No longer abroad in Oxford

I’m writing from an office in the Suntrust building, back home, back on campus, and back to work. I’ll start by saying it’s great to be here, it really is, but I do miss Oxford. For Dr. Kidd, Dr. Redekop, Dr. Underwood, and Dr. Gagnon (the four professors who basically run the trip), please consider somehow making the trip longer for future generations of students–they will all be incredibly grateful.

Okay, now I’ll talk about the last days of the trip.

In Paris, ambition became a major theme for us. We would just say it constantly, holding onto the first syllable, accenting the “b” and accelerating through the “tion” sound. Especially when we were walking of wandering or figuring out what to do, someone would say ambition. At this point, we were tired and just running on pure ambition throughout the rest of the trip. Anyway, on our second day in Paris, we broke off into two groups because some people had additional museum passes that a few of us decided not to buy. Four of us just wandered a bit and bought some crepes and souvenirs until it was time to meet up with everybody. We ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant (Yes, we ate Chinese food in Paris, but it was by far the cheapest option in the area. Besides, it was actually really good.) on this street called Rue Cler, which was a really neat area. It was away from the hustle and bustle of the urban areas and was kind of a classy, relaxing neighborhood. The street was full of bakeries, chocolatiers and sidewalk cafes, and after our lunch, we visited one of the bakeries. We bought macarons, one of the must-try foods  in France. It’s basically, two really light, airy cookies made into a sandwich around some sort of flavored filling (the place we went had about 10 flavors). They are tiny, unsubstantial and expensive (one euro for one macaron  where we ate — another place charged one euro and eighty cents), but they are heavenly. They were delicious, and we all made the same “ohmygosh” face. Thinking about them makes my belly rumble. The lady who baked them seemed pleased with our reaction.

Our next stop was the catacombs, which I believe is a system of underground tunnels and tombs and is apparently pretty creepy. But, as you can guess by my speculation, we didn’t get to go. They were closing up by the time we arrived, and the line stretched around the block. So we improvised. We went to a palace, the name of which I don’t remember. We didn’t enter the palace, but its gardens served as a public park. We took the chance to relax and sat around a nice fountain and found an area of shade trees. Most of the people there were on picnics, but we decided to lay in the cool grass for a bit. Some of us ended up dozing off, but that charged us up for the rest of the day.

That evening, we were all staying in different hostels, so we split up to check in to our places. Mine was located in the Montmarte district (apparently the art district, but there wasn’t much to attest to that) and was definitely geared toward young adults, vagabonding around the city. It was a much older building, but it had a cool atmosphere, and I wish I had hung out there a bit more an met some of the people there. I stayed in a mixed six-person suite, meaning it was six strangers (guys and girls sharing the room), but every time I was in the room, it was either empty or full of sleeping travelers.

We all met up at the Louvre and then found a pizza place. The waiter spoke barely any English, and we had limited French, but he was a great host and it was a fun meal. A lot of confusion and gesturing, made more confusing because the waiter was always joking and sarcastic. After the walking and residual fatigue from the previous day, we basically called it a night and went to a bar to watch the soccer game. After that, we went around dropping people off at hostels, riding the buses and metro until they closed.

On our final day in Paris, we kind of ran out of ideas of what to do. Dr. Kidd took us to this giant flea market full of weird stuff (if you’re looking for a teal and purple Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket from the mid-90s, there’s a guy in the flea market who can help you out). We were modest with our shopping and didn’t stay too long. After we left the market and before we left Paris, I had to do two things: eat a macaron and buy one more souvenir. Three of us went back to Rue Cler for the macarons and then walked to the Eiffel Tower. This was the day before Bastille Day, and there was a dress rehearsal for the big celebration concert under the Eiffel Tower. There was an orchestra and a massive children’s choir who ran through some of their repertoire (including Tchaikovsky’s “1812 overture,” a really famous piece and one of my favorites). It was a great random thing to see, and I felt incredibly lucky to have wandered upon it. Anyway, I haggled with some souvenir salesmen and got seven euros worth of merchandise for three euros. And then it was time to head back to England–overall, a roughly five-hour excursion. Once back, we met up with the group who went to Dublin, bought some street food, packed, slept and left for the airport at 6 a.m.

And that’s just about it. Our two weeks summed up in a few thousand words. There are a few quirks to the trip I want to bring up that I missed in the other posts.

Bathtubs — I had to use a bathtub in Oxford, and it was kind of weird.

Portions — they don’t give you enough food and the food trucks become a must in the evening.

Paying at restaurants — they don’t usually split up tabs and paying at the end of a meal was always really confusing.

