Here’s the new site! Come join in the merriment.
My housemates have done a lot of wonderful things to enhance my life and broaden my horizons (I like to think I’ve done the same for them), but one thing we can pretty much all agree on is the greatness of The West Wing. Josiah Bartlett is every wishy-washy liberal commie pinko like me’s dream president: authoritative yet grandfatherly, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and highly educated, yet also likeable and folksy. He combines the winsome appeal of Reagan with the apparently genuine concern for ethical government, and the man-of-the-soil credibility, that we associate with Jimmy Carter. Even Republicans respect him. His favourite thing to bark at his long-suffering and brilliant staff after a long day of solving diplomatic crises, saving the economy and stickin’ it to right wing nut jobs is “What’s next?”
So what is next?
I’ve finished my degree. I’m no longer enrolled at Exeter, though I’m still in Oxford. I’m currently unemployed and endeavouring to alter that circumstance. I have, suddenly, a lot of time on my hands to do things that had to be shelved for the past three years. Reading precisely what I want. Writing poetry and essays. Thinking about things (and then writing more about them.) Going places (within reason, since I’m not really earning.) Cooking more, and better, and learning about what I cook.
This blog was always meant to be about a college experience, and, lovely and stimulating though that experience has been, it’s now over.
A new experience, however, is emerging, which I would categorize as the young,-highly-educated-and-unemployed experience. A lot of people up and down the country are having it at the moment, and I’d like to be able to tap into a network of people who are all in the same boat. My own experience is only slightly different in that I’ve elected not to move back in with my parents (who are, after all, quite a long way away), and am instead living in a house in Oxford with four of my friends, who are still studying. I’m in an odd limbo between dependence and independent living, and it strikes me as an interesting phenomenon. One that could profitably be studied. Analysed, even. And, perhaps, written about.
I’ll shortly be starting a new blog. It will combine pieces on things that take my fancy with pieces on topical issues (education, job hunting, the process of Being a Grown-up), as well as book reviews, tales of travels, housemate foibles and days out (as always–that seems to have been my bread and butter on Ex/Elle), food and cookery writing, and some creative writing of my own (which, I promise, will never contain any references to vampires, unicorns or moonbeams. Ever.)
It’s been delightful writing this blog, and I’m so grateful to everyone who’s read it, followed it, commented on it, etc. I’m going to leave the site up, and will include a link to it on the new blog. A link to the new blog itself will be up here soon. I hope you come with me!
Except it’s not one room, y’all. It’s SIX. And two bathrooms. Boom!
The lease started on Wednesday and so far it’s been all good, settling in. My brother (who is no longer The Kid) came down to Oxford with me on the day and helped enormously with suitcases and the faffery of the check-in. Moreover, he didn’t seem to mind sleeping on the sofa. Our inaugural dinner, at the massive antique scrubbed-wood table, was a six-egg omelette with red pepper, chopped ham and onions, and half a bottle of red wine each, on which we got rather merry.
It’s a much nicer house than 52 Cowley, although I still feel nostalgia for that house and probably always will. It was my first proper home away from my parents. It was the place I first learned to cook and pay bills and ring the council when the bins hadn’t been taken away for two weeks (yes indeed). It was the first place in my adult life where I sat at a table full of friends who were eating, drinking and making merry, and thought, “I am happy. Everything is good. This is how it should be.” That said, 52 Cowley was also dark, cramped and extremely difficult to keep clean (not that we tried very hard). Our new house is a tremendous improvement. It’s a townhouse; somehow, it’s been constructed at an angle such that both sides seem to receive light throughout the day; all of the rooms have double beds, which is a huge advantage; and my room is simply enormous. The kitchen is infinitely better arranged, and larger; we have a dishwasher, and the wall has been knocked through so that, beside the table, there’s a space with a sofa, coffee/TV table and armchair–all our entertaining can be done in one place!
