28 February 2010

Blue vs. Blue

So the last two weekends have featured the Oxford vs. Cambridge grudge matches. Apparently, this is the one game/match/event per year that defines the success or failure of each team. I am really not exaggerating; the number of "blues" (or varsity letters) that our team gets is related to whether or not we win the Varsity Match. Had we lost, our team would have not awarded any blues (blue suit coats--think the blue version of a master's jacket.)

I had been told that the games would be "epic" and had gotten a small flavor of thing last weekend during our Varsity match. For starters, there were actually chairs that "spectators" (I almost forgot what those were) could sit in. Then, we had warm-up music--a boombox in the corner blaring Backstreet Boys and classic Jock Jams. And then, to complete the epic-ness of the event, we had a commentator who announced us over the "sound system" before the game (we had to guess who he was actually introducing because we couldn't understand a word he said) and then did some commentary during the game. At first, I thought he was the John Madden of Oxford basketball, explaining things like jump balls and travels. I almost disconnected his mic. Then, I realized that the majority of the people in attendance probably didn't know what any of these things were, so I decided he could stay and I should just put up with it.

But there were plenty of things about Varsity games that needed a thorough explaining. I asked somewhat what Cambridge's mascot is. For starters, I think "mascot" was lost in translation as I received a puzzled look rather than an explanation. But then I turned things SAT style and said something along the lines of "Oxford is to Blues as Cambridge is to____?" "Blues". No, no, I said, I want to know Cambridges mascot. Well, apparently they are the blues as well. Talk about confusing cheering. Then a whole discussion of the color wheel broke out, because apparently, Cambridge is actually a minty-green and red (yes, it is a disgusting combination--in my humble opinion) and not actually blue at all--and Oxfordians everywhere are quite disgusted with this intellectual dishonesty. BUT, apparently, Cambridge's apparel provider no long carries minty-green and red (I can't imagine why) so now the tabs wear a North Carolina, powder-blue. It is basically like an elementary Duke vs. UNC game. I call being J.J. Reddick. (I'll even style my hair and sit on the bench the whole game--cough, NBA--if that's what it takes.)

In addition to my personal experiences with the Varsity Games, I went to lacrosse and hockey games yesterday. The hockey game was an incredible over-time thriller. The stands were packed, there was lots of crowd taunting, and Oxford pulled it out in exciting fashion. It was the closest to US sports I have experienced. The lacrosse game turned into a giant hail storm, which was great fun--I was afraid the icey bullets were going to puncture my umbrella. But after the storm subsided, the rivalry did not. Oxford was getting beat relatively handily when one of the Oxford fans yelled, "Draw blood Oxford!" And then added an aside: "Only metaphorically of course!" Only in Oxford.

25 February 2010


So, there is no coherent thread to connect much of what I am about to write. And now that we have gotten THAT out of the way...

A few days ago, colorless, flavorless Tropical Snow fell from the sky. No, I am not describing snow. I mean precipation that was actually the consistency of a snow cone or slushy dropped from the heavens. I thought how happy I would be if this would happen in June or July. I know there are some real scientific obstacles that prevent this, but otherwise I can't see any good reasons why things weren't designed this way.

Sometimes incredibly intelligent and impressive people who do not speak English for their first language use some really politically incorrect words. When they do this in class, I want to giggle like a school-girl. But I am really just appalled because unlike the unpolished speakers who usually use such language, these words (which won't be replicated for propriety reasons--after all, I AM a native English speaker and so I know better) sound remarkably out of place.

Some people like to complain about the quality of food available in college. I had grilled salmon and gnocchi with mushroom sauce at Jesus College today (for lunch, mind you). I am thinking back to Hubbell dining hall. Sure, they may have avoided mysterious tuna and olive mixtures on the salad bar, but they also specialized in hamburgers, slimey deli sandwiches, and grilled cheese. Also, that would have cost you $6-7 bucks. Let's just say there is no comparison.

