Well, it’s been a while, and I apologize firstly for not having posted at all while I was in San Antonio … I didn’t really do a whole lot, aside from hanging out with friends, tubing down the Guadalupe River (a San Antonio favorite activity) and working out a lot.
Anyway, this week has been absolutely CRAZY, especially since it has been my first week in Europe – ever! The plane ride took a while to take off because DFW was so congested, and the flight was a LOT longer than I’ve ever experienced (my longer flight previously was San Antonio to San Francisco), but I managed through it with some Nyquil and herbal sleep aids.
As soon as we got here, we went to visit a local sandwich shop to grab a quick bite before orientation, etc. And of course, we couldn’t resist heading out to a few of the local pubs that night – in fact, we visited a place called “The Eagle & Child,” which is where J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings trilogy) and C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia) used to go to debate philosophy, religion, etc. It was extremely interesting to be in a pub packed with so much history. Even though we were all exhausted from the jetlag, we knew the only way to fend it off was to stay up, so we enjoyed ourselves until the late hour of 9:30 PM…not quite what time I’m used to going to bed, but I really couldn’t stay awake any longer. On the way back, we stopped at a “kebab” van, which are very popular here in Oxford at night. Kebabs, as they sell them in the UK, is essentially like a Greek “gyro” that they often sell in food courts at malls. Nevertheless, I still crashed very early, relative to what I’m accustomed to.
Sunday was a recovery day on many different levels, but needless to say we all made it up for the walking city tour of Oxford, hosted by a friendly and very witty local named Patricia, who informed us of how steeped in history Oxford truly is. Although it was not the first renowned university in Europe (as was University of Paris), it soon after U of P came to prominence and has been so ever since, recently having been ranked the #1 public university in the world. A couple hours after that, we had our official convocation, which was solemn but intriguing nonetheless, after which we dined extravagantly in the traditional dining hall that can only be described by analogy to Hogwarts. After all, the Harry Potter movies are filmed on the Oxford campus, and even though I’m not really interested in the series, I can tell by people’s descriptions that it truly is everything that has been detailed to me. After that, most of us went back to our rooms to make the finishing touches on our papers for our tutorials and prepare all the materials for lecture class. I didn’t end up completing mine until roughly 3 AM, but it was well worth it to make sure it was as well written as I could make it.
GETTING USED TO THE OXFORD STYLE…
Monday was our first day of class, and it was interesting getting acclimated to the way that things were going to run. We have class from 8:45 – 10:15 AM Monday – Thursday, then a 30-minute break for morning tea, and then either another hour of class (on typical days) or what’s called “Oxford CORE,” which occurs before we go on major program trips and allows the professors to explain the relevance and importance of the places we are visiting. I can definitely appreciate the 30-minute break in the middle of class, because although it is extremely exciting to be in Oxford, class is still class, and 3 hours of it at once is a little difficult to handle at one time. The tutorial will definitely prove to be an eye-opening experience, for although it is a traditional style here in the UK, it is definitely a departure from conventional teaching methodology in the US. Mondays serve as a forum for explanation of the tutorial topic for that week as an entire class, whereas Tuesdays are when we break off into small groups to have more personalized discussions about the topic and our papers.
Tuesday we had class, and afterward we participated in our small group tutorial, which went well. Each of us will have to read our papers aloud at some point, and I opted not to go quite yet so that I could get a feel for his expectations. Also, at night we had what’s called a “High Table” lecture and dinner. The lecture is presented by a renowned guest of SMU-in-Oxford, and on Tuesday it was Oxford fellow Leslie Mitchell, who was very witty and very informative about the goings-on within the university and University College, where we are staying, which is affectionately known as “Univ”. The dinner is similar to the dinner we had after convocation, in which we dine to very well-prepared, gourmet meals and must dress formally. The dinner follows the lecture, and both are quite the experience and apparently deeply engrained in the SMU-in-Oxford program, which was started over 20 years ago.