Water — there’s never enough water to drink at meals. It’s not customary, and it comes in pitchers or bottles that are not enough to serve the whole table.

Americans — there were so many Americans everywhere we went, and the locals seemed pretty used to it.

Locals — for the most part, everyone was very nice, especially store clerks and waiters, and I didn’t experience stereotyped rudeness or snobbery in England or France.

Croquet — I talked about it before, but I just wanted to say here that croquet is a cutthroat game that is more frustrating than any other sport I have played.

Bikes — everybody rode bikes, which I thought was pretty cool. Cars weren’t a big deal at all.

Clothes — everyone was fashionable (not the tourists, the locals) and no one looked casual. No sweats or gym clothes (I don’t think they exercise), lots of suits, dresses, designer shoes. Also, if you’re fashion conscious, Converse All-Star sneakers (high-tops especially) are huge there, so they’ll be making a major comeback in the U.S. If you want to get ahead of the game, snag a pair soon. They’ll be big starting in either the fall or spring.

I talked a lot about the trip, but not much about the people. I only knew a few people going on the trip, but I’ve gotten to know all of them well. I’ve never had a class at CNU with Dr. Redekop or Dr. Kidd, but they’re now two of my favorite professors. At our formal dinner, one of the guys (he coined the ambition theme in Paris) I became good friends with toasted the group and characterized the group bonding well. He said he was only friends with one other person here before the trip, but now he would happily call all of us friends and wave to us or stop to talk whenever we ran into each other on campus. I think he summed it all up very nicely, and I definitely share his sentiment.

I hope the students there now and all the lucky people who get to go again have the same amazing experience. I learned a lot, lived it up and experienced more in two weeks than I believed was possible. I went to Oxford, watched Wimbledon, used the Bodleian library, read and wrote and researched, toured Louvre and climbed the Eiffel Tower and ate snails and tiny cookies. This was the reason I came to CNU, and this is the greatest possible validation of that decision. I loved every bit of it and am forever grateful for everything that it was.

Abroad in Oxford: Heading home

I’m writing from Heathrow Airport, in London. I’d like to say we’re at our gate to board and get home, but we got here so early that it hasn’t opened yet. So we’re just relaxing and sitting—a welcome experience after our last few days.

A lot has happened since I last wrote. On Wednesday, we had a class with a war hero (he won a battle in the Falklands War when he was outnumbered and outgunned). He was awesome—Google him, Chris Keeble. We had a British accent contest, a longstanding Oxford trip tradition (congrats to John, who won a majority of the votes—I made it to the final round, by the way).

Everyone went punting, which is gondola-style rowing on a nearby river. I couldn’t make it on that excursion because I was behind on work, but two people fell into the river, and according to Dr. Redekop, they were the first CNU students to fall out of the boats in the history of the trip.

While I wish I had seen those guys fall in, I managed to get a lot done on my project then. For our big projects to save the world, we had to write a 10-piece annotated bibliography and a brief project outline—about 3,500 words total, but a lot of research. We all spent a lot of time in the libraries. The branch of the library I frequented was about a mile from our campus, so that walk was rough and it rained pretty hard once. But it was nice enough; I got to see a bit more of the city, especially when I got lost and wandered the old neighborhoods.

Four of us climbed St. Mary’s Cathedral, which didn’t look that tall, but the trip up was an adventure of its own. It was a lot of stairs, and the final leg was an extremely narrow spiral staircase. From the top, we could see all of Oxford, and I finally got the view of Oxford I wanted. At that moment, looking down on the old libraries, the camera, the churches and the main castle, I felt as if I had arrived. Because the university is dispersed throughout the city and its central location is blocked to the public, I never felt like I was there—it just seemed like another beautiful and ancient city—but not like the University of Oxford as I imagined it. But seeing everything, the big picture, the vast antiquity, was a moment of realization of where I was and what it meant to be there. I credit this moment as the most breathtaking of the trip and the final motive and push for me to finish my project.

Those projects consumed our Wednesday and Thursday. On Thursday we had a fancy, formal dinner, complete with a nice table setting, cocktails, Harris Manchester wine and three courses, and we played a final croquet game (while still wearing our dress clothes). Besides that, it was writing and research. The papers weren’t due until the next evening at midnight, but none of us would be able to turn in the paper because we were leaving England. That quirk to the assignment pushed our due date to whenever we left, and I submitted at 4:50 a.m., moments before we ran through the streets of Oxford to catch our bus to London.

