Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Heya. I don't really have time to write a real post, but I will share with you a modfied version of the email I sent home today instead.
Sorry to those of you for whom this is just repetition. How annoying. But I'm using free internet at my hostel, and I hate being an internet hog.
Here it is:
I left Brighton yesterday, after a morning spent looking at art shows and lounging on the beach reading Sex and the City, and took the train to Oxford, a town which despite its poshness has turned out to be a place where I felt immediately and effortlessly at home. This is a city of intellectuals, first and foremost, since it's home to one of the best universities of the world, and I have always been an intellectual at heart.
The University of Oxford is made up of 39 colleges, all with distinctive characteristics and very different students. There's actually no main campus per se, just a whole lot of little colleges that look and operate like little towns, with gardens, libraries, apartments, stores, and pubs -- places where students can live and study. Oh, how I would love to be a student at Oxford. That is the biggest and craziest pipe dream I've had in a long time, but seriously that would be my idea of intellectual paradise -- all my nerdy fantasies fulfilled.
This is a city of history, a place of seemingly effortless dignity and charm, but it is also a city of remarkable opposites. Wise old professors in tweed, ties and spectacles ride bikes next to exuberant students on yet another pub crawl, dressed in their football team's colours and swaying with a bottle of beer in each hand. The students here are some of the most intelligent and well-read people in the world, and yet they party it up with the best of them, slaughtering brain cell after brain cell with ale and vodka in the dozens of pubs around town. This is a place where brilliant chemistry students mull for 15 minutes over which brand of crisps to buy, and a place where world class museums sit right next to pulsating nightclubs and dodgy kebab houses.
I liked it so much here when I arrived that I decided to stay another night. Much of the reason for that is my hostel which is probably the neatest and overall the best hostel I've ever stayed in. It's run by a bunch of Aussies, old mates and hilarious guys who host nightly barbeques on the roof of the building, play uproarious games of cricket on the 4-metre square surface of the hostel's top deck, and meet for sandwiches, tea, and Jack Johnson on the stereo at noon. Strangely enough, some of the most sublime moments of my trip have occurred on that rooftop deck -- watching cricket played with a tennis ball, and eating my baguette (which the British call, horribly, a FRESH WHITE STICK) and drinking my tea in the pale morning sunshine.
The Aussies and their ragtag crew of employees and longterm guests are all so very welcoming, passing around endless cans of beer and cider and a strawberry-scented shisha on the deck and having long conversations with me about their philosophy of backpackers' hostels. Their attitude is basically: Be good to your guests, and keep them safe. These people may be partyers, but they are also deeply caring individuals who keep their hostel clean, safe, and fun at all times. Their attitude is really refreshing, and absolutely miles away from the institutional, screw-you-yet-another-backpacker approach to customer satisfaction at many of the hostels I've stayed in. Being here has really felt like being among friends, and I've really appreciated having that feeling when I am actually alone in Europe two months into a three month trip. That makes everyone gasp for some reason, the announcement that I am all alone in Europe for three months. I hardly think it's adventurous given that we live in a world where people climb Everest without oxygen, but it is nice to feel hard-core for a minute or too.
I've also met two guys from North Carolina (Nawth Carol-eye-nuh), who have pretty much blasted apart all my stereotypes about guys from the American South. Unlike the Texans Dag and I met in Portugal, these guys are neither chivalrous nor condescending. They abhor Bush and the war in Iraq and both of them are open-minded and socially liberal. I met up with them at Turf's Tavern last night, which is the biggest student bar in Oxford and always packed with beer-drinking university kids, and we talked about politics, American geography, and why I shouldn't be so incredibly freaked out about visiting the American South, until the pub closed at a puritanical 11pm. At least now I know if I stay in touch with them I'll have people to stay with down there, and I don't think I'd be terribly likely to go North Carolina otherwise.
