centered around sports or competition. (I think back to basketball, handball, and rugby practices) I realize that this explains the eternal struggle that I have been experiencing. In many ways, that is what can be the most disorienting thing about this experience; I am in a country where they speak the same language, have the same fast food restaurants, listen to the same music (even 50 cent, "Just a lil bit"...talk about shattering your image of the city), and...ok, I can't lie to you--they don't dress the same. But amongst all of those similarities, there are these moments when I have realized that I AM FOREIGN.

And, I have to admit that as I read this book (by far the easiest thing I have read so far, because it actually runs parallel to my assumptions and values instead of assaulting them at every turn and reminding me that I have no context with which to understand what I am reading) that I have been reminded and extremely proud of the things that make America unique. I don't feel the need to apologize for the individualism, egalitarianism, populism, and suspicion of big government that make our country unique and at odds with the rest of the world on so many levels.

Yes. The American success story (what we would call the American dream) is a huge part of our national identity, pursuit, and values. And it is a great thing! It is probably what causes us to value timeliness, efficiency, service and a multitude of other virtues and ideals that are often neglected here. AND, I have realized that the American pursuit of success is certainly ingrained in me as I strain against and feel stiffled by the celebration of athletic mediocrity.

But at the same time, I think it is important to confront the complexity of what makes us different.
I certainly can't disagree with any part of the assessment that we are driven by success. And compromising in this area would certainly compromise many of the great things about American society. But I think it is important to be aware of the ways in which our success-consumption has loomed large and distorted our view of life as it crowds out other important values. The image of bowing to the Success-god was a bit too eery for me as I started to think of all the subtle ways we do that culturally. I suppose what I am suggesting is that we must be vigilant personally and collectively that our greatest strength does not become our greatest weakness.

Revelations and Puzzlers

1) Confession: I was wrong about skinny jeans/tights...kind of. While I am not sure that the fashion trend is motivated by practicality (we will have a better indication of this in the winter), there is certainly a practical application. Cycling with traditional trousers is tricky. I already snagged my black dress pants on my chain (when cycling in stilettos) and it is only a matter of time before I rip my jeans. AND, I was even riding "modified" when I ripped them--which means that I was attempting to bow my legs out to the side to get my ankles as far away from the peddles as possible. Believe it or not, it is actually easier (while perhaps less "lady-like") to bike in a dress or skirt. (However, the dismount is certainly trickier--especially on my boys bike which requires a higher leg-swing no matter how you slice it.)

2) I guess this one is kind of a revelation and a puzzler. I think that British people (and people in Oxford in general) don't like to be "thanked" for things. Well you are thanking someone for a good or a service (but especially a service) it doesn't seem to be well received. I have had reactions ranging from eye-rolls, to complete denial (as in, I pretended to not hear you just say that), to cowering fear. When I told one girl thank you for her help, it was like I had backed her into a corner and turned a spotlight on her; she quickly told me that "It was ok!", blushed, and got back to work. The reason why this bothers me is that I have taken on the role of self-appointed American ambassador to all other nations and cultures. I have heard that people think that American's are loud and rude, so I do all that I can to speak quietly and carry a small stick (metaphorically speaking of course). How do I represent a gracious, considerate American without lots of thank-you's? And why would anyone not like being thanked?! Well, that is where the true revelation comes in to play. You see, "service" like "efficiency" is not an ideal that is culturally esteemed. So, when you thank them for their help, service, or advice...

a) They don't believe that you are being sincere because they know that their service/help/advice is pretty terrible. They know that because it is intentionally so.

b) Your praise "outs" them as being non-complicit with the unspoken code to be unhelpful. Like the boy who doesn't want to be kissed by his mother, I think the English would prefer to not be thanked by Americans...at least not in public.

3) I have realized why the British don't exercise. And believe me, they don't exercise. It is because they entice people to take their food to go by charging more for eating in the restaurant. Now, stay with me here. If you can only eat what you can carry, it is automatic portion control. AND, if we (people who are too cheap to pay the extra pound to sit down) have to eat standing or walking, we are burning a higher proportion of that smaller portion, so we don't NEED to exercise (at least that is what I am telling myself). Brilliant. Take note America.

