31 January 2010

Extraordinary minus the extra=ordinary

And ordinary can be really good. I have to admit that "normalcy" is one of my favorite words here and usually is preceded by "I am craving...". Well, be careful what you wish for. I have had a string of regular days which has been beautiful, but doesn't give me much to work with when it comes to the old blog. But alas, there have been some painfully "normal" (ish) adventures.

Saturday night, a friend of mine decided that it would be a good time to walk to The Trout (a nice-ish restaurant) with great food, but a better pre-dinner walk. Apparently, you walk through a field (which is ok, because there are no trespassing laws in the UK) for about 50 minutes to get to the restaurant and then take the taxi back. You may have been tipped off by my use of the word "apparently". Yes, we did try to go, but no, we didn't make it.

For starters, the directions were less than clear. They instructed us to walk towards this field and then to walk north along the river for 50 minutes until arriving at the restaurant. But let's just say that "walking north" in a large field, in a foreign country, without a compass, is not always easy. (After all, this is why orienteering was the Sports Club of the Year at Oxford for 2009). We decided to turn around when the moon (which was originally on our right) ended up on our left. It only took two Rhodes Scholars to figure out that this meant that we were not going in a straight line. So then, we got to make our way back with the flashlights--the only cool feature on our $15 phones. Take that iPhone.

I am not sure where we went wrong. For starters, we might have been walking next to a lake instead of a river, though that is unclear since all of the waterways are flooded. We might have walked into the Chronicles of Narnia and lost traditional time/space dimensions. Or maybe The Trout was just around the corner. We may never know.

Rather than a nice seafood restaurant we ended up at Wok and Roll (because both French restaurants and the Spanish tapas place were booked--who knew you had to make reservations on a Saturday night?) where we were served warm cabbage coated in gravy by a grouchy waitress who seems like she would have preferred to stare at the wall rather than have to deal with us. Now that is what I call a normal night.

27 January 2010

Haggis, anyone?

Just when I thought that I was going to run out of interesting topics to write about, a conversion of multi-cultural experiences converged on one day.

Yesterday, I was signed up to attend formal hall at Sommerville College. When I signed up for it, the day of the week (Tuesday) and the week of term (2) were all that was listed, so my mental alarms didn't go off that I had other things that I should be doing on that particular day. But, I had already paid for the meal, so somewhat grudgingly, I went along. You should also know that any time you attend these dinners, you always have the option to request a vegetarian meal. I have reached a point in my life where this declaration is a real dilemma. I do eat meat-less meals a fair bit of the time, and the vegetarian cuisine is often much better than the traditional dish. However, there are a few things that make this a challenging decision. First, I am not a real vegetarian, so I feel like I am lying (or being opportunistic) by laying claim to the term in this setting. Secondly, while the vegetarian cuisine is often much better than the meat-lovers dish, when it is worse, it is much worse. So, this is a moral and pragmatic dilemma.

About mid-way through the "meet and mingle" time at the Sommerville MCR, I discovered that on this particular evening, Sommerville was celebrating Burn's Day. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burns_supper). Initially, I was confused because I had heard about Burns Suppers on Saturday (at Balliol) and Sunday (at Magdalen), so I was sure that this guy's birthday had come and passed. However, after the confusion had settled, dread set in.

You see, on Burns Day, they serve haggis.

"Haggis is a dish containing sheep's 'pluck' (heart, liver, lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally simmered in the animal's stomach for approximately three hours....Haggis is a kind of sausage, or savoury pudding cooked in a casing of sheep's intestine, as sausages are."

But, I shouldn't have been that worried, because "Most modern commercial haggis is prepared in a casing rather thanan actual stomach." What a relief. Ironically, just a few days before I stumbled into my own Burns Supper, I had been talking to a friend and declaring that haggis is one thing that I did not think I would ever try. And now, I got the opportunity to eat my words. (Unfortunately, in this setting, I wish it had only been my words that I was eating.)

In addition to this fine cuisine, Burns Supper is complete with kilts, bagpipes, and the reading of a poem in Scottish (which is supposed to be a dialect of English, but definitely sounded like its own language). If you are wondering how the haggis was, it really didn't taste that bad, but the mental awareness of what was in it prevented me from finishing it. (I imagine it would be kind of like eating a hot dog as someone read off a list of ingredients of what was actually inside the hot dog.)