Wednesday was the 4th of July, and it was extremely weird not being in my home country to celebrate it. I guess the Brits are cognizant of the holiday, however, and a lot of places attracted us into their pubs and restaurants by putting up some kind of decoration recognizing our independence, such as a flag or colored streamers. Our group of friends decided on Maxwell’s for dinner, which is American food – at expensive British prices – but nevertheless American food. Most of us got Philly cheesesteaks, and a couple people got real beef burgers. It was nice to celebrate with something familiar, since being here is anything but.
Thursday was our first Oxford CORE session, which focused on the places in London we would be visiting on Friday – the British Museum and the Tower of London, as well as a riverboat dinner cruise. At night we had another High Table lecture, this time by the editor-in-chief of the world-renowned weekly publication, The Economist. Considering my lecture course is focusing on the history of diplomacy in Europe, his lecture was very relevant and therefore enthralling to those of us in the corresponding class, and the dinner – Chicken Kiev – was delicious. We all decided to go out as one big group that night, heading down to a bar recommended by one of the program assistants that attends Oxford during the course of the regular school year.
LONDON AT LAST
Seeing London for the first time was bittersweet – of course, it has numerous well known monuments alongside a great deal of history; however, it is a big city, and especially coming in from the outskirts, it was at first hard to overcome that feeling of being in just another big city. Once we got to the British Museum, the feeling quickly subsided – especially when we ventured to see the real Rosetta Stone, explore ancient cultural artifacts dating back thousands of year, and see several mummies up close. The Tower of London wasn’t quite as interesting, but seeing the Crown Jewels was definitely something on my list of things to do before I die, so it was nice to go ahead and check that off now. As well, we got to view some of the torture chambers used by some of the more notably oppressive monarchs in England’s history. We boarded the riverboat around 6, and cruised up and down the Thames until about 10 or 10:30. We didn’t get back to Oxford until about 1:45, after which I quickly crashed…but not for long.
FINALLY IN ENGLAND, BUT ALREADY OFF TO AMSTERDAM
I woke up Saturday at 3 AM to pack my bags and get onto “The Airline” shuttle, which goes directly from Oxford to Heathrow and Gatwick airports. We were headed to AMSTERDAM!
Since my flight was leaving at 6:25 AM, and the earliest available was a 4 AM shuttle, my friend Missy and I (the only two who ended up going) knew we had to catch that one … but we were exhausted. We nearly missed the shuttle, had I not been able to speak Spanish to a girl from Barcelona who directed me to the proper bus stop – and once we finally got to the airport, the security line was absurdly long, and I only made my plane flight by about 10 minutes. Nevertheless, when I arrived in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, I definitely breathed a long sigh of relief, but I knew that we still had challenges ahead of us, with neither of us having been to Amsterdam previously and also not knowing a single word of the Dutch language.
When we finally figured out the complex metro system and arrived in the center of town, we spent a little bit of time exploring the layout of the city and headed to a place I had heard rave reviews about, called the “Pancake Bakery.” In the Netherlands, they have a specialty called pannekoeken (pancakes), which differ from US pancakes in that they have some sort of meat, cheese, sauce, etc. The “international pancakes” offer everything from lamb and pesto to smoked salmon and mozzarella, depending on what style you order – and they are absolutely AMAZING. They may sound a little weird, but you don’t need to be very adventurous to enjoy them.
After our meal, we saw that the line to get in the Anne Frank house was ridiculous, so we checked into our hostel. Known as the Flying Pig Downtown, the hostel was in a prime location, only about a 5 minute walk from the central rail station and within walking distance of most of the major sites in Amsterdam. The atmosphere was everything we could have asked for, and definitely catered to students, which was appreciated. Missy and my room was a shared, mixed-gender 6 bed-room, which we coincidentally shared with 4 other Americans from California near Missy’s hometown, all college students as well. Reasoning that our lack of sleep was going to diminish our experience, we quickly crashed and set our alarms for 3 hours later.
After we woke up, we ventured to a nearby cafe for some Dutch coffee and a snack of another Netherlands’ favorite, called broodjes. I found that they make these differently depending on where you go, but the first kind that we got was a sandwich-like pastry with sausage in the middle. After our culinary refill, we decided to cash in the voucher for a free canal cruise, which was included when we had originally bought our “I Amsterdam” cards at the airport. We tried desperately to find the place, but I will mention that Amsterdam is a very complicated city – and the fact that all canals and corner shops essentially look the same did not help our situation.