4) Now the better puzzler might be how these businesses can justify charging you to eat in the restaurant. I suppose there is a compelling argument, based on my previous comments, that it is some sort of incentive devised via collusion between the restaurants and the NHS, but I think that is unlikely. The second argument may be that they do it because they can. And I suppose that is true (thought I am living proof that they can't...I always take my meal for take-away), and it is also true that there is really no where to sit anyway, so you really don't have that much choice. But from a cost perspective, it seems to me that it might be more expensive to prepare food to go. Especially if we assume that there is more packaging used with take-away food. THUS, it could also be argued that it would be environmentally friendly to encourage people to eat in the restaurant, and that that should be the cheaper option! I hope the environmentally motivated vegetarians think about that next time they get their hummus and falafel baguette to go--since they are being complete hypocrites. I, on the other hand, will continue to enjoy my H&F baguette as my choices are entirely selfish--financial, flavor, and fitness.

17 October 2009

Pomp and Circumstance: Matriculation

7:45--The time we were supposed to be gathered on the quad

7:50--The time the group of freshers from my building decided to head over (and in an effort to make friends by being a friend, I hung around and was late with the group. Don't worry, I draw the line somewhere before jumping off a bridge.)

7:52--We arrive and we are not late. This has been a great adjustment for me. I have been conditioned that if you are on time you're late, and if you're 15 minutes early, you are on time. Here the reality is that if you are on time you are early; if you are late, you are early; and if you are early, you might give someone a heart attack (and you will begin to wonder if you are in the wrong place). The only time this does not hold true is for formal hall, where if you are late, you have to apologize to the senior staff member.

7:53--We are told to cue alphabetically (and then it is explained that we will re-cue, on the other side of the quad, tallest to shortest)

7:55--Someone has a seizure. (We un-cue).

8:15--I have an individual photo taken. Now I have to cue by height...my favorite because everyone else is basically cued by gender. So, now it is the boys and me and one side and the girls on the other.

8:16--I am absolutely freezing.

8:20--The person standing next to me tells me that she is afraid of heights (and the bleachers were legitimately steep and legitimately scary--I am not afraid of heights and spent about a third of the time thinking about what I would do if the bleachers began to broke. I mean, do you protect yourself by falling on others, or take your lumps? I guess I was more afraid of the moral fiber that would be tested, and revealed in such a situation...). I explained that as long as no one behind us lost his or her balance, we should be safe.
8:22--The guy directly behind the girl who is afraid of heights FAINTED. I am not making this up. Why didn't we have the speech about not locking your knees?! (Although, I suspect that any economist worth his--or her--salt would discover that the "don't lock your knees" speech increases the incidence of fainting...Am I right, or am I right?)

8:30--We finally take the whole group photo. We still have an hour break until we meet to get the run-down and head to the ceremony. Good thing we got up early and started at 7:45.

9:30--We meet in the hall. Attendance must be taken because this is a compulsory ceremony. (if you don't go, you are not a member of Oxford. Here is the part where you extend all logic, because yes, I have been attending classes for a week, yes, I have already returned multiple contracts that are basically signed in blood, and yes, I have already been formally recognized by my college AND already paid my first bill--which was substantial. But, if I don't prance around in a white shirt and ribbon tie in the cold, I am not actually a student.) So, back to attendance, we decided the most efficient way to verify attendance is to pass around a sheet with everyone's name so that those in attendance can highlight their name. We don't do this in any methodical way. It takes half an hour. I have to actively and passionately supress any desire to offer useful tips on how this process could be more efficient. There are such things as cultural values; efficiency is not one that is shared in this particular culture.

10:05--The meeting (description of the rules) finally begins.

10:07--Some guy with a hood tells us to meet him in the first quad (100 steps away) at five after ten sharp. He also explains that we should use the clock in the first quad, not the clock in the second quad as they sometimes(?) don't show the same time. Notice the time at which he makes this request. This is my life.

