Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Eat, drink and be merry

I assure you we do far more at Oxford than simply dress up and go to fancy parties (indeed, we also go to bops and 5am breakfasts and...oh yeah, sometimes the library), but sadly this post will do nothing to disprove that belief. The month of May is famous for its May Balls (and May Morning), and though we only made it to one ball - my god does this sound indulgent! - we did, in fact, have quite a ball, all May long. 

It all started with yet another exchange dinner, with St-Hugh's College this time. Hugh's and Hilda's are similar in both size, scope and geographic location (as well as sharing a first letter), so it comes as no surprise that our student bodies are rather kindred in spirit and ... lifestyles as well. Their food is however much, much better than our dining hall's. And so is their port.

The Hilda girls at St-Hugh's. 

And then the next day, much to the detriment of...some people who shall remain unnamed but might have overindulged the previous night on wine and port and beer and liquor, it was St-Hilda's Ball. (Not wanting to go to a bloody BALL because of a terrible hangover is incredibly gauche. Not to mention ridiculously flimsy, no matter how head-splitting said hangover is. Or...erm, so I hear.) The theme of the Ball? Fantasmagoria. Dress code? Black tie with a dash of surrealism.

Our homage to Magritte.

Bowties are cool, too.

I also attended St-John's Guest Night the following week, where I attempted to channel Tudor fashion (I'm not sure I was entirely successful) and enjoyed a wonderful evening of period food in a most fitting environment. Lemons is to lemonade as old English buildings are to...Tudor-themed parties?

With B, who kindly invited along to her college's Guest Night.

After dinner, we asked whether we could visit St-John's legendary wine cellars. (They're supposed to hold some 150,000 bottles!!! Goodness, I suppose that they aren't able to spare a few to give to Hilda by any chance...?) They accepted, we swooned at all that lovely wine and couldn't resist having an impromptu photoshoot. As you do when you are surrounded by crates and bottles of stuff you can't afford.

"This week on Oxford's Next Top Model...a wine cellar!"

Finally, last weekend we had the motherlode of all exchange dinners, namely an exchange dinner with Peterhouse College of THE OTHER PLACE! That's Oxford lingo for that Bridge-over-the-river-Cam place, though I believe that they also call us by the same name. We bussed over, dined and wined with some lovely Cantabrigians (makes "Oxonian" not sound so simple, no?) and generally enjoyed our overnight stay in Cambridge. Cue the gasps and shouts of "Blasphemy!", yes I know.

Peterhouse is the oldest college in Cambridge, so they have all the trappings of
 a medieval college, such as a quad (or "court", as they say in the Other Place).

Seating chart for the dinner. 

Despite all of its similarities on paper, I was surprised at how different Cambridge felt in person. If Oxford is the stately, poised and square older sister of a town (and it is quite literally square, in its street layout), then Cambridge is the hipper, artsier younger sister. Even the town is laid out in a quirkier, circular manner. Oxford is probably more beautiful, but Cambridge more charming.

The river Cam, as seen from our hotel's balcony.

King's College, which is comparable to our Christ Church except much
more difficult to photograph. 

The differences between the two places were all the more surprising because I had hardly discerned any such distinctions during my previous visit to both towns, a year ago. (Those in the know may recall that I had applied to both universities for my current master's programme.) At the time, I had only sensed that there was some vague difference in atmosphere between the two, and that Oxford was by far the larger city. And though I think that I ultimately made the right choice, I also believe that I could have very, very happy at Cambridge. 

Friday, May 25, 2012


Well, not quite. But summer has definitely arrived to Oxford and boy has it arrived with a vengeance! Last week was still all gloomy skies and jacket-wearing weather, and then on Tuesday...boom! Sunny blue skies (there's been nary a cloud in sight!), an almost hazy kind of...erm, haze in the air, and this being England of course, the humidity has been cranked up to 300%. The heat itself isn't bad at all - we've been hovering around the mid-20 degree Celsius, which is normally ideal. However, throw in the humidity and unrelenting sunshine (I know, I can't believe that I'm complaining about sunshine of all things), and the result is one sweaty, sticky student making her way to tutorials and libraries. And, as air conditioning is nowhere as prevalent on this side of the pond, plus the fact the average age of buildings in Oxford is "oh, a couple centuries old"...well, let's just say that libraries are currently HOTspots in more ways than one.

Oh, sunbeams, I have missed you! (Although I hear that
absence makes the heart fonder...?)

My fellow lawyers M & S went for milkshakes and dinner post-faculty photo.

Speaking of the faculty photo... 

Squeezing some 200-odd law grad students on a bleacher on a hot, humid day?
Logistically entertaining, physically...intimate. 

Of course we had to take our own photos too!

Also, I had forgotten how far North latitude-wise Oxford is, at least compared to Montreal. As a result, the sun rises and sets at surprisingly early and late hours - this week, it's been around 5am and 9:30pm. 9:30pm, already in May! It's not quite Sweden of course, but still amusing for myself. My days feel so much longer! (Unfortunately, that has not correlated into more productive days...huh.)

Summery, colourful punts at Magdalen Bridge.
Picture taken at 9pm - look at all that light!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Roman Holiday

In a continuous attempt to escape the English rain (bloody hell, just stop raining already!), I decided to take a week-end trip to Italy this last week-end. No, it wasn't entirely impromptu, and yes, I will miss ridiculously cheap cross-continent airfare once I leave. 