As if this wasn't enough culture for one evening, this event also coincided with Australia Day (their version of the fourth of July). It was truly a melting pot experience (though I don't want to think about what was actually melting together...).

23 January 2010

Just a little different....

I once read a children's book that was about celebrating our differences. I do not mean to undermine or underestimate the universally important message of embracing what makes each of us unique and special, but there comes a point when we, as a society (or societies, whatever the case may be) have taken things too far. Now, I know what you are thinking to yourself. You are thinking, "Self, what is she talking about?" Have no fear. I am going to tell you. (Yes, I know. This is a shocking revelation and the in-depth insight that causes you to read this blog.)

You see, this evening I invited a few friends over to watch The Proposal. I wanted to have a "normal" evening, and this was the closest to normal social activities that I could come up with. Sure, The Proposal isn't going to win any Academy Awards but it is an entertaining movie, and the only one I currently possess. Preparing for the evening made me realize that it would probably be good to diversify my movie collection, and I was thinking that I should have some of my DVD's shipped over. Except there is one catch. US DVD's don't work in the UK. And the whole situation is just making me nutty. There comes a point at which we (and by we, I mean the accusatory but unspecific "you") are being difference just for kicks.

After all, if you, I mean we, are trying to prevent people from the US from developing a black market for DVD's that are released earlier and sold cheaper, I have news for you: THE INTERNET. If people want to watch movies earlier (like when they come out) and cheaper (read free) they would just stream them online. It is just another example (along with two/four hole-punched paper, blackberries that have to be unlocked, toilet flushers that are on the other side, and, oh yeah, driving on the other side of the road) of the arbitrary "uniqueness" that we have created.

As an aside, I would say something about different electrical plug-ins, but I suspect there may be a good reason, although that may be far too trusting. I won't say anything about the metric system, because--America, let's be realistic. The metric system makes far more sense. (Although, these systems create a frustrating kind of illiteracy for me. Trying to cook using measurements that I never really understood inuitively (like cups) without any measuring instruments is a grand challenge.)

Furthermore, they don't have eggplant here. That's not really a difference. It's just more of a comment.

22 January 2010

I feel like my whole life is going down the toilet...

Ok, that's not true. But I feel like I spend much of my "blogging life" talking about toilets. Well, I guess it is time to get my monthly potty chat taken care of.

But I have a really good reason this time, because here's the thing: travel books are great, but there are plenty of things that they don't tell you. (That's right. You are an intelligent person, and you have read this blog enough to know where I am going with this....) They don't tell you about the quality of toilets. They also don't really tell you how friendly or unfriendly (cough, Rome) people will be. Nor do they really tell you how expensive things will be. Sure, the one, two, or three dollar sign symbol gives you a ballpark idea of the price range of a restaurant. But let's be realistic. When "$" represents all restaurants that range from 0-$25 for a meal, all this does is let me know that I certainly can't afford to eat at any of the other restaurants. And in reality, I need at least three distinctions within the 0-25 category in order for that to be useful. It kind of reminds me of sales (back in the US...I don't shop here. After all, there is no reliable source of information about how expensive things are...And converting any price (that isn't required for my survival--aka food) into GBPs is just depressing) when they would inform you that everything on a given table was $5 AND UP?! Unless you are at the Everything's a Dollar Store, I don't see any reason why this is a great announcement (and if you are at the Dollar Store, this would be a really bad advertising strategy). After all, the regular prices are well over $5, so it almost makes me angry that you call this a sale and pretend that you somehow did something special for me in order to get all of the prices over $5. Thanks.

Soap box, away. And now back to toilets--the thing that no travel guide tells you about. Have no fear, my own personal Rough-er Travel Guide is here to assist you.

And the award for the most bizarre, shocking, and confusing toilets goes to.....Istanbul.

This is the first toilet that greeted me in the airport in Istanbul. Sure, on first glance it doesn't appear that different. Until you notice what I will call the "water fountain" that is not for drinking. I had heard of these, and I know that they have an official name that I refuse to use, just like I refused to use the "fountain" itself. Its presence just created a lot of uncertainty for me, and uncertainty is not the feature of a good WC trip. Sure, you may say, you had one strange experience, but you are not qualified to generalize about an entire city. And that may be partially true. But then, we arrived at the hostel....