One of my biggest pet peeves is American's who adopt phoney British accents. The other day a friend of mine told me that if he didn't adopt the British inflection, people couldn't understand him. I like this friend, so he does not peeve me (and he uses his inflection selectively). However, I do not buy this line, and will not be testing out this hypothesis.

I think I witnessed an awkward under-cover date in the MCR. You know, the kind where one person knows it's a date and the other doesn't. These happen a lot in Oxford. How did I know? Well, the girl was talking about particle physics or whatever she is studying and the guy was murmuring about "how interesting" it was. I think at this point, the girl turned on her sleuth skills because she told a story about, "when my boyfriend was...". Well played, my friend. Well played.

My college has Rock Band for Wii. We voted to buy it in a meeting. The only problem is that you have to check out the remotes from the Porter's Lodge and the game is apparently password protected and can only be found by the brave of heart. So, I will just put this activity on the list of things to do when I get back to the states, including:

1. Watch TV.
2. Eat a burrito.
3. Drive a car.
4. Watch TV with friends.
5. Talk about sports.
6. Watch Sportscenter.
7. Send lots of text messages--for FREE.
8. Maintain my "biker's butt" (It has taken many days, and I don't want that training to go to waste).
9. Lift weights. Freely and without interference.

It is going to be a busy visit.

I went to a seminar on Welsh literature today. I only understood half of it. And that wasn't even all of the part that was in English. But I did learn something. Welsh sounds like a VERY hard language.

18 February 2010

The 4+ course meal--surprisingly NOT an American invention

In case you were wondering, we didn't pull off the biggest win in Oxford basketball history. In the terms of Survivor, we were outplayed and outlasted (though I am not sure the outwitted part came into play). In other news, in one possession one of my teammates was put into a chokehold that would have made Hulk Hogan proud which inspired one of bold Canadian teammates to get into the face of the London-er who had been watching too much WWF. This exchange probably characterizes the game better than any words that I can contribute; it was a brawl with a much, much bigger kid.

So, to celebrate/recover, I headed off to guest dinner at Jesus College with a few friends. As I sit here, contemplating how many days I could have derived sustenance from that meal had I had access to doggie bags, I am puzzled by a few things. First, the fact that if I have paid for something in advance, I am going to lick my plate (or plates in this case) to get my money's worth regardless of the short and long-term physical consequences. Secondly, how is this level of indulgence NOT an American idea. I don't think you can grasp the amount of food that it includes (nor am I sure that I really want to acknowledge it), so let me describe.

For starters after the important people have rolled into high table, a gavel has been banged, and a prayer has been speed-read in latin, you have a nice soft roll to soften your ravenous hunger. Well, what should be ravenous hunger, because if you know what's best for you, you will have stopped eating days ago in preparation. By the time you get your roll buttered, soup has arrived. The soup is not too heavy and you don't feel too guilty about it. On to the second course. For our meat-eating friends, salmon will be your second course, and the vegetarians will get a large helping of risotto. What kind of risotto, you ask? Jesus College flavored risotto of course. That's right, it is seasoned with a palate of ingredients that is perfect for everything from curry to pasta with a hint of cilantro for this special occassion. This isn't a criticism. I like Jesus College flavored food, it is starting to have the comfort of home cooking.

Honestly, if you left the hall at this point, you could probably be satisfied. But the main course is already on its way into the hall. For the meat-eaters, some fowl is being served up and the herbivores will enjoy a puff pastry covered in goats cheese, herbs and tomatoes. Both mains are supplemented by family style potatoes and vegetables. Personally, I am inwardly celebrating my decision to order vegetarian.

No sooner has your meal been cleared away than the fourth course arrives. A delicous chocolate cake complemented by raspberries and a dollup of cream. A perfectly indulgent end to a satiating meal.