We tested this out with a visit from Hawkeye and Casanova on the second night. The Duchess had come down for the night as well, and my brother was still with me, so we had five people sitting down to dinner. I made chicken jalfrezi with a jar of curry paste from the store cupboard, a couple of chicken thigh fillets, and some red and green peppers. Being able to cook without having to ask some of your guests to perch on the table or flatten themselves against the wall to give you more space is a pretty delightful perk of the new kitchen. (Also, the curry seemed to go down rather well. The Duchess, who is a notorious epicure, gave it a Seal of Great Approval. This pleased me very much.)
I spent most of yesterday, after delivering my brother to the station, unpacking my things, which had been driven up from their temporary summer storage in Bournemouth by Lovely Uncle. Excepting a pile of winter clothes and cocktail dresses, and two boxes of books which Bunter kindly took for the month, I’m nearly all moved in! I relieved the tedium of unpacking, and the sudden loneliness which sometimes descends when you’re suddenly the only person in the house, with a playlist of my brother’s which is mostly a medley of Spanish rap and upbeat ‘70s classics. It worked terrifically, both lifting my mood and making me rather more efficient…
I love York. Or, if you are of the belief that you cannot love anything on such a slight acquaintance, I at least really, really like it. Regular readers will remember that I was there in December with Half Pint, Darcy, the Duchess and Princi. Our time was limited then, and as my mother noted, we seemed to spend most of the day either in Minster Gate bookshop or eating things at Betty’s. I for one remain entirely unrepentant about the manner in which we occupied our time, but when my family asked if I’d like to go on holiday to York and the moors with them this year, I was pleased at the opportunity to see more of the city.
We took a train from Oxford two days after I graduated. Within sixty seconds of purchasing a coffee in a poorly designed cup at the station, I had distinguished myself by pouring perhaps half of the scalding liquid down my front. It instantly soaked through the unresisting bodice of my dress, at precisely the moment at which our train was announced. My mother, through some sort of pre-verbal communication with the bewildered coffee shop guy, secured a bottle of water for me, which I, in an advanced state of pain and irrationality, promptly poured down my front as well. We boarded the train like a sort of farcical freak show, all in a rush, and I set about trying to fix myself in the train’s bathroom. The scald was disappointingly mild. I am the sort of person who considers pain affronting, and if suffering is necessary, I prefer it to leave some kind of dramatic mark with which to impress people later. This was clearly not going to happen; the skin was red and angry and too painful for clothing, so I improvised a top from a pashmina, but it wasn’t even remotely likely to scar. Feeling both relieved and disappointed, I returned to my seat and passed the journey by napping fitfully and reading the first installment of the Gormenghast trilogy (which is my new major reading project).
York station is exceptionally nice. In general, you can assume that a major city’s train station and its environs are not of the most salubrious character; in York, such is not the case. The station is large and attractive, in a solid way, constructed of characteristic dark yellow brick and containing footbridges which arch over the rails from platform to platform with gratifying delicacy. We arrived in the early afternoon; the day was sunny, and as we set off for our B&B, the route taking us past the Royal York Hotel, over Lendal Bridge, and through the Museum Gardens, the city appeared bright, pretty and welcoming. I remembered my excitement the last time I’d been there, and also the coldness of that December compared with this July afternoon. Re-visiting places is an odd activity, if you think about it. Some places (like my grandparents’ village in Sussex) appear to exist in a kind of benevolent twilight zone, fundamentally unchanging. But most places are never the same way twice, and re-visiting is a kind of negotiating process, where you have to come to terms with your past experiences there while also bothering enough to have new ones. (It’s a theory, anyway.)
We hadn’t managed to do Jorvik, the recreated Viking centre, in the winter, so I was extremely insistent upon it this time around. Led by my mother, we booked tickets ahead of time and, when we showed up to the centre’s doors, were confronted by the arresting figure of a solid man with flowing locks and massive beard, dressed in what was clearly a reproduction Viking outfit. It was historically accurate, thank goodness–no horned helmets here–and surprisingly colourful, consisting of a red tunic and soft tan leather boots. Altogether it was a civilized looking ensemble. As it turned out, according to the display cases in the underground room you first enter, the Vikings were almost inconceivably well-connected people. Their trading networks were vast. In the dig at York, archaeologists have found the usual Frankish and Western European coins and goods, but also a cowrie shell, which suggests a North African connection, lapis lazuli from modern-day Uzbekistan, and fragments of garments made from silk that originated in Istanbul. These were neither primitive nor ignorant people.