Where I was greeted by THIS.

Talk about uncertainty?! (And you should know that this is a slightly less complicated version of the contraption that initially greeted me. Yes, it had a "fountain".) This thing has more levers, knobs, and gadgets than a time machine! All of the apparatus also significantly reduces the seat space. And I know I am supposed to feel better about sitting on plastic, but given that I couldn't figure out exactly how the lever was supposed to work to change the plastic (and to get the seat down) it really just made me dread going to the restroom. Additionaly, the flusher was significantly difficult to find in the midst of all of the gizmos. I would say I am generally a pretty confident person, but I held it for significant portions of the trip just to try to reduce the number of trips I would have to make.

From the ridiculous to the sublime.

Yes, that is real sand and sea shells in a toilet seat cover. You should also know that the "out of toilet paper percentage" (another measure for my future travel book) was an unbelievable 60%. It is good to be back in the land where the toilets may not flush, but the apparatus is simple, the flusher is prominently displayed, and the toilet paper is abundant.

Procrastination: My life in Photos

Four-wheeling on an island in Greece...

A two-hour bus ride to get to a temple in the middle of nowhere....that was closed.

Right across from the Parthenon.

The coast in Istanbul...

Hagia Sofia, in Istanbul.

Istanbul at night.

21 January 2010

Back to School...

I have a professor who was on a research leave last term. So, while we hadn't met during the previous eight weeks, I have the pleasure of learning from him multiple times a week this term. I am not sure if his teaching methodology expanded in a wave of creativity during his break from teaching or if what I am experiencing is standard.

He opened up our qualitative research methods class today with an announcement that it was time for everyone to close their eyes. I was certain that he couldn't be serious. After all, my classmates range from early twenties to mid-thirties. Surely, we are too old for this. Then, I realized that he couldn't be more serious. But, fortunately, I couldn't be more serious about keeping my eyes open (at least at his command. After all, there was a later period in the class where closing my eyes was not the problem.) No sooner had I done a mental check of my age and silently resolved to not participate in this childish (and hokey) exercise than he announced that class would not start until everyone closed there eyes. My reserve of refusal immediately dried up; I would jog around the room for two hours if it would make the time pass more quickly (and let's be realistic: it probably would).

When a few of my classmates arrived late (as usual), he cheerfully announced, "For those of you who have just joined us, we all have our eyes closed and are preparing to do some visualization." So, my classmates grabbed their hypothetical carpet squares and joined story/nap time. (Though, I can't be sure because my eyes were closed.)

Then, he instructed us to imagine that the year is 1984. First problem. As I was not living at the time, this was quite a challenge. I am not sure what I was supposed to be imagining. Maybe a New Year's sign flashing 1984, or an 80s music video, or maybe home video footage from my early childhood (just to get in the ballpark). But, the 1984 visualization was easy compared to what came next. Soon, he was leading us on a mental journey down a series of UK interstates. I think it would have been easier to imagine being on the moon during the space race. After all, I have at least seen pictures of that.

So, I had to find something else to occupy myself during this visualization exercise that I really couldn't participate in. I spent the next several minutes lamenting that I was being invited to close my eyes during the one part of class where I wasn't actually tired. After all, in just a few minutes, I would have welcomed the invitation to do a bit of "visualizing". Furthermore, he was starting me in the hole. Any sleep resistance or stimulation was quickly being depleted by this little exercise.

Eventually, he told us we could open our eyes again (at which point I groaned internally, I had just gotten used to the game). Just when I thought things had returned to "normal", he made some comment about being "fobbed off".

Welcome back to Oxford.

18 January 2010

Happy New Years...