Except....it's not over yet. As soon as I see another round of fine china being distributed (because we have already dirtied a bowl, three plates, and what seems like 20 utensils) and I am thrilled because that can only mean one thing: fifth course. No sooner do I announce the good news to my guests than plates of fruit arrive (almost as magically as Harry Potter--I can see where that woman gets her inspiration). It should be said that this is no meager plate of bananas and oranges--oh, no. Kiwis, pinneapples, grapes, plums, strawberries, and melon--all fruit that I previously thought were out of season--are the fare for the evening.

And then, just in case you have an extra bit of room, there is a round of coffee with chocolate mint biscuits. So British, but oh, so American.

Roll me out of here, I am done.

16 February 2010

Everything you need to know about Oxford Women's Basketball...

I haven't talked much about my involvement with the Oxford women's basketball team (club) up until this point. That is largely because it is difficult to explain to someone who has not experienced it (the sheer glory) first-hand. So, let me catch you up to speed.
1. I play in a gym that is green (see below). I am not sure why we chose to paint them gym bright, grass-green, especially since our mascot is a color--specifically 'blue'--but this is what we call a "sunk cost". Now that we have invested in the green gym, I think it is unlikely that it will change any time soon.

2. If you think the BCS system is messed up, you will LOVE the UK basketball play-off system. There are five (or six, I am not sure) teams in a division and in the regular season, you play each team twice (once home and once away--pretty standard stuff). Basically, the worst thing that can happen is that you take last place. If you take last place, you move down a division and if you win, you move up. It would essentially be the equivalent of the NCAA being divided into a bunch of smaller (ideally UK-sized regions) with the worst team in division I moving to division II, etc. So, as long as you don't take 5th (in our division) you make the play-offs. Then, you play one play-off game against a team that is drawn randomly. That's right. If you have engaged in some debate about how the BCS system is unfair, imagine if the slots were pulled out of a hat. I probably should add that part of the reason for this system is that you have two "premiere-league" divisions, so it is difficult to compare the number one seed in the premiere league south to the number one in the premiere league north. The only thing that your seed gets you is, if you are one or two, a guarantee that you will not play the one or two from the other division. What you should know is that we lost to the number one seed by forty-plus and beat the team below us by fifty-plus, so the difference between a two and four seed is significant.

3. We took third, so maybe this rant is a bit biased by our finishing position. We like to talk about how random it is that you could finish third and play the first place team while the team who finishes fourth plays someone from the lower divisin. But, let's be realistic. If you finished third, you probably won't win the entire tournament (which you qualify for if you win your first round game), so I guess the system works in terms of picking the best team. Perhaps the BCS should move to the random, "draw-out-of-a-hat system" in order to avoid controversy. Just a thought. (Then again, anything would be less controversial than the current system).

4. We play tomorrow. We drew a team that is coming up from a lower division. This sounds (sounded) like great news, but that remains to be seen. This team is from London (which apparently makes them automatically better than a team from anywhere else), and they have been moving up divisions for four consecutive years now (aka, they have been better than their division).

5. Tomorrow is the biggest game in Oxford history. We have never made the tournament before.

The walls will be green. The competition will be intense. I'll keep you posted. (Or if you don't hear anything from me, you will know that we probably lost....)

12 February 2010


So, one of the two major roads in Oxford has been perpetually under construction since I arrived in town. Literally, on my first day in Oxford, one of the first things that I did was walk down High Street and be greeted with hideous, temporary, chain-link fences, and big holes in the asphalt. I am ashamed to admit that my mood was spoiled by a lack of sleep and a sense of being a bit overwhelmed and I was frustrated to be confronted with construction. Surely, I thought, such an old and beautiful city should have moved beyond the need for construction (either because it was so advanced or because it gave up trying to be modern). Well, despite my own personal opinions, the construction has gone on. For my Des Moines people, think construction on I-235--it never ends and just when you think it is over and your life can be convenient again, it just moves. (Can I get an Amen?)