The whole point of Jorvik, however, is not to brood philosophically, but to go on the ride. The centre opened in 1974 and features a rather 1970s (though it has apparently been recently updated) kind of fairground ride, where you are strapped into a blue space-age carriage and are ferried via electronic track around a reconstructed Viking village. The lighting is low, and the village is “populated” by mannequins whose resemblance to actual human beings is by no means great, but is sufficient to be disturbing. The carriages actually swivel towards some of the mannequins, and the recorded commentary engages in “conversation” with them. It’s partly endearingly goofy (“Hello, Gunni the Blacksmith! What are you doing?”) and partly terrifying (one of the mannequins turned its head slowly towards me as we approached, and blinked. I swallowed a wail of panic, only to be overcome when a voice behind us turned out to belong to an elderly Viking crone mannequin, who seemed keen to gossip in Old Norse.) The Jorvik ride is also famous for its smells, but the most off-putting thing about them is that they bear almost no resemblance to real smells. The scent of ordure (cow, pig, human) is recognisable; so is the scent of wood smoke, furs, fish, grease. The smell in Jorvik, or the combination of smells or however they do it, is none of these things. It smells filthy, but in a strangely chemical way, dark, bitter and gritty. Impossible to tell what actually constitutes the filth.
After the ride, there is still more to see in the way of artefact cases. I have a tricky time with artefacts; to understand them and appreciate them properly in their own context requires a particular type of imagination which I don’t possess naturally and which I frequently can’t be bothered to summon. But skeletons are a different thing entirely. In a case near the exit lay the skeleton of a young man which, as the staff member standing next to it was explaining, suggested a truly appalling death. He was a young soldier, probably 20, and had been attacked by two or three separate enemy soldiers. He suffered a blow to the leg which chipped the thigh bone–you can actually see it–and, unable to put any weight on his leg, he would probably have known that he was finished. What finally got him, discounting the various relatively minor wounds on his arms, was a blow to the back of the head which virtually decapitated him. But by that point he would have been bleeding freely, essentially hacked to death by a gang of enemy soldiers working together. “But,” said the Jorvik staff member pensively to the assembled and spellbound crowd, “the thing about this boy is that he was loved. The battlefield is thirty miles from York, but he’s buried here. Someone cared enough to bring him all the way back. And he wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. But somebody cared.” He tapped the glass of the display case and gazed tenderly at the gaping skull. “Yeah, this boy was loved.”
With that on our minds, we went to the Minster. It’s an appropriate place to go after Jorvik, since both make use of layers upon layers of history. The Undercroft (crypt) museum of the Minster is brilliantly, lucidly designed and makes it very clear how much building has been done on the site: it began as a Roman fort, but a Norman missionary church was built partly on the same site, and the current Gothic minster also shares foundations with some of the Roman buildings. That evening, though, we didn’t go the museum, just wandered round the cathedral. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen–and I’ve seen a lot of churches in the past month, partly as a result of the Assisi tour. The architecture, magisterial though it is (and the Chapter House, which was built in the twelfth century with no central supporting column, but is still standing and in excellent nick, is about the most impressive construction I can think of) has been written about by other people. The memorials are what surprise me. There are so many of them, memorials for every war, every campaign, all the way back to the Indian mutinies and beyond. There are memorials for individuals who died tragic deaths, young captains and lieutenants. One who drowned accidentally in the Ouse. Another was taken captive by Greek brigands in 1871, held for ten days, and then killed, for uncertain reasons. The memorial tablet is detailed–it would have been expensive: “He refused to purchase his own safety with the lives of others”, it reads, in part. Nearly a paragraph is engraved in the stone. A third monument details the life and achievements of a worthy gentleman:
His virtues were equal to his descent;
By abilities he was formed for publick,
By inclination determined to private life…
He was in religion exemplary, in senate impartial,
In friendship sincere, in domestick relation
The best husband, the most indulgent father.