I spent the day today visiting the Ashmolean Museum (say THAT five times fast!), which has a spectacularly well-chosen collection of antiquities, classical and modern art. I've never been very interested in Ancient Egypt, but I found myself absolutely fascinated examining the sandstone walls of an immculately restored Egyptian tomb -- the thing had arrived at the museum in something like 250 pieces, and had been painstakingly put back together so that you couldn't even see the cracks. Amazing. I did something I never do and asked one of the museum attendants a question about the artifacts. I really just wanted to know if it had been controversial when they first started removing mummies from their tombs, since they were supposed to remain enterred and taken care of for all of eternity. He didn't really seem to understand my question, but he did get into a long explanation of hieroglyphs, papyrus scrolls, Egyptian mythology, and tomb arrangements, which was quite unexpected and very interesting. I think he was just thrilled that someone had actually asked him for information rather than going around poking six thousand year old coffins and running in the stairwells.
From the museum I walked in the pouring rain to Blackwell's Bookstore, the biggest bookstore in the UK and quite possibly the biggest bookstore in the world. You can imagine my reaction to such a place. Open. Mouthed. Delight. What a playground that place was. I could have stayed in there all day. The real problem was that I'm carrying too many books already, and felt like I couldn't justify buying another. But then again, leaving such a place empty-handed would have been much too sad. I finally ended up with a very dark and strange little novel written by a Swiss writer. It's called Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and I bought it because it came out on top of my read-the-first-three-pages test. It was well-written, gritty, and strangely compelling.
Tomorrow I've signed up for a two-hour tour of the colleges, which should be great if I don't die of envy in the middle of it. This school really would be a dream to go to, but really, if the Prince of Wales can't get in, I hardly think I have a shot at it.
Okay, my cheeky American friend just told me that I've eaten up the official 20-minute limit on free internet at the hostel. But like most things in this place, official is pretty relative. The kitchen closes at 11:00, but you'd better believe that they gave me the key at midnight last night.
I think....I could stay here for a long time.
And just to satisfy the peanut gallery....
The boring or racy stuff the folks at home don't get to hear:
1) The American boys are hot. Too bad they're only here for two days. I saw one of them without his shirt on last night and actually felt my stomach drop. Cute cute cute.
2) My dorm roomie, a guy who goes to Queen's, said something about his boyfriend in conversation. Inwardly, I cheered, cause it's always nice to know when there's someone around who would not only tolerate me, but also know where I'm coming from. And then I wondered if that was a good way to introduce my sexuality into a conversation without a) looking like I'm waving a giant rainbow flag, or b) having people react standoffishly to it. Who knows. But as it stands, I continue to fly under everyone's radar until it actually comes up in conversation.
3) I wrote a letter to Hayley from my windowsill tonight. It was raining and the window has a big crack in it, so raindrops kept hitting the page. I keep imagining her beautiful blue eyes reading my words. Even if I doubt she'll tolerate my being really mushy, even in a card, I feel pretty lucky to have someone who looks forward to reading my writing and keeps all my letters.
4) My interventionists will be glad to hear that I have kicked my coffee habit. Can you believe it? Anyone who knows me well knows that I am such a caffeine junkie I practically need a Arabican IV to get through the morning. Which is why it's that much crazier that my entirely accidental transition from tar-thick cups of Tall-Dark Starbucks to cafe con leche to weak Finnish brew to British tea has been a pretty successful one. I've pretty much switched to tea, which in a lot of ways is nicer and more refined. My goal is simply to drink coffee when it's of really good quality and I want to drink it, not because I need it so badly to prevent the next migraine that any lukewarm cup of acrid swill will suffice.
5) Crisps in the UK are bad, bad, bad. We in the N-to-the-A call them potato chips, and they come in rather sensible flavours like ketchup, salt & vinegar, all dressed, and barbeque. They. Taste. Like. Seasoned. Potatoes. In England they come in shudder-inducing flavours like roasted chicken, smoky bacon, beef and onion, prawn cocktail, and my personal favourite, SLOW ROASTED LAMB WITH MOROCCAN SPICES! And they taste like horrible, half-baked subsitutes for roast dinners. Crisps are not a meal. Period. The one exception seems to be Thai Sweet Chilli crisps, which are spicy and crunchy and pretty much divine. The American boys and I are pretty much addicted to them.
Alright, this post is too long.
Better get going.