Destination? The Eternal City. Approximate flight time from Birmingham to Fiumicino? 2.5 hours. Time I actually spend at Birmingham International? A whopping 9.5 hours. It had to do with not nearly enough buses going from Oxford to BHX, something about "technical issues" with Monarch Airlines, departing at 12pm instead of 7am, plus an surprise stop at Milan Malpensa on the way. It was horrid, I don't want to talk about it, and I'm never flying with Monarch. Ever. Again. (The flight back was mildly better with "only" a 1.5 hour delay and aboard an supposedly "last-minute" Air Finland plane.)

Unsurprisingly, Air Finland's safety cards are written in Finnish...

Although, perhaps my flight delay was a (tortuous, miserable, inhuman) blessing in disguise because I landed in Rome just as a city-wide transportation strike was ending. I would have been stuck once the airport bus dropped me off at Termini, staring at the chaotic traffic and unwilling to take a Roman taxi. There is something to be said about Italian chaos, however, in that I found it strangely comforting and relaxing. I swear that as soon as I set foot on Italian soil I instantly felt 300% less stressed and more patient. Was there an essay that I had to write, or books that I had to read? Pfft, domani, domani

Arriving at Termini. Blaring car honks and flexible car lanes, I've missed you!

My goals for this trip were pretty simple. Get some sun, eat obscene amounts of Italian food, hang out with my friend D (I had previously visited her in Rome last year - it rained almost the whole time, alas), and generally enjoy la dolce vita. And so, I did. Stupid flight delays shall not get in the way of such noble goals!

Fountain of Trevi - March 2011 v. May 2012. I threw a coin in last time to
help me make it back to Rome; I guess it worked!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Morning vs the Rain

Ah, May Morning. A wonderful century-old Oxford tradition. In theory it sounds fantastic: partying up all night, 5am champagne breakfast at the MCR, listening to Magdalen Choir sing from the top of Magdalen Tower as the sun rises over the river, followed by a morning of music and dancing and café-hopping. 

In practice, there is a element which throws everything slightly off-kilter. Hello English rain, I'm looking at you. 

But even 10 days and counting of pouring rain cannot prevent Traditions from happening! (Oh Tradition, the things we do for you.) And as we are responsible graduate students now (ahahaha), we can manage our time properly and squeeze in a few hours of sleep before the 5am breakfast. Or, at least, I heard that some people did. 

Magdalen tower, where Tradition happens. 

In my case, I dutifully trudged along to College on this rainy, dreary and windy morning of May 1st 2012, passing countless drunk and very wet-looking people on my way. I arrived at college and was greeted, by my great surprised, by wide open college gates (they usually close during non-"office" hours)...and a firetruck? Huh. Apparently there has been a recent -- well, recent in Oxford terms so only dating from the last few decades -- tradition of people throwing themselves into the river for May Morning. (I imagine that the alcohol previously consumed has something to do with this, as the water of the Cherwell looks incredibly cold, unpleasant and generally inconclusive towards wading.)

I made my way to our MCR common room, where I was soon joined by a great number more people than I thought would be willing to get up at 5am on a rainy day. Clearly I underestimated the combined attracting power of food (it was a very nice breakfast to be fair), champagne (with strawberries in them!) and a choir singing from the top of a medieval tower at dawn (the poor things didn't seem to have umbrellas). We had a slight moment of confusion when neither of our social secretaries were awake or answering our phone and thus incapable of unlocking the champagne stored away for this occasion, but this was soon resolved when a fellow student insistently knocked on one of the aforementioned social secretaries. (The other one woke up 2 hours late but joined us for a cuppa after the choir had sung and the food been demolished. Good man.)

Tea, smoked salmon bagels and champagne. A true
breakfast of champions, I tell you.

A bunch of cold, wet but happy and well-fed May Morning revelers.

At 5:45am, we then emigrated en masse to a college lawn, where the champagne-guzzling, tea mug-clutching and umbrella-holding bunch of us listened to the sounds of Magdalen Choir blasting from Magdalen Tower. (We did wonder what they did before microphones were invented. Surely the choir cannot have sung that loudly? Or are the acoustics better if one is standing within Magdalen College itself? Ah, another puzzle for the ages.) There were a few songs, a prayer which we caught the bits that the wind generously howled our way, and ringings of church bells that seemed to last forever (it went on for at least twenty minutes!). And, very well, despite the rain, the cold, the dampness seeping through my coat and the frankly ungodly hour -- I admit, it was ridiculously charming. To be standing across the river, huddled with your friends and watching the sunless sky get lighter as choral music makes its way from the top of a beautiful Gothic tower...it's probably an experience that I'll never forget.

Or, at the very least, that I'm not likely to forget until my bones feel warm once again. (C'mon radiator, now is not a good time to be kicking up a fuss!)

As for my continuing haphazard way of going about my ABC of Oxford Oddities, let me then add 'M' for May Morning, misty musical marvels and Magdalen itself, which I might have mentioned before as being typical for being spelled the way it is but pronounced Maud-lin. Oh Oxford. Only you.