His justly afflicted son, Thomas Lord Malton, to transmit the memory of so great worth to future times, erected this monument.
Morbid it may be, but I could not help hoping, as most people must from time to time, to die as deeply beloved as both the massacred Viking boy and Lord Malton clearly were.
On our way over Lendal Bridge the next day, I noticed a sign on the bridge tower. It read, in part, “In 1677, the predecessors to The York Waterworks Plc received the rights to lease the building in perpetuity, at the rate of one peppercorn per year.” This, as I pointed out to my mother, is precisely the reason why no full-blood American can take Britain completely seriously. (Another reason, of course, is the plethora of villages with names like Giggleswick, Ugthorpe and Nether Poppleton. I jest not.)
I graduated on Monday.
What the hell, you guys. This was not supposed to happen, like, ever. I was meant to come to Oxford and be ridiculously happy and make friends and learn things and never, ever leave. All of those things happened, but now it turns out I have to leave.
Well, sort of. I’m still living in town next year. But I won’t be a student again for a while to come, and I sure as shootin’ won’t ever be an undergraduate again. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but it turns out that it is really quite surprising.
The morning I graduated, I woke up so nervous that I felt sick. I’m still not sure why. It might have been motivated by a subconscious fear that my family would do something American and gauche, like cheer at a wildly inappropriate moment, or it might have had to do with the fact that I knew perfectly well what the day would entail: inhumane amounts of clothing experienced simultaneously with extreme heat, stress, uncertainty about where to go and what to do, and a general inclination of circumstances towards the unenjoyable. Actually, most things turned out fine. I had already pre-ordered the BA gown and hood, which is lined with white fur, from Walter’s, the shop where I’d bought both my commoner’s gown in first year and my scholar’s gown after Mods results. I’d completely forgotten about the problem of subfusc when I was packing up my house earlier this month, and had therefore put mine in storage, which forced me to buy an entirely new skirt, shoes and black ribbon for the graduation ceremony. But apart from that, which I’d taken care of before getting to Oxford, all of the regalia proved unproblematic. The woman at Walter’s, whom I’d spoken to on the phone, leaned to me conspiratorially as I left: “I’ve given you a nice hood,” she said in an undertone. (And she had.)
We were meant to show up at the lodge and leave our hoods in the rector’s lodgings, before attending a briefing by the Dean of Degrees on how to behave during the ceremony. I met both Darcy and the lawyer in the quad, with their respective families, and although I quickly lost track of the lawyer (finding him again later), Darcy and I went off to the dean’s meeting together. Our Dean of Degrees is one of the modern language tutors, who frequents chapel for the music, so although I’ve never met him officially, his was a familiar face. His duty in this instance is to present us to the Proctors and the Vice-Chancellor formally, to ask them to admit us to the degrees which we’ve worked for. There’s some onus on you as a student, as well; you have to bow at certain points, as a mark of respect, and you have to respond “Do fidem” (“I swear”) to the injunction to uphold the “statutes, privileges, customs and liberties of the University”. This question is posed in Latin, and, as the Dean warned us, it did not sound like a question. Consequently, there is a lot of bleating and mumbling as people try to work out whether their turn to assent has come or not. I think the graduating group of Exeter B.A.s did better than most. We were certainly an improvement on the two hapless men receiving one of the Masters degrees, whose incompetence so greatly surpassed the norm that it even flustered the officials.
There were, I admit, a couple of tricky moments. One of them was the point at which the Vice-Chancellor told us to applaud our families, who were all sitting in the uncomfortable, closely-spaced, high-banked seats of the Sheldonian, watching the ceremonies. He reminded us, pertinently, that we would not have succeeded without them. This is quite true, and it made me feel a bit weepy. (I could see, even from several hundred feet away, that my dad had already succumbed to the same impulse.) When we sat again, I pinched my wrist to deflect the weepiness, and watched the blue-and-rust mural of unidentifiable semi-pagan figures and painted clouds on the ceiling, waiting for the hot prickling sensation behind my eyeballs to disappear.
