Monica in Oxford

Monica is a Hunt Scholar majoring in business in Cox School of Business and communication studies in Meadows School of the Arts. During summer 2013, she is participating in SMU-in-Oxford, where she’s looking forward to delving into the diplomacy of historical European empires in her courses and to traveling on weekends and with her class.

Biking in Berlin

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At the Brandenburg Gate

On the first day of summer school I was sitting in my classroom in Oxford, half a world away from home in St. Louis, Missouri. Before getting into our material on European diplomacy, my professor made a point to recommend visiting Berlin. Heeding his advice, a few friends and I would embark on an adventure there a few weeks later.

Aside from historical implications of Germany, such as Bismarck’s unification and the more sinister era under the Nazi regime, I knew little about Germany, and even less about Berlin.

The major reference in my mind was when Indiana Jones says to his father, “We have half the German army on our tail and you want me to go to Berlin?! Into the lions’ den?” I knew the book-burning scenes from Indiana Jones’s The Last Crusade were long gone, yet I didn’t know what culture had replaced it.

Expecting the narrow, tight streets that characterized many English cities, I was astonished to find the city of Berlin was made on a monstrous scale. Sidewalks could hold perhaps almost a dozen people walking side by side and the buildings themselves were spread far apart.

As soon as we dropped our bags off at a hostel on a Saturday, we rented cruiser bikes for 12 euros apiece and hit the road with maps in hand.

As we biked through the streets, I felt like I had slipped into a post-apocalyptic world.  Although the city was designed around older buildings of the past, many modern glass buildings interrupted the scenery. The capitol building itself was a testament to this non-uniform city. As we passed the capitol, we saw it was a massive, old-looking building but with a beautiful glass dome on top that symbolizes Germany’s new future.Monica3

This clash between old and new was somehow cohesive in this unique city. Perhaps the extensive graffiti that covers Berlin from head to toe helps disguise the overwhelming inconsistencies in the city.

We biked along the Berlin Wall and visited Charlie’s Checkpoint. It was clear to see that Berlin was still very affected by World War II and put a lot of emphasis on the different I’m-sorry monuments. We biked to all the major war memorials that were scattered along the city center and rode right underneath the Brandenburg Gate landmark. It was a very hot day, so we had to stop several times to buy water. I was shocked (and slightly irritated) to discover that in Germany, a coffee or beer is cheaper than a small water.

Monica2Now, I would be amiss if I were to neglect describing the language barrier. I think what made Germany such a new experience was the fact this was the first time I have ever been to a non-English country.

It was not until we went to a restaurant when we hit our first language difficulty. As we read the menu, we found that the German words were long, had lots of vowels, and lacked English cognates. The waitress spoke no English but ended up giving us an English menu. Even then, we couldn’t pronounce the meal names and so we just pointed to them instead. With gestures and context, we were able to figure out words like small, medium and large very quickly. With this experience, we added small phrases like “thank you” to our vocabulary as well.Monica4

Another language difficulty came when we tried to call for a cab. We had a lot of trouble telling them the street name where we wished to be picked up. Similar to the food on the menu, the streets were very hard to pronounce. Our small group of five stood under the street sign, and passed around the phone trying different pronunciations, attempting to convey our location. As people passed us, some shouted out suggestions on how to say the words. Finally, a stranger took our phone and helped tell the cab company where we were located.

While this may have been a little embarrassing, in retrospect it was a wonderful human moment. It’s easy to feel alone in a foreign country that speaks a different language. But the German people really showed us that we were definitely not alone. We could not have made our journey without help. We got directions, suggestions and instructions from those around us. Luckily most people were kind enough to speak to us in English and understood that we were simply visiting students.

To clarify, we were not helpless. Together our group successfully biked to our major destinations and that night we went to a beer garden and ordered the classic German sausages (Rostbratwurst) and pretzels (Laugenbrezel). I ordered a grilled steak sandwich called a Schweinenackensteak.

During our weekend in Berlin we visited markets, viewed art and got a good feel for both metropolitan and local areas. By the time we boarded our airplane back to Oxford, I had decided that I really loved Berlin. I opened my Diplomacy textbook to read for class the next day and my chapter started out by talking about how all of Europe was deeply focused on Berlin in the 1930s.

Studying Berlin at the time of my visit was almost surreal. I was eager to delve into my reading assignment because reading about the history of Berlin helped me greater appreciate this now modern city. It’s one thing to visit a country on vacation, but entirely different to take the trip in conjunction with a class. I am grateful for my professor’s recommendation to go to Germany. I loved Biking in Berlin.

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Living history at Oxford

SMU-in-Oxford at High Table

SMU-in-Oxford at High Table

Oxford is certainly not like any college I’ve ever been to. On the first day I was dropped off in the middle of a bustling little town composed of boutiques, pubs, coffee shops, and elaborate churches. The buildings quite literally line the street, which are rarely split by alleyways. Double-decker buses and bikes further characterize the disorganized and chaotic sidewalks. Our college, University College, was not indicated by a particular building but rather by a fairly inconspicuous door on a stone wall by the street. It was not until I entered through the passage into a courtyard that I could finally see University College with its green space and winding staircases.

Each morning of the week we take classes with our SMU professors and then meet with our tutors once a week for a more personalized class session with an Oxford professor. Our schedules are built so that some days instead of class, we take trips to manors, castles, London, or other notable places near our Oxford home. Each week we have several High Tables, which consist of a lecture from a notable guest, and then we get the chance to dine in the dining hall, just like the one in Harry Potter.  There are many different courses, and the several students who sit at the high table with the professors will get extra courses. High Tables are a unique opportunity where professors and students have the real chance to get to know one another.

Although it’s my first time out of the country, the adjustment was not difficult at all. I recognize that this is still English land, but it’s still foreign territory to me. It’s interesting to watch the peculiarities of the British culture, but even more interesting to then see what that reveals about our own American culture in contrast. Some of it is obvious, like their refined accent (I’ll admit that for the first few weeks I spoke in an accent just for kicks) or how the TVs are always tuned into cricket matches.

Punting is another activity I’ve never seen before. As I take an evening walk by the river, I see English families and students leisurely moving down the river with a glass of wine. I tried my hand at it with my friends one afternoon, and pushing the little boat along with the long metal pole takes a lot more balance and technique than one would expect.

Some of the differences in culture are a bit more subtle, like how when I walk into a restaurant I notice that our American group is far louder than the British natives around us. Or perhaps it’s the traditional afternoon tea and cozy pastimes cherished by the natives who relish reading and strolling about.

During my weeks exploring Oxford, I came to find the amazing treasures of this town. For instance, each day when I leave University, I walk by the inscription in the wall that honors Boyle and Hooke who conceived their scientific laws at my college. Just down the street is the pub where Oxford professors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote their world-famous masterpieces. Not to mention the fact that Einstein’s blackboard lies in a museum just walking distance from college.

In any case, my favorite part about Oxford is thinking about all the intellectuals who have passed through these streets before me. So far, if Oxford has taught me anything, it’s the importance of expanding my mind and appreciating history.

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