10:15--Tourists take pictures of us as we walk towards the Sheldonian. I feel like I am in the zoo. (And I am a zebra, naturally).

10:30--After 15 minutes of standing in the cold, the ceremony begins. I am sitting in the back corner and my knees poke through the gap in the seatback in front of me. Yet another thing that is not made for tall people here.

10:32--The Vice-Rector or something, enters, kind of like what I have seen on TV with the pope. Someone comes in before him with a sceptor that looks like it should be burning incense. He takes off his hat and bows alot to the various senior officials from the representated colleges (not all of the colleges matriculate at once).

10:34--The head guy from Queens (I know this because a friend from Queen's told me that's who it was) talks to the "vice-guy" in latin. I feel smart because some of the words sound kind of like English. He says something about presenting these students for matriculation. I am assuming the "vice-guy" said something along the lines of, "Well, we already have their money right? Sounds good to me." Then he told us we could be seated (in English).

10:36--The vice-guy told us how this is a shortened version of an old ceremony. Apparently, the old ceremony was actually an exam that verified that you are, in fact, smart enough to be at Oxford. That test was all in latin. Now, they feel like they can determine your academic qualifications through other means. At this point, I am having what has become a common experience for me here, where I feel very sneaky and imposterish. (Go ahead and try to translate "imposterish" into latin.)

10:40--There is lots more bowing and hats being taken off, and then the incenseless sceptor holder leads the vice-guy out of the Sheldonian. We are rushed (unceremoniously) out so that the next ceremony can begin

10:42--We wonder if we can wear our hats now. (There are (very serious) rules about these things). The better question may be why my British peers wanted to wear their hats. We are talking about a dorky mortar board after all.

10:50--It is confirmed. We can now wear our hats (without receiving some sort of unknown but certainly severe consequence). Yipee matriculation.

13 October 2009

These are a Few of My Favourite (British-style) Things...

This is a picture of one of the greatest perks of my college--a bike garage (the equivalent of covered parking in the middle of town in the states). And since I haven't devised a way to take a picture of myself on my bike, here is a picture of a stranger on a bike ahead of me....I look kind of like that minus the skinny jeans.
I think my comments tend to highlight what is unusual, frustrating, or just bizarre about my life here so far, and I don't at all want to portray (or cultivate) a cynical outlook on my experience. The reality is that it is certainly a blessing and a privilege to be placed here and amidst the confusing, disorienting, and hilarious moments, there are times every day that are beautiful, breath-taking, and quite amazing. Here are a few:
1. Beautiful October days. It has been incredible here so far, I think it has been sunny every day except one. I probably should be trying to bottle this up for the long dark winter ahead, but am thoroughly enjoying it while it lasts. However, the weather changes RAPIDLY. And since I have always had a habit of dressing for the previous day (time I was outside) this has gotten me into some serious problems. I am often bundled up and sweating or in a t-shirt and shivering.

2. Crisp mornings and evenings. I suppose this is related to the previous, but I love how brisk it is and the way the sun hits the buildings at dawn and dusk.

3. All British people are funny. Literally. Every single one. There is often an American delay in understanding the humour, but their jokes are dry as the desert and quite witty.

4. Formal Hall. The meal is truly an all night affair. I suppose it could swing from my favourite to least favourite thing depending on my company. I am getting a crash course in conversation skills!

5. Bikes. Exercise plus transportation. And, there is always an available parking spot if you are creative...which I was especially thankful for as I saw a guy trying to convince a police officer to not give him a ticket for parking his car illegally. I may miss the protection of a vehicle once the rain starts, but I won't miss parking tickets for blocking fire hydrants.

6. Hummous and Falafel everything. I have had a burger, baguette, and wrap (with cous cous). Ok, so maybe Oxford has affected me a little bit...(And I use a "diary" now. I could never make myself use any kind of planner before, but I would literally be unable to function without one here...Although, they are still open to user error. I showed up to a lecture that didn't exist today.)