Seven students (including me) and Dr. Kidd spent a few days in Paris, and nine students and Dr. Redekop spent their weekend in Dublin. To get to Paris, we rode a bus to London and took a train to Gare Du Nord station. We arrived at approximately 10 a.m., Paris time, and immediately set out for Notre Dame Cathedral. It was packed there, and we did little besides take pictures, but it was nonetheless beautiful and profound. It’s definitely one of the sites you have to see in the city. After that, we happened upon a bridge that was covered end to end in padlocks. I recognized it from one of those “just girl posts” or “before I die, I want to..” accounts on Twitter that so many people retweet. Basically, couples bring a lock to the bridge, scribble their names onto it, and latch it on, signifying a commitment or promise (I think it’s a pretty lame gesture considering the thousands of locks attached) to the relationship. While unexpected and mostly insignificant to us (none of us happened to be carrying locks or in the company of a significant other), it was cool to recognize the bridge, and we spent a good amount of time taking pictures of it.

Then, we broke off from Dr. Kidd and his wife, Holly, who joined us for the weekend, and visited the Louvre. Now, I don’t know anything substantial about art, but I know the Louvre is as good as it gets. And while everything on the inside was really cool and picture-worthy, nothing about the museum quite hit me like when I first looked around its interior courtyard. It is a massive, old, and beautiful building—impossible to see everything in one day. In the courtyard are these giant glass pyramids and fountains, and from the proper angle, we could see the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, our first live glimpse of Paris’ other crown jewels. Beyond the adjectives you’d expect me to use to describe the Louvre, the main one that comes to mind is exhausting. There is so much art and so much to see and so much walking. We were there for a few hours, and once we saw the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, we had to quit. There is such thing as an art overdose, and we were fast approaching it as we left.

After dinner, we decided to see the Eiffel Tower up close. Once there, we decided to climb it. It was bright out when we arrived, but by the time we began, the sun had set. The Eiffel Tower is really tall, and we took the stairs up to the halfway point. It was a lot of stairs, and I feel like all of us had a freak out moment at some point, thinking about how high up we were (some struggled much worse than others). Regardless, we trudged on—actually we just got in line—the rest of the way up was by elevator. It’s irrational to be afraid on an elevator ride, but that was probably the worst part for me. The fear evaporated at the top, 281 meters high at the peak of what was once the tallest structure on Earth. Only a chain link cage and some bars confine you. You feel the wind and chill of the height. You can reach out to the city and see all of it. At night, all of it is lit up and it looks as if the sky repositioned itself to sit below us on the ground.

We stayed until the tower closed—about midnight. On the ground, we saw the train was closed. At that point, we had two options to get home, by cab or by foot. Being college students in a city where the currency is one-and-a-half times more valuable than the U.S. dollar and everything is overpriced anyway, we walked. The route was simple. Walk along the river, turn left at Notre Dame, follow the road until you get to Gare Du Nord, and the hostel is a couple blocks to the left. It was about five miles away though. It was an interesting walk, and while Paris is glamorous, it is one the world’s big cities and its debauchery is magnified at night. But it was a cool experience, and we got to see the parts of the city hidden from tourist brochures. After getting barely any sleep, crossing the English Channel, walking the city during the day, hiking the maze that is the Louvre, ascending the Eiffel Tower’s seemingly perpetual stair case (up and down), and trudging back home, I was tired, and my feet hurt. We all stayed in the same room that night and slept incredibly soundly. I can’t believe how much we did that day, and it was only day one of three in Paris. I’ll get to the rest later, because this post is getting long, and thinking of the last two days in the city is just exhausting (besides, my feet still ache from it).

I’ll write my last post soon, and I’ll recap the last days and talk a bit about the overall experience. The other group is already in England, and I’m about to be home. I’d say (still reluctantly) my Oxford trip is just about done. All that’s left is a flight, a train ride and one last blog post.

Abroad in Oxford: Getting Caught Up

Hi again!

It’s been a bit since I last posted, but we’ve been kept pretty busy. I’ll lay out just about everything we’ve done over the past few days.

Last Wednesday, we visited Blenheim Palace, which everyone said is England’s most grand palace (I have no frame of reference to confirm or deny this, but in my opinion, it was pretty grand), and was Winston Churchill’s place of birth and sort of his childhood home. It was a gigantic and lavish building, and it’s hundreds of years old. There were plenty of giant paintings, ornate decorations, things we definitely could not touch–basically everything you’d expect Britain’s best palace to be. After our tour, we wandered the gardens and grounds of the palace and then headed home. Once back at our college, most of our days have been spent working on our research papers. This assignment consumed all of our non-leisure time until it was due on Sunday at midnight, but it’s done now, and I’m not going to worry about it again.