So, yeah. That was a little late. If anyone is still reading this, I am going to launch the (relatively) new year, with some top 10 lists from 2009 in an attempt to cover any bizarre, funny, interesting, or important things that I missed from 2009. And, at some point I will unpack what the last month has been like. It is hard to condense some of the stores and experiences into blog posts, but I am sure that as soon as classwork is in full swing (which will probably be tomorrow) I will welcome the distraction. In the meantime, let's kick things off with the first Top 10:

Top 10 British vocabulary words:

10. Diary. No, this isn't a new word, but it is a new use. In the UK, rather than "diary" referring to the Lisa Frank notebook that had a pink bubble gum machine lock (with a universal key that unlocks ALL Lisa Frank diaries--now THAT is what I call secure) when I say, "I am going to look at/check my diary", I am referring to a planner/agenda/schedule (whichever word you currently use to refer to the organizer that you use (or don't use, as wa the case for me until I came to Oxford where your "diary" is life).

9. Uni (as in uni-brow (or university, but that is much less colorful), except with more emphasis on the I--pronounced ee). If you say "college", the Brits think "high school". Granted, they soon account for your American point of reference and clarify the term, but it IS a constant negotiation of what you mean by college, high school, secondary school, etc. While it is at times inconvenient to clarify all of this, I refuse to use the term "uni" because it just feels far too pretentious and unnecessary to make the switch. I instead opt for "when I was an undergrad". Now that is what I call efficiency. The British should be so proud.

8. Called. As in, "I have a friend called Joe." I have yet to hear anyone use the term "named". This is a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

7. Rubbish. People don't actually say this that much, but I know that it is a popular pseudo British term.

6. Meant to, as a substitue for "supposed to", "intended to", etc, but mostly "supposed to". Rather than saying "I am supposed to be doing that", here, it would be "I am meant to be doing that". It's remarkable what an ocean's separation will do to a language.

5. Loads. I have to admit that this word is used "loads"--to the extent that it begins to become burdensome to me. I think it is the british version of "like" in its degree of overuse. (I think that "like" would make the top 10 list of American-isms at least 3 or 4 times. I may be pointing out these unusual terms, but one thing that I can't knock is that the Brits are much more precise with their language use.) I think I heard a few girls use this 3 times in a sentence. They used it loads of times. Loads.

4. Hiya. A greeting.

3. Epic. It was/will be an epic night/event. This is the equivalent of "awesome"--used so liberally that it ceases to have any real meaning.

2. Cheers. A less thankful version of thank you. Except when it is used with thank you. As in "Cheers, thank you very much, cheers". Wow.

1. Proper. I reserved the top spot for this word in honor of my brother who just doesn't think that it should be used as much as it is. As in, "I need to get some proper (appropriate) shoes for a proper (legitimate/real) football (soccer) match". In its defense, it does have a LOT of meanings.


06 January 2010

You'd think these people had never seen snow before...

I had seen the snowy branches out my window, but hadn't anticipated the situation that awaited me outside the door. I had allowed just enough time to bike to met a friend for lunch. Immediately, I realized that my bike would probably not fare well in the 6+ inches of snow on the ground. However, due to my tight schedule, I was tempted to risk it. That is, until I saw the cache of bikes surrounded by and covered with deep snow. I wasn't even sure which was mine and certainly didn't feel like uncovering all of them to find out. So I began to trudge along untreated, slippery roads. The advantage of walking (in addition to safety) was the opportunity to take in some of the sights.

I saw boys with their jeans tucked into their boots. (Ok, so this isn't THAT weird. It is Europe after all.)

I saw four people standing in a circle (more realistically a square) having a "snow ball fight". Clearly, they had never had one before. They were essentially taking turns throwing snow balls at each other. Each time a snow ball came in their direction, they would duck or wince slightly, but ALWAYS allow the snow ball to hit them. Oh, and they were standing about four feet apart.

Nearly everyone that I passed on the street had their camera. It almost made me wish I had mine because clearly this is a phenomenon. I may be able to say that I was in Oxford for the snow of 2010.

I had only been at the library for around an hour today when I heard a distant bell ring. "That can't be right," I thought, "The bell ringing usually means that the library is closing; but it's 3 pm." But soon, I heard the ringing getting nearer, and looked up to see a jovial librarian ringing the bell and nodding meaningfully in my direction. When I checked out the stack of books that I had intended to read in the library, it was apparent that the librarians could hardly contain their excitement. It was their first snow day. Probably ever.

You would think these people had never seen snow before. And if you did, you would be right. At least not for the last 30 years according to your local librarian.

Why I hate the New Year....