Well, it is February and the construction is still going. The difference between this and a major city is that we are talking about less than half a mile of construction. This is insanely slow progress (glad one thing is proceeding as expected) and I think part of the reason for this is the grand inefficiency and lack of planning associated with the project. For example, rather than do the work during off-peak hours, I think they wait until the street gets busy and then start the work. After all, they can't be bothered to work over-time. Then, there was a least an entire day where I think they hit a water main and just spend the rest of the day blocking the geyser with heavy machinery. Furtermore, while you never see anyone working on the road (there are just areas marked off for work), there are at least four people at each end of the one-lane section "directing traffic" aka, watching cars in neon yellow jackets.

There had been a few days where the work areas had been cleared and it appeared that the work had been completed. I could bike down High without allowing extra time or weaving onto the sidewalks to the chagrin of the pedestrians. Just when I started to enjoy my freedom of movement, the construction returned, this time, right where I enter High Street when coming from my college. I made a mental note to bike around the area, but old habits die hard and the next time I left for practice I biked straight to High Street and straight to the new mess that has been created there. This time, I couldn't be bothered to wait 5 minutes for my turn, nor was there any safe way to get into the one-way cue. Fortunately, I know my way around Oxford a bit better and devised a detour.

I headed down towards Merton College, rumored to be the oldest college in Oxford and one of my favorite parts of the city. The reason why I like it so much is because of the cobbled streets; the area just seems so untouched by modernization of any kind. Essentially it is exactly what I pictured Oxford to be--far from the crowded masses on Corn Market street and far enough from the construction of High Street. However, there are times when what we love about something is what we hate about it. No sooner had I hit the cobblestones than I realized that this route was a REALLY bad idea.

Words cannot describe what the bike-ride was like. But I will say this, when I refer to "cobblestone", you should not picture a smooth stone path. You should imagine that rocks were dumped out of a wheelbarrow, made level, and then the cracks were filled with cement. You should imagine a path that hurts your feet through your shoes. And then you should remember that I chose to ride my squeaky street bike on this terrain. I will say that I had to firmly close my mouth because I would afraid that one bad bounce would cause me to choke on my tongue. My next thought was that cartoon style, my bike would fall apart one piece at a time and I would eventually tip over, wheelless. The good news is that my bike is still in tack (for now), though I am not sure how many years I removed from its likely short life-expectancy with the taxing travel.

I think next time I'll just suck it up and wait in line.

09 February 2010

Enter Robin Hood: Chapter 3

I know you are all hanging on the edge of your seats, waiting for the moment when I meet this guy...

So, since I couldn't find anyone who was going to the train station, I set out to make the trek myself. I needed to be back at 3:30 to rendevouz with a friend from out of town who had a walkie talkie with limited reception in place of a cell phone. From the arena, I was out of range so I couldn't get ahold of her to let her know that I was on my way but going to be a bit late. So, I took my map and headed off in, what I thought was, the right direction. The only trick is that maps are only helpful when supplemented by a knowledge of cardinl directions. Without a compass or the north star to guide me, I headed off in the wrong direction. (Now I understand why orienteering was the club of the year at Oxford. After being hopelessly lost in Nottingham, I have a new level of respect for the endeavor). After a few minutes of walking without hitting the street that I was meant to turn onto I decided catching the bus might be worthwhile. After all, if I hadn't reached my first turn then the scale of the map was larger than I had anticipated. So, a bus pulled up and I got on. The only problem was that the fare was a pound-fifty and I just had a ten and some change. I am sure that you are thinking that this sounds like enough money, except the guy wouldn't (or couldn't,not entirely sure which one) make change. So, despite my mounting desperation, I decided that it wasn't worth ten pounds to get to the city center (which wouldn't even deliver me to the train station). I thought about faking tears, but that has never been my style. So, I finally asked him to point me in the direction of the city center. He motioned to the back of the bus, and I breathed a sigh of relief. He had recognize that I was a hopeles foreigner in need of a "Robin Hood-ish" good deed. I said thanks and then walked towards the back of the bus.