7. Being on a budget. Seriously, this one isn't sarcastic. I love the discipline of staying tight financially. AND, I think in the long run the budget will be good for me in more ways than one. For example, my budget keeps my eyes from getting bigger than my stomach, or my stomach from getting bigger than it is now. The pastries here would be tempt-ing otherwise.
More favourites to come...

12 October 2009

My Olympic Dreams

So, if you have already heard about my Olympic scheme, I am sorry that you have to read it again. But, if I haven't told you, I think it would be cool to say that you are an Olympian. I can't claim to be as Olympic crazy as some people I know, but it would still be a cool accomplishment. (Although I am not sure that I would attend the opening ceremonies; those things are boring! Ok, I would walk in in my dorky white beret with a video camera and then I would sneak gracefully out a side entrance.) The only problem is that I am really not athletic enough to be an Olympian. Except, what if I could get a specialized skill set in an obscure sport that is not played well in America? That's right. What if I could get a scholarship to study in another country so that I could learn to play handball in order to be an Olympian?

Well, my road to the Olympics began, and probably ended, tonight.

I went to my first team handball practice, and from the start it was different than anything we Americans would expect from sports. For starters, the gym was reserved for kick-boxing before practice and then some ancient form of Samurai karate afterwards (I am attending that next week.), and we didn't even meander onto the floor until 5 minutes past our start time (gasp). After meeting the coach, who was French and couldn't pronounce Lindsay, getting a brief rundown of the rules, and meeting the other players--who were all from different countries including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Germany, France, a high-schooler from Denmark, and the list goes on--we were (including Lucas, my American comrade) all thrown onto the floor and told some strange instructions in broken English. Given the varieties of levels of English proficiency, let's just say that things were pretty unclear and that chaos reigned for the next 2 hours. We soon broke up into girls and boys and did drills that were unexplained mostly involving cutting, flipping the ball to someone else, and running around aimlessly. I am not sure that I really understand exactly how to play the game, but I had this strange dissonance between mind and body. Essentially, I was pretty sure that I could do what I was being asked to do physically, if someone could just explain to me exactly what that was.

I learned some more lessons in British/European politeness. The general rule is, "We aren't going to tell you that you are doing something wrong, because that would be rude. But we will be frustrated with you for doing it wrong." I think handball could be a quite interesting sport, but I am not sure if Oxford is the setting for me to learn it.

The real lesson (in all of my sporting endeavors thus far) is that here, they are not really concerned with mastery. It is, at least in the sporting world, much more acceptable to be average (or really bad at something) and to invest a moderate amount of time and effort into staying at that level. I suppose that there is a lesson to be learned there--one I think I read at some point, about being a Renaissance man (or woman) and being willing to dabble in many things and master few. And while that proverb is probably quite wise, I struggle to appreciate mediocrity, let alone celebrate it.

On that note, congratulations to the Chiefs on distinguishing themselves and resisting a merely mediocre season. The good news is that they would be quite welcome in the UK. In fact, a Brit would probably just shout, "Bad luck!" everytime they make a mistake. Let's be realistic everyone, luck has nothing to do with it.

10 October 2009

I thought you were a Rhodes scholar...

So, I don't know that I will ever tire of hearing that phrase, but I do find that it is always best to tell all of the stupid stories on yourself rather than letting someone else embarrass you later. So, here it goes.
*The pictures fit into this post because I took them while riding my bicycle (oops!). It was such a beautiful day today, and the street is really the only place to take photos because otherwise you are too close to the buildings. But this certainly fits under "stupid". You know the law about people under 21 not being allowed to text? There should probably be a similar law for me on my bike. The only exception is that I am probably worse on my bike than a 16 year-old in their car (plus I am driving on the other side of the road).

1. In DC, we got the opportunity to be on the senate floor--which is apparently a big deal--and in an effort to take some pictures to send home to mommy, I decided to start right then. I got a dirty look from one of women who was with us, and I thought it was because my camera made a loud PSSSSH sound (simulating a shutter--thank you to whoever thought that was important). Actually, it's because it is basically illegal to take picture of the senate floor. Yessum, I am from Missourah.