Ok, so hate probably isn't the right word. I don't really hate the New Year. I mean, I do dislike the fact that it will take me until around May to remember to say/write 2010 instead of 2009, at which point, it will take me about three months to remember to say that I am 24 instead of 23, and it will be about time to prepare for a new calendar year. Although, as a friend of my pointed out, how much easier will life be when we can say twenty-ten instead of two-thousand and nine? I mean that alone, would probably save at least eight, maybe even ten, seconds a year. Just think what you could do with that kind of time?! (And your thinking has used up all of the time that you saved!) That would be enough to love the New Year. But alas, I seem to be in a habit so I will continue to say two-thousand and ten. Just think how many professional documents I will have to start over before I get my mental clock set on the right decade? (Speaking of which, what would you call this decade that we are in? The teens? That can't be a good sign for any of us. Parents and teachers of adolescents, give me an amen.)

But here is my real beef with New Year's. Resolutions. No, I am not about to go on some rant about whether we should or should not make resolutions or whether making resolutions are effective. Clearly, they are just not effective; no discussion necessary. No, I am frustrated with the way that resolution-makers disrupt my life. You see, I went to the gym yesterday for the first time in 2010 (twenty-ten), and it was an awful experience. I did not make a resolution to be healthier this year, I simply decided that I needed to stop being a victim of my circumstances (my circumstances being that I don't feel like walking/running/riding my bike to the gym, and that I am "enjoying the culture" at every meal) and get my butt in gear. But these other people were there for all of the wrong reasons; I could see it written on their faces.

I mean, I remember this phenomenon at Drake. At the beginning of every school year and every January, there would be this surge of temporarily fitness conscious students. But by late February or early March, the crowds would be back to normal. But at Oxford, these crowds (which were large by any standard, and only serve to get larger as the majority of students aren't even back on "campus" yet) make an inconvenient workout facility unbearable. After all, we only have one mirror in the "weight room" and so, naturally, all of the exercises must be completed there. So if you are doing a superset using the bench that is positioned in front of the mirror, you will likely be prevented from finishing by guys doing curls (which don't require a bench OR mirror). Even when they are done, it is likely that they will stand there looking at themselves to ensure that they are resting properly. All of the resolvers are preventing us life-stylers from accomplishing our goals.

So, if you REALLY want to make a fitness resolution, I would recommend using the Chinese New Year or starting in June because, right now, the gyms are likely to be too crowded by the undedicated, and you don't want that kind of temporary commitment to tarnish your pure passion for healthy eating and exercise.

05 January 2010

All Roads Lead to Rome

So, after just returning from Italy, here are my general impressions (it will take me a few days/weeks to unpack all of the notable moments). First of all, Italy is ridiculously expensive. Most meals were over 10 euros (and that is not a fancy feast by any means), and if it gives you any idea, a meal from McDonald's was around 7. Then to top it off, we ate at a restaurant that didn't serve tap water, (One of my traveling buddies actually questioned them on this: "You don't have a tap?!" That's right, we were sensitive travelers.) so, we just didn't have anything to drink. I don't think they were very impressed at our economic ways. At another restaurant we were charged for bread (at 4 euros a pop) in addition to a service fee.

However, in all of this eating, I did solve one big mystery. How do the Italians not get fat if they are eating pasta ALL the time? (And, I have to admit that I did underestimate the amount of pasta they actually eat. I don't know what kind of restaurants I expected to find, but there were literally 90% Italian restaurants and probably 10% Chinese. I literally had pasta or pizza for every non-breakfast meal of my visit.) Well, it is directly related to the economic issues previously discussed. Not only is the food remarkably expensive, but you don't get much for your money. The pasta that is on the menu (for 10 plus Euros) is intended to be a first course! So if you really eat Italian size, you will spend 30 euros (or significantly more) for two small courses. Imagine my surprise when my 12 euro serving of cuatro formaggio gnocchi came and it was about half a cup. It was at that moment that I definitely missed America.

Speaking of America, we certainly have quite the reputation. When my Australian travel mates, shunned a con-artist, I mean tour-seller, she shouted after us, passive aggressively, that we didn't have to be "rude Americans". Clearly, she was Canadian, because she was a smidge bitter. (Any Canadians who are reading this, that is just a JOKE.)