Thursday was our uneventful recharge day. We didn’t go anywhere and mostly wrote and researched. We had a class with a retired English literature professor, who was exceedingly nice and could read aloud unlike anyone I have ever heard. Afterwards, more writing, more researching. I got hungry late at night and decided to test out some food trucks. While walking around, midnight hit, Independence Day began, and I got myself a lamb kebab pita.

Independence Day celebrations were the day’s main concerns, and a lot of us spent the day decked out in patriotic gear. We had a couple more classes, meals in the dining hall, and more writing, more research. But once our scheduled activities were done for the day, we set off to celebrate. We went to a few pubs and encountered plenty of other Americans. And while the English didn’t mind our excitement, they didn’t exactly join in with us. We went to Turf Tavern, the Eagle and the Child (where Tolkien conceived of The Hobbit), and a couple other places whose names I didn’t catch. The best part was that all of the students on the trip stuck together, and we were able celebrate as a group. It was definitely the best Independence Day I’ve ever experienced.

After the late night, it was an early morning (started at 7 a.m.), and we headed off to London. Initially, Dr. Quentin Kidd, of CNU’s Department of Government, showed us around (he knows the city well) and got us to Buckingham Palace, through some of downtown, to the parliament building and Big Ben, and then to Trafalgar Square, where he left us. We were all pretty nervous cause we had no idea what we were doing. I ended up sticking with four other students for the day. The first thing we did was get some free T-shirts with a picture of us on them. It was a pretty cool souvenir, and of course, free. We ended up in Picadilly Circus, a big market area with lots of shops and restaurants, and we ate pizza in this really cool underground bar. Our next destination was Wimbledon. None of us were big tennis fans, but we’re near Wimbledon, during Wimbledon, so we had to go. Getting there was an adventure–a lot of walking, a half-hour subway ride, bus passes, more walking, not being sure if we were getting in, waiting in the queue (the line for people with unreserved tickets, thankfully it was short for us), and rain–but we got in. Our tickets weren’t to see the women’s final or anything; they were general tickets that got us into any match with unreserved seating. There are courts throughout the complex, and we got to sit courtside at two matches. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. We watched a junior men’s match and a junior doubles men’s match, and these guys were awesome. All of the players we saw were 16 or 17, ranked well, played well, and have legitimate chances to be tennis greats. We became devoted fans to a pair, Kozlov and Rublev (the top junior doubles team and individually ranked 6th and 1st in the world for juniors), and even got a picture with them. Unfortunately, they lost in the finals, but I’ll be rooting for them at their future tournaments. After their match, we got a glimpse of center court (amazing) and took some pictures and began the long journey home.

Sunday, besides our professors treating us to dinner, was spent writing and researching for the papers due at midnight.

Monday began our real work; our individual projects for bettering the world. We have an annotated bibliography and project proposal to write. Basically, we have free rein to do research on any topic, using this immense, intimidating and ancient library of seemingly infinite resources. I’m focusing on education, coming up with a supplemental program to enrich learning for people of all ages utilizing local educators and resources to foster a more literate, well-read, informed and engaged citizenry. It’s one of the simpler ideas here, but I think it would be impactful. It’s definitely a work in progress, but I’m excited to progress.

Now, besides the project, we have some classes, some sights to see and people to meet. In our free time, we’re all hanging out, trying to catch the World Cup at the pubs (we don’t have TVs), playing croquet and getting good at it (some of us can compete pretty well with Leadership and American Studies Professor Dr. Redekop, practicing our accents and living it up. We only have a few more days here and then some time on our own in either Dublin or Paris (oh yes, there’s more!), but we have a lot to cram in. Two weeks is too short a time, but there hasn’t been a moment wasted.

Abroad in Oxford: Getting to work

There were two central tenets to our day: starting our research and the World Cup match between USA and Belgium. I decided to sleep in, and I woke about an hour before we left to receive our library cards. We’re all officially allowed to visit and use Oxford’s library. We were inducted by a library admission officer (she was wearing academic robes) who gave us a brief history of the library before having us fill out a user card. Before we signed and received our cards, we recited this oath:

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

They take their books pretty seriously here. Our admission officer explained that while there were plenty of books throughout the campus, most of them are held in an offsite warehouse about 20 miles out. The library isn’t in one location either; it’s spread throughout the city and divided by subject. The university itself is the same way. There isn’t really a campus, and all of the university is integrated with the city. The college of Oxford at which we are staying has everything it needs to be its own tiny university (it’s very small–I’d estimate it’s area is similar to that of the area of CNU’s Great Lawn and the buildings that surround it).