After you say “Do fidem”, you are marched out of the side doors of the Sheldonian and into the Divinity Schools (a massive room in the Bodleian, where they filmed the infirmary in the Harry Potter films). All of our hoods were somehow moved into this room while we were inside, and the ritual is to don the hood before being paraded back through the Sheldonian, three by three, like a weird triumphal procession. I found my labeled bag without apparent difficulty, fastened the hood properly, and cast around for Darcy. He was standing by the window, hoodless. “Someone’s stolen mine,” he said with peculiar calm–so I waited, with the lawyer, for the Development Office minions to find a spare. As a result, we ended up the last three in the procession. “At least our parents will know which ones we are,” I pointed out.
The lawyer, whom I’ve known since freshers week, stood on my right; Darcy, on my left. “It feels rather appropriate to graduate with you,” the lawyer said. “End as you began, after all.” End as you began, and as you continued, I thought: with your friends. The doors opened. We walked in, and through, and bowed to the Vice-Chancellor, and out. We had degrees. We could officially put “B.A. (Oxon.)” after our names. We were really, truly finished.
But I’m not finished here.
I know I started this as an Oxford blog, but it’s become more than that–a travelogue, a sort of incubator for opinion pieces and sketches of places, people, events, a record of thoughts and doings–and I want to keep doing it. In the fall, it will move to a different website, and I’ll keep you all updated on that as it progresses. (I’ll also include a link to the new site here, when it moves.) Meanwhile, the summer beckons: I’m in York at the moment with my parents, which is a good chance to revisit a city I loved six months ago, and a further trip seems to be in the offing in August. Keep coming back, and I’ll keep feeding you!
I called my parents this evening (well, okay, they called me and I missed the call, and then I called them and they missed the call and eventually the Powers That Be got bored of messing with us). After a couple of minutes chatting about my little brother’s social graces (much better than mine as a high school freshman, i.e. he has friends) and my cousin’s awesome music camp where they got a bunch of teenagers to produce a credible Mozart Requiem at the end of the week, my dad casually said, “And of course we’ve been doing gardening and housework all day for the 4th of July.” And I remembered that, again, I would miss the most quintessentially ‘Murican holiday of all time by being in England. I’ve been missing the 4th of July for years now; since at least the summer of 2010. When people ask me about it, I say that I don’t want to go back–not now, not ever–and that’s true, as far as it goes. I don’t want to live in the States, I don’t want to have a career or start a family or build my life there. But I started my life there, and that does make a difference. Sometimes, especially in the summer, there are things that I miss about America. We do a lot of things pretty poorly, but some things we get right. To wit:
Oreos. I swear they’re smaller here.
Highways. You can’t really do a good road trip in England. It just doesn’t have the same feel to it as this:
Milkshakes. English shops sell something called “milkshake”. It’s essentially flavoured milk, a sad, pathetic shade of what it claims to be. I particularly miss the ones from Chaps, a downtown Charlottesville institution.
County fairs. Their combination of livestock, quilting and jam exhibitions, healthful snacks such as cotton candy and funnel cake, stomach-dropping rides, all in the dying heat of a late-summer evening…that constitutes my childhood, in some ways.
Heat haze. Where the blacktop meets the horizon and it looks like water.
Flipflops. Every day from April to October.
Ceiling fans. They’re beautiful, they create a delicious breeze, and the low humming sound the blades make is the most comforting in the world.
The Blue Ridge Mountains. Just…unghh.
Guitars being plucked. Like this:
Bandanas are cool. Srsly.
The University of Virginia. Especially the Lawn. And all the frat houses on Rugby Road, which are the most gorgeous big old red-brick neo-Palladian things.
Coffee. Look, I am sorry, but screw instant granules.
Thunderstorms. They just don’t seem to exist in England, and I miss the way the world feels scrubbed and fresh after they pass over.