By the time we had reached the place, it had closed, but they directed us to another site that offered the cruises from the Amsterdam cards, and we hopped on that just before the sun was setting. Amsterdam truly is a unique city, as it is very similar to Venice but also very different in its canal system. The canals are used almost entirely for tours and also for residences – there are houseboats lining almost every canal bank, truly a site to see. Nevertheless, in our searches we ran across the two museums we knew we wanted to visit on Sunday, the Rijksmuseum, which holds many masterpieces from all over Europe (including an extensive collection of Netherlands-born Rembrandt) and the Van Gogh Museum, which has an extensive collection of his works that shows his evolution artistically. After returning from the cruise, we were still exhausted, so we took another nap, then grabbed some dinner and drinks at a nearby, very popular restaurant known as “The Grasshopper”, and then called it a night pretty early by our standards – 12:30.
We got up bright and early on Sunday well rested and ready to conquer the part of Amsterdam that we hadn’t gotten to the day before. To avoid the lines, we first visited the Anne Frank house, which was near to our hostel. It was a sobering reminder of what even the most innocent children had to endure at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. I still can’t imagine what life must have been like for Otto Frank, the lone survivor of the Frank family from the Holocaust, knowing that everyone that he had loved and cared about, including his closest friends with which he had been hiding for several years, had all been killed. Truly, truly unforgettable.
We then headed to the Museumplein, where they have a vast number of museums that commemorate everything from artistic masterpieces to tapestries to pornography. Needless to say, we stayed on the safe (and much less sketchy) side by sticking with the art museums. The Rijksmuseum was phenomenal…I don’t usually get moved by art, but a lot of the art in that museum are not only stunning but also tell the story of the Netherlands. After oo-ing and ah-ing for about an hour, we went to the nearby Van Gogh museum. In its highly contemporary and modern design, it took us about 15 minutes to figure out where the entrance to the place was (apparently NOT on the highly contemporary and modern part of the building, but across the street), but once we were in we were definitely fascinated. It is incredible to think that prior to his “dabbling” in art for the rest of his life, he had had no prior training in painting, drawing, etc. As well, the museum prominently featured one of my favorite quotes of all time – “I am constantly doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it”. In the end, though, I was somewhat unimpressed by the exposition, as it did not have any of his most famous works, which apparently are all featured in New York.
Our last tour was of the Heineken Brewery near the Museumplein, which was a lighthearted and fun experience for certain, although it wasn’t really anything new if you knew anything about how beer is brewed. They did send us off with a free gift (included in the admission price) so all was well. As a final sight to see in Amsterdam, we treaded into the seedy “Red Light District”, as we wanted to see what all the fuss was about, but nonetheless during the day to avoid the shady characters that surely traveled there at night.
A SLOW RETURN…
Well, we went to the metro station around 2 hours before our flights were to leave, which we thought would allow us enough time to get to the airport. Apparently, though, there wasn’t a route on the metro to the airport, or so we were told by the officer on the platform. It is interesting to note that it was the metro that we had taken from the airport to the central rail station, but tacking it up to anti-American sentiments as an attempt to misdirect us, we did as he said, paying for the much more expensive train ticket. We still could not find exactly where to go, but somehow we came across a group of Spanish women, probably in their mid-40s, and again I used my Spanish skills to determine that they, too, were headed to the airport. We got to the airport after a long conversation with the women, and realized that we had little time to make our flights – until about 15 minutes before it was scheduled to leave, when they informed us of a 1 hour delay due to late takeoff at Heathrow from congestion. After catching the last shuttle back to Oxford, we made it back at about midnight, with a mound of work still to do. But I can honestly say that I have never before felt so self-reliant and I have never before felt like I could fit so many activities into a 36-hour period.
I’ll be sure to let you know how week 2 goes – this coming weekend, it’s off to Paris! Arrevoire!