2. I had two pairs of matching mittens, but I lost one so I had three mittens (the kind that I call homeless gloves because you can take the mitten off and have just short fingerless gloves). So, in an effort to "pack lightly"--a task that I failed miserably at--I decided to just take the two best gloves. You guessed it. I took two lefts. But don't worry, I cut a thumb hole into the "right" one and I'm set.

3. I locked my keys in my room twice. In two days. The porter was really impressed. They say that you don't change Oxford, it changes you. So far, Oxford may not have changed, but I sure haven't either.

4. We had a fire drill at 7:40 in the morning. I was supposed to get up about 5 minutes later to meet someone to run, so I just decided to change into my running clothes so that I could leave. AND...I couldn't leave my room unlocked (see security problems below) and I didn't want to lock my keys in my room (see previous), so I had to find those. I was one of the last people out of the building (by a bit of time) and think I would have been close to the cutoff of people who wouldn't have made it out had it been a real fire.

The British "Neighborhood Watch"

Growing up, I always wondered where the "Neighborhood Watch" groups (You know, the ones that were advertised on the signs that told the criminals that this was not the right neighborhood for a poorly planned heist because they called the police--as if there were neighborhoods where people saw crime and just commented to their family about it.) met, who was a part of them, and what the members' responsibilities were. I don't know if it was wisdom or cynicism or some combination of the two that made me realize that the signs were a strategy--a bark with no real bite. And then I started to think that in many ways, those signs are kind of unjust (stay with me here), because if all the neighborhoods had them, they would cease to have even a minor deterrent effect--assuming that there is some small psychological effect--because robbers wouldn't just pack up and go home if those signs were posted everywhere. So, in order for them to work, only some of the neighborhoods could use them, in which case crime is not being stopped, it is just being redistributed to the neighborhoods that can't afford to hang the signs about calling the police. Let's summarize all of that to say that the system just seems stupid to me.

Well America, rest assured knowing that the Brits have an equally ridiculous crime prevention system.

Bike theft is a huge problem around here. There are these trucks that unload and sell used bikes in Oxford, and we are pretty suspicious that these bikes are stolen from students in Cambridge and that our bikes are jacked and then resold to them. Well, a system has been devised to curb this kind of crime; you must register your bike with the porter (security guard of your college) and with the police. What this registration entails is putting a hologram sticker on your bike (that is then your personal valuables identification number) so that if the police get really motivated when you report your stolen bike and stop the millions of bicyclists and check for your identification number, then they could correctly identify your green mens bike (just to throw out a random example) and return it to you. But I know that you, as a smart individual, have spotted the weakness in this plan. What if the theif removes the sticker from your bike, you ask? Have no fear, there is an answer for that. In addition to the sticker, you are also to write your security number in multiple secret (but clean) locations all over your bike as well as all of your valuables with a UV pen...you know the kind that only show up under a black light.

So, you take your invisible highlighter, write your name all over your valuables, and then all of your stuff gets stolen. Then what happens?

First, the police scours high and low looking for your stolen possesions--preferrable in Cambridge where they are likely being resold. They stop every student with a laptop, bike, and cell phone. (Which won't happen).

Second, they look for your sticker. (Which won't be there).

Then, they bring out their handy UV light, which is right next to their night stick and handcuffs, and scour every inch of your valuable to see if there is a number on it. (Which seems unrealistic to me).

So, this plan may be kind of like the neighborhood watch signs. After all, how are the criminals supposed to be dettered (as it is claimed) by an invisible marker?

BUT...if someone steals your bike, cell phone, lap top, and digital camera and takes them all to a rave, someone will TOTALLY catch them.

I sure feel safer.