Then I heard it. "Hey! mumble, mumble.." That's right, the bus driver had been pointing to the back of the bus as in "you need to go back the direction you have been coming" not as in "I recognize that you are hopeless and pathetic and I am going to have pity on you and give you a ride on my bus". I got off the bus and began to retrace my steps. My Robin Hood had not come to my rescue (although the whole "no change" bit is pretty good theivery, which does have some Hood-ish elements). I decided to turn and try to get on a different street so that I wouldn't be directly retracing my hopeless path. I soon came upon an older couple who I had already passed when I was walking away from Nottingham. I pathetically showed them my crumbled map, explained that I was trying to get to the train station and that I was coming from Jesse Boots arena and that I was trying to meet a friend in 10 minutes. The woman (Robin Hood) wanted to just give me money to catch the bus, but I explained that I wasn't sure when the bus would be back, and her husband didn't have any money anyway. So they gave me the directions and explained that it would be a long walk. I thanked them and walked away.

About 10 minutes later, I heard, "Alright, get in then..." and turned to see the couple from the neighborhood in a little read car pulling up to the curb. The charming pair gave me a ride to the train station and on the way explained that they had a few daughters themselves and a few grandaughters (one of which had given the woman a purple fuzzy pillow to pad her bum as they drove over the numerous speed humps throughout the city). They explained that the man had lived in Nottingham his entire life, pointed out the street he grew up on, and told me about the way the city had changed. And while I will probably always think of Nottingham with a bit of bitterness and loathing, a bit of charm and fairy-tale goodness will peek through those clouds.

And everyone lived happily ever after. And we didn't even have to steal from the rich to give to the poor.

08 February 2010

The Adventures of Nottingham: Chapter 2

So, if you haven't read the previous blog post, this is a continuation of that story and will contain "spoilers".

So, after watching the train roll out of the station, it was time for plan b. I was tempted to just call it a day, skip the tryouts and save the 3 hour trip each way, but alas, tickets had already been purchased and I had paid to put my bum in a seat, so I was going to get what I paid for. So, 40 minutes later, the journey to Nottingham began. Now, I should tell you that there are parts of England that are very beautiful. But that does not change the fact that part that houses the railroad tracks from Oxford to Birmingham New Street, to Derby, to Nottingham is not one of those places. If I didn't know I was in the UK in 2010, I might have thought I was driving through a Hooverville in the 1920's US. That might be a slight exaggeration, but it communicates something important. Specifically, this was not a picturesque trip. So the final train finally pulled into the final station (with a sense of much anticipated finality) at 1:40, and I tumbled into a taxi and asked for Jesse Boots Arena. Other than the non-English sounding utterance about going to Nottingham Arena (which I knew was a synonym based on my thorough research) and some comment I still don't understand about "starting the meter now", this was one leg of the trip that went relatively smoothly. After riding for a few miles I was glad that I didn't opt for a thrifty walk.

I arrived just before 2:00 (14:00), with an hour of tryouts remaining. Apparently I hadn't missed much other than learning offenses and doing some shooting (and freezing my bum off). I arrived just in time to play. An hour later, I had played four games to two baskets (I think a bead of sweat popped out of my forehead during one of the longer defensive match-ups), played knock-out, done a drill for three minutes where all 30 of us (that's right, 30) shot three-quarter court shots, stretched, and had my shoes on ready to leave. I was disappointed that I hadn't even gotten exercise out of this eventful and frustrating day, but was ready to head back to Oxford.

Unfortunately, no one was making their way back to the train station (and couldn't be bothered to give me a lift) so I got a map from a guy at the front desk, and some skeptical looks about how far the train station was from the Arena. That's right, there's more to this story. The next chapter will feature my own personal Robin Hood. In the meantime, you should know that Nottingham doesn't look like this...

In fact, it looks more like this...(Except dirtier...and cloudier.)

Nottingham. So much less than the adventures of Robin Hood

So, I had to go to Nottingham in order to tryout for the English University Basketball Team (which will eventually compete in a Four Nations tournament agains Scotland, Wales, and Ireland in April). The tryouts started at 12 and lasted until 3 (or 15:00 if you will). Unfortunately, the earliest train leaving Oxford was at 9:36 and wouldn't arrive until a little before 1 (3 hr 20 min train-ride both ways. yes) But, it was the best that I could do, so I booked the ticket and showed up at the train station in plenty of time. As I was standing on what I thought was platform 2,3,4(since there was a sign that appeared to label it as such), I realized that the next train at the platform appeared to be going to a different location than my desired destination. Then my life unfolded just like the movies. (Mind you, my life is like the disasterous parts of movies minus the prince charmings and the good parts.)

I asked one of the station employees where platform 3 was, and he asked if I was trying to go to Bicester (which was the connecting train--first of three--that I needed to catch). I breathed a sigh of relief because the previous two people I had asked looked at me as if they didn't speak English (or at least not "American"). Unfortunately, my relief was short-lived because he pointed across the station to a little set of tracks nestled around the corner and just out of sight where there was a train with closing doors slowly pulling away from the station. This is where the movie comparison closes, because I didn't chase after it. I do think I could have caught it (it was slow after all) but I was deterred by the realization that I had no idea what I would do once I caught it...

To be continued. The day gets worse, but I have to go to class. (What a cliff-hanger...)

04 February 2010

Just been one of those days...

So it all started three days ago when I biked over to the library. I jammed my bike key into the lock and twisted it. The key twisted in response, but there was something different. Upon closer examination, I realized that the key had twisted, but the lock had not. I gently but firmly untwisted the key, careful not to break it off. Then I more carefully pressured the key deeper into the lock and successfully removed the chain. I experienced a momentary satisfaction knowing that MacGuyver (my European adapt-to-every-situation pseudo personality) had done it again. The euphoria of this moment of triumph was tempered by the fact that I had come to expect this type of "saves the day" behavior from myself. (Don-don-DOOOON, music in the background, clouds roll in--literally, there are many signs of bad news upon the horizon).

So yesterday, I go to unlock my bike to head to a lecture. Like on every other day, I stick my partially bent key into the lock and twist firmly but not forcefully to the right. I feel the "click" as my bike key (which is about as sturdy as a Lisa Frank diary key--see previous) snaps in half. This is bad news. For starters, I never made a spare (despite earnest suggestions. My rationale was that if I lost my bike key, I would also lose my house key and my fop and the bike would be he least of my worries. True, but probably not good rationale.). Furthermore, even if I had made a spare, it wouldn't have mattered (aha! I am vindicated) because there is half a key stuck in the lock. So, I trudged off to lecture in the rain. It would be raining.

At this point in the story, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the maintenance department in the college will cut off bike locks for you. The bad news is that the maintenance department in college will cut off bike locks for you. When I told the guy that I had broken my lock, his response was "Oh, really?" or some other version of playful banter that I just didn't understand. After much banter (which I didn't understand), he grabbed a small handsaw and followed me out onto the street. He then proceeded to joke, "Which one would you like?" When I pointed to my bike, he countered that there might be a nicer one that I would prefer to have. After being offended (not really) that he had slammed my bike, I was slightly disturbed by the situation. He didn't take my name and I didn't have to show any id. We didn't even look at the sticker that has my identification number on it. Nor did we get out a UV light and look for signs of ownership (see much, MUCH earlier post).

So, if you are ever in Oxford, just pop into a college and find the guy with the buzzsaw.

Oh, and then today, I ripped the seam out of my pants on my bike. It's like a sign that accompanies these types of days (which always seem to be filled with rainy weather).