In the library area, we walked around a bit and saw the room that was used as the infirmary in the “Harry Potter” movies, and after lunch, everybody got to work. We have a research paper due on Sunday, and we’re all using the article database that we can access through Oxford. The libraries are not social spaces; we have to stay pretty quiet at all times. People are here to work, and that’s really it. Once we settle in more, everybody’s going to be pretty focused on this paper and our project.

I honestly don’t know too much about our big projects yet. Our advisers have been telling us to prepare for it ever since our first meeting. I have an idea of what I want to do, but I can’t quite dive into yet. At the most basic level, the project is to conceive of some sort of program or idea that can do good in the world or improve society in some way. It’s a very broad topic, but it leaves us the opportunity to pursue whatever we’re passionate about. I’m excited to hear about what everyone is doing, because all the ideas will be really cool and diverse. In the end, the person who has the best overall project will receive some help in implementing his or her idea. We’re not confined to two weeks to work on the project; the idea is to utilize this historic and immense research library to get a strong start on our project and finish writing the proposal after we return home.

After dinner, we discussed some readings as a group with our professors, and immediately after, we headed to a nearby pub for the soccer game. We ended up watching in a room of Americans, but the English people throughout the bar seemed to be rooting for the United States. As you know, the U.S. ended up losing (I’m still sad and don’t want to talk too much about it) and we shouted at every big play that happened, but it was still a great experience. We met other college students studying abroad (thus far, kids from Georgia Tech, Florida State and a small school in Tennessee), made some English friends, and sat with a group of Americans on vacation, who graciously gave us a bit of food and their seats once they were finished.

Overall, an exciting day, and tomorrow we’re touring a castle and, of course, continuing work. I think we’ve all adjusted pretty well to the new environment and are figuring out what we’re doing. I know it’s a class, but it doesn’t really feel like it. I’m thinking of the whole thing as an experience, a really great experience that’s thus far lived up to what I hoped it would be. Stoked for what’s to come!

Abroad in Oxford: Here at last

Sleep bound.

Hi again! I’m writing from my bedroom in Morrison Hall, in Harris Manchester College, at the University of Oxford, in Oxford, England. So glad to be here, but I’m very, very tired.

The trip here went smoothly and about as uneventfully as possible. We departed from Dulles at 7 p.m. and landed in London at about 7  a.m. (2 a.m. Eastern time). Most of us agreed that we couldn’t sleep much on the plane, and now all of us are sporadically dozing off and just sitting around whenever we get the chance. Basically, we’re all operating on anywhere from zero to three hours of sleep while trying to make the most of our first day at Oxford.

Once here, we drove about 90 minutes to our campus. We saw plenty of sheep and rolling hillside and pasture along the way. Oxford itself is pretty urban without seeming like a metropolis. Almost all of the buildings are 100 or more years old and built compactly right next to each other. There’s decent traffic, but it’s easy to corss the streets. The city is full of tourists and visitors, but our campus is relaxing, peaceful and cozy.

Today, some of us explored the city, while others stayed back and played croquet on the lawn. I spent most of the day walking around the city with a few other students on the trip. We wandered through the ancient academic buildings and their courtyards, perused some of the shops throughout the market downtown and familiarized ourselves with our home for the next two weeks. The highlights of the day were watching a bit of a cricket match between Oxford and Cambridge and finding a pub that is hundreds of years old through alleyways and back streets near our college.

We didn’t understand cricket at all, so while it was entertaining, we didn’t feel compelled to stay in the park for too long. We found the pub randomly after we left the cricket match. There was a small sign in this alleyway that said Turf Tavern, so we followed the sign and the path behind it to the pub, which proclaimed itself to be founded in 1381. It was a really cool location, a sunken area between two streets–well hidden yet pretty popular. We’ll definitely be back there a few times over this trip.

photo1The college takes care of our meals, and we ate lunch and dinner in a dining hall that looks like a smaller version of the one in Hogwarts. The CNU students sat together at one long table and they cook one main dish for us. At lunch, we had roast chicken, some salmon pastry and a salad with tuna. For dinner, we had hamburgers and French fries with creme brulee for dessert. Our entrée was definitely catered to a stereotypical American diet.

After dinner and a short group meeting, we were at our leisure to do what we want. We have class tomorrow, and most of us will be catching up on sleep (my roommate is currently passed out while still wearing his shoes). Some are playing a last game of croquet and others are finishing up the readings we have. Overall, we’re all taking it easy after an exciting day. The travelling was easy and the day was chill, but regardless, it’s all tiring. Hopefully a solid night’s rest will get us adjusted. We’re here, and we’re already just about finished with day one of our trip. There’s so much to be excited for, but for now, we rest.