07 October 2009

It's Not Weird...It's Just "Different"

So, I was thinking about playing Rugby here. I have decided I might have to decline for moral reasons. I was walking by a sports shop on Turl street, when something caught my eye. At first, I wasn't sure if I wanted to see if I saw what my little eyes thought they had seen. Sure enough, the quaint little shop had pictures of the women's rugby team from each year. "How nice", you must be thinking. "That is kind of like how Colleges and Universities in the US advertise their sports programs--you must have felt right at home!" Well, I suppose the validity of that statement depends on how much leeway you provide in defining the phrase "kind of". You see, the entire team had only pants on, and by pants I mean that in the British sense (aka underwear) and the only other "personal shield" that they had was their hands. And THIS was displayed in a store front window. It made taking "serious-face pictures" for the Drake posters seem downright tame.

Also, I saw several children's books with comparable subject matter displayed in Blackwell's, which truly is the GREATEST book shop in the world. One was titled "Evolve or Die". Charming.

06 October 2009

Fashion...oh boy

I have become convinced that women's fashion here can be summed up by three concepts, in a precise order:

1) Tights (leggings)
2) Skinny Jeans
3) Boots

A few points of clarification. You may be thinking to yourself, "Self, we have all of those things in the US." If so, you would be partially right. However, when you hear tights, you probably think about tights with a long shirt, short dress, or skirt over the top. You see, that is where you are wrong. Here, tights entirely replace pants (or more accurately trousers) and are usually NOT worn with anything that would cover your "bum" area. Think stretch pants from elementary school minus the stirrups, with boots, and without the long 80s grunge shirt over-top.

It is probably also worth noting that I often can't tell the difference between the tights and skinny jeans, especially if they are worn with boots. (Usually the only distinguishing feature is the slightly bulkier bottom cuff of the "jeans" variety.) So, I guess what I am saying is that skinny jeans (if possible), may actually be skinnier here. I already had made a pact not to join in with the skinny jeans culture--partly because I don't really think that athletic bodies are made for skinny jeans--so now I am doomed to be counter-cultural.

But today, I wore my first "European(ish)" outfit. Tights, boots, and the American influence jumper that does, in fact, cover my bum.

05 October 2009


So, I realized at Dulles Airport that I had over 100 bucks in US dollars that I hadn't spent. I was tempted to try to spend all of that cash before boarding the plane on 20 plus Chipotle burritos, but I didn't think my fellow passengers would appreciate the carry-on, and I had already distinguished myself as "the one who over-packed". So, I was left with three options: wait until I came back to the US to spend my cash, convert the dollars to pounds at an unfriendly rate, or send "birthday money" to my friends and family for the next few years. I still haven't decided, so you can hold your breath for some big birthday pay-out.

Upon arrival in Oxford, I had to go to the market to buy a map just to find my way to Rhodes House (my first destination). After making a few purchases and accumulating pounds of pounds (literally, we are talking change here), I finally had to stick my hand full of change out and get an education in British coins. After all, some of their coins are worth over 3 bucks, so I don't think I can afford to just not spend them!

So, after a day of running errands, and maybe more efffectively spinning my wheels, I returned to my room to finish unpacking. When I came across a few quarters and some loose change, I almost immediately threw them in the garbage. If I hadn't had such a large sum of cash, I probably would have thought about doing the same thing with my bills. The exchange rate isn't very friendly to American dollars (1.56 dollars to a pound), and without going through the exchange process, the bills have as much value to me as looseleaf paper as currency. Sure, I could still exchange them, but it was amazing how quickly the way I thought about their value shifted with my change in residence.

If those bills were stolen or lost, I probably wouldn't be terribly upset, because turning them into something of value is probably more trouble than it's worth. But being confronted by how quickly I could reassign value made me think about what other things I have valued and invested in that no longer carry value, and more importantly, what I value that doesn't carry any lasting value. While I know that this is a source of great discomfort for many, the value of the dollar could completely disappear. I am not talking about something that is likely to happen or that we should fear or fret about. I simply mean that the dollar has value because we have assigned value to it and because it means something linked to a certain citizenry and culture. It's value is temporary. How tragic would it be to work exclusively for something with temporary and unstable value?

If I were planning on changing my citizenship, it would probably be important to begin to think about investing in the things that my new home culture valued. And then I began to wonder, if I truly believe that my citizenship is temporary, perhaps I should begin to evaluate what things truly have lasting value.