School buses. Obvi.
Wilderness. In Virginia, you can drive for fifteen minutes and be in the middle of East Jesus Nowhere. In most of England, you can be pretty sure there’s a tea shop somewhere nearby. Which is often a good thing, but sometimes you want to be in East Jesus Nowhere, and uncertain of how you’re going to find civilization again.
Cheez Whiz. GET ON BOARD, REST OF THE WORLD.
Accents. Simply watch O Brother, Where Art Thou?. People actually talk like that. (Not everywhere, of course.)
Summer nights that are warm enough not to need a jumper when you sit outside.
Whitetail deer. Everywhere.
Baseball. Watched on TV on aforementioned warm nights, with a beer. Your team always loses.
Football. Watched in freezing, windy, bright-blue-sky conditions, with a beer. Your team always loses.
Diners (and their cheeseburgers).
Flexible Flyer little red wagons (a brand name which, now that I think about it, sounds like a burlesque act).
I’ve never really moved before.
It’s true that I moved to 52 Cowley from college at the beginning of second year, but that was nothing. When you live in, you have to move all of your stuff in and out of your room at the beginnings and ends of terms anyway, so you have much less latitude to acquire things. I had even less latitude because I don’t have parents who can come and pick me up in the car, so when I was living in, all of my belongings had to fit in four transparent plastic storage boxes (which could be left in college) or, if it was stuff I actually wanted to take away with me like clothes, two wheelie suitcases, a backpack and a hefty handbag. Getting the plastic storage boxes from college to Cowley Road involved a single taxi trip.
Having lived in the same house for two years, though, I’ve never had to move any of my stuff anywhere. Now, my lease runs out in two weeks, and I own a lot more than I did when I first moved in.
Much of this accumulated stuff is books. My course was, to say the least, reading-heavy (that is the funny thing about English), so my degree required me to have a lot of books. I want to hold on to most of them, too–though I’ve managed to give away Ben Jonson’s collected poems (I hate Jonson), and a copy of Faulkner’s Light In August that’s too tatty and run-down to be of any use. I’ve had better luck with the books I’ve acquired independently, giving away (with some sadness) Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, the magisterial Moby-Dick (which I’m pleased to have read, but which I shan’t want to read for a long time to come.) I’ve decided not to give away any books that were given to me, like the copy of David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls that my parents sent me after Finals, or the Arden Troilus and Cressida that Darcy picked up for me in a second-hand bookshop.
I’ve been trying to work on the one-in-one-out principle so beloved of bouncers: I’m not allowed to acquire more books than I give away. The snag in this plan is Blackwell’s, which is running a 3 for 2 deal on most Vintage books, and a buy-one-get-one-free on Oxford World’s Classics. I picked up five books there this afternoon, and so I’m giving away another five tomorrow. It’s an arduous process but there’s nothing else for it. (I’ve always had this problem: the books my dad used to buy me would accumulate in my room until the floor was invisible. Sometimes I would find them in my bed. I cleaned up twice a year, usually sending two or three brown paper grocery sacks’ worth of books to the Salvation Army or the library on Gordon Avenue.)
There are also no more readily accessible plastic boxes, so I popped over to Boswell’s this afternoon (after Blackwell’s–why are so many Oxford shops named for possessive nouns that start with B?) and got some. My ever lovely uncle has promised to come up from Bournemouth and take winter clothing and duvets back with him for the summer, so in some ways it won’t be as much of a challenge as it was in first year. It’s kind of exciting, actually. I feel a little bit more like a grownup now. Moving’s what grownups do, right? In August I’ll sit on the floor in my new house, surrounded by boxes, and eat some takeaway before unpacking, maybe from the Thai restaurant across the road. I don’t know how many times I’ll move in my life, but I think that’s meant to be one of the fun bits: discovering your new neighborhood (even though it’s only a couple blocks away.) Taking all of your stuff out of its packaging and then acquiring some more. Making yourself at home.
There’s something to